Have you ever driven an electric Go-Kart, maybe at an amusement park, in the Dells, or even an indoor karting track?
That’s what it’s like to drive the new electric MINI Cooper SE. Power is instantaneous and the car is a bullet off the line. It’s light and lively and a nimble handler that anyone would enjoy tossing around a small racetrack. In fact, it’s a rush to slam it around corners anywhere.
On the fun factor scale the electric MINI, signified with the E in the SE nomenclature, is a solid 10.
Cute? You betcha!
If this were up against a water-skiing squirrel or a kitten rolling in pink cotton balls it is still possible the MINI would be voted cutest!
But make no mistake, the electric MINI 2-door Hardtop is a two-person city car. Unless you’re a sadist, don’t think about using the rear seat for anything but cargo.
Yet as a distinctive and inexpensive to-work-and-back and errand runner you’d be hard pressed to find something more fun or practical.
First the basics.
The tested White Silver Metallic (an almost white silver no less) SE Iconic was the top-level electric MINI, which only comes in the 2-door hardtop model at present. It comes loaded with features and most important, a 135 kW electric motor borrowed from BMW’s electric car universe. It sparks out 181 horsepower and 199 lb.-ft. of torque.
That translates to a greased lightning fast start that can even chirp tires when they’re cold. And as mentioned before, power in all electric cars is immediate, no waiting for a turbo or for power to build. Like flipping a light switch, this MINI is ON IT from the touch of the accelerator. MINI suggests its top speed is 93 mph with a 0-60 mph blast in 6.9 seconds.
That’s the good news. Now the OK news. Charge distance is 110 miles, which can grow a little (10 or so miles) with the car’s regenerative braking giving some additional charge as you drive around town. Once on the highway at 65 to 70 mph the MINI will burn 1% of battery charge per mile. I drove to Waterford and back one night, an 80-mile roundtrip, plugging in at my MINI-owning friend’s house for three hours. I got a 10% charge in that period and ended up with about 35% charge or 35 miles left on the meter once home.
In fact, there’s a convenient 5.5-inch digital cluster over the steering wheel that tells you all this. Wish the numbers were a bit larger and no need for the curved line graphics showing how much charge is left. A number is sufficient. Plus the steering wheel partially obscures the upper edge of the cluster.
How fast does it charge? Well, obviously a 120-volt line can give 10% in three hours and I got a 60% charge overnight, so that 10% figure may not be an always type thing. The point is, if you drive this to work and home you can keep it fully charged by plugging in every night. Or have a 220-volt line installed to make quicker charges are possible.
On a trip you could go to a high-output fast charging station and reportedly get an 80% charge in 35 minutes. But I’m guessing you’ll not be driving cross country in the electric MINI.
Yet you may enjoy such a drive if on smooth freeways. Like other MINI Coopers this one handles like a Go-Kart with super-fast but moderately heavy steering. Like many cars today, MINI offers three drive modes, Green (Eco), Mid (Normal) and Sport. Sport firms up the steering unnecessarily and seems to stiffen the ride a bit too, also not appreciated.
Ride is typical small car, think Mazda Miata, only firmer. So it can get a little busy on Midwestern highway moonscapes.
I also should note that the MINI’s regenerative braking delivers options too.
You can chose one that makes it feel like a Go-Kart or golf cart when your foot leaves the accelerator. That means the car instantly engine-brakes to a stop as the electric motor doesn’t coast like a gasoline engine would. SO you end up stopping well short of stop signs and your driveway. This isn’t hard to figure out, but takes some adapting. You’ll need to keep your foot on the accelerator longer and brake less. In fact, I rarely used the brake around town once I got the feel of it.
Or there’s a second mode you can put the MINI into that allows the car to coast more like a gas-powered car. That feels more normal, but it was fun to learn the other driving technique and passengers were awed by how quickly the car stopped in the mode favoring the electric motor’s quick wind down. Nice to have the choice though.
Overall the MINI SE is a smooth operator and quiet with some noticeable electric whine at slow speeds. That’s more evident when you have the windows down to be sure.
Outside the test car was its white silver shiny self with bright “electric” yellow accents and mirrors, plus a black roof. It looked sharp and garnered comments from neighbors. Folks liked the flashy semi-enclosed wheel covers too. Those only come on this upscale Iconic model. They look slick and one imagines them helping cut wind resistance.
Inside, the tester featured creamy leather seats and piano black trim on the doors and a carbon fiber-look trim, with yellow accent, on the black dash. Toggles and button surrounds are chrome.
If you’re familiar with MINI interiors the dash remains the same as previous models, with an 8.8-inch round touchscreen mid-dash and a lot of mini buttons below that screen and on the steering wheel hub, plus toggles with metal posts between the toggles. It was cute and stylish when first new, but not as easy to use as buttons in other vehicles and the circular styling of everything in the interior is getting stale.
Seats though are incredibly comfortable and supportive, even though they are manually adjusted. Both front seats also are heated and have a bottom cushion extension that would be helpful to drivers with long legs.
Other pluses include dual climate controls and a large power sunroof with manual sun screen. That roof is standard on Iconic models.
On the safety front there’s an SOS system overhead, rearview camera (of course) and active driving assistant with forward collision warning and emergency braking.
Iconic models, which cost $7,000 more than lower trims, also include power folding mirrors, park distance control, parking assistant, a special Harmon/Kardon high-end stereo, navigation package with Apple CarPlay compatibility, MINI Connected and nav, naturally. Plus there’s a wireless phone charger in the small center armrest.
Things the MINI could use to maximize its popularity?
Start with a better startup chime. This one is extremely noisy and annoying. Plus BMW has championed the passenger-side mirror that aims down when the vehicle is in reverse. That’s great if you’re parking at a curb, but in a driveway when another car is behind you it’s useless for dodging said car.
Bravo that there’s a side sun visor for the driver, but if he or she is short and has the seat fairly far forward that visor jams against the headrest as it’s being lowered. You can force it, or further recline the seat to deploy it, but that’s clunky. Also, with limited space in a tiny car the sporty MINI deserves a D-shaped (flat-bottomed) steering wheel to allow easier ins and outs for the driver.
Lastly, there’s the issue of the useless back seat. I know, I know, it helps with insurance rates, but if you’re buying this you simply must consider it a two-seater. There is literally no foot room in the back seat if anyone up front is 5-foot-9 or more. Just fold those rear seats down and boost the miniscule cargo area, which will hold only a couple grocery bags otherwise.
But again, as a practical two-seater for city driving the MINI SE Two-Door, built in Oxford, England, is a winner
A base Signature electric MINI starts at $30,750, while the Signature Plus is $34,750 and the tested Iconic lists at $37,750, all include delivery. But consider that all are eligible for a $7,500 tax credit and their pricing looks pretty attractive, especially considering you’ll have no gasoline costs, just plug-in charges on your electric bill. Those of course depend on how frequently you charge it, and for how long. And it might be wise to install a 220-volt line in the garage to guarantee quicker charges as needed.
For comparison, the base MINI Cooper Hardtop 2-door with a 134-horse turbo I3 lists at $24,250, while the peppier S model with 189 horsepower from its turbo I4 starts at $28,250. It’s rated at 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.
Racing enthusiasts also can opt for the John Cooper Works model with an even stronger turbo I4 creating 228 horsepower. It lists at $34,250 and is rated 25 mpg city and 34 highway.
So “mini” choices, but if you’re leaning toward electric to save fuel and cut emissions then the SE should spark your interest.
Hits: Cute as heck, peppy and a nimble handler. Smooth and quiet to operate, plus sunroof, heated comfortable seats, dual climate controls, sporty wheels.
Misses: Tiny car ride and limited mileage. An annoying startup chime, passenger mirror aims down when car in reverse, many mini buttons and toggles, no rear seat room for passengers, little cargo space unless rear seats down, side sun visor jams against driver seat headrest if driver is short, needs a D-shaped steering wheel.
Made In: Oxford, U.K.
Engine: 135 kW electric motor, 181 hp/199 torque
Top Speed: 93 mph
Transmission: Single speed automatic
Weight: 3,153 lbs.
Wheelbase: 98.2 in.
Length: 151.9 in.
Cargo: 8.7 cu.ft.
Base Price: $37,750 (includes delivery)
Tax Credit: $7,500
Major Options: None
Test Vehicle: $37,750
Editor's note: Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.