Prototype Drive: The Mini Cooper SE Wants to Be the Fun-to-Drive EV

If anything, the Mini may be hampered by lower range.

It may not really be recognized as such, but the 2008-2010 Mini E was a historically significant EV. While other fully electric small cars were coming and going around the same time, Mini's parent company BMW was using the Mini E program as a way to test and validate a powertrain that it intended to use for its i3 project. The i brand was of course launched in 2011, with i3 production starting in in 2013.

For its part, the Mini E was unveiled in late 2008 and the zaptastic little hatch was soon being leased to coastal U.S. customers by June of 2009 as part of a test program that would soon expand to France, Germany, the U.K., China, and Japan. (In doing so, BMW became the first manufacturer with a customer-operated fleet of EVs that numbered more than 500 cars.) Predictably, most Mini Es were crushed when the lease program ended in 2011.

Now the student has become the master's master. Or something. That's because the Mini E is scheduled to return to civilian life in 2020 wearing Mini Cooper SE badges and with tech plucked from the existing i3. While there are still tests and engineering to be done before the car is formally unveiled, we recently spent a few miles behind the wheel of a camouflaged prototype near Munich, Germany.

The Electrical Bits: What We Know

First impressions: Even in prototype form, the Cooper SE already feels like a real-deal production car, and all that's left is some fine-tuning. And wrapped up in clever black-and-yellow plug-motif camouflage, it's obvious this isn't a reskinned BMW i3. Like the Mini E, the new Cooper SE is based on the current Cooper S two-door hatchback and is dimensionally identical to its petrol-powered counterpart. Underneath this familiar bodywork, though, reside electrified guts, although Mini remains tight-lipped on the important stuff like range and output.

However, engineers said if we're really chomping at the bit, the configuration is closest to the i3 with the 94-aH battery pack, which in the BMW is rated at 33 kWh. Presumably, the output of the Mini's front-mounted motor is similar, too; it cranks out 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque in the equivalent i3. Without an itty-bitty range extender like the i3's available three-cylinder onboard, it's possible range may be capped somewhere around 120 miles, less than half of what's available in, say, a Chevrolet Bolt. On the bright side, if these estimates on pack size and range hold true, plugged into a 50-kWh fast charger, the SE will charge to 80 percent capacity in a relatively quick-ish 40 minutes.

Beyond the i3 tech, the rest is all Mini. Engineers claim it wasn't too difficult to shoehorn the powertrain into the existing Cooper platform, as they only modified a few points of the subframe and chassis. In place of a solid, roughly rectangular battery brick as seen in most dedicated EVs, the SE hides its T-shaped pack under the floor, necessitating special dampers and a 0.6 inch increase in ride height for clearance. It's clever packaging given that it's in an internal-combustion platform, with a portion of the battery replacing the fuel tank in the rear. Cargo space—such as it is in a Mini—is thus unaffected. In fact, structural changes are so minimal, the SE will be built alongside its gas and diesel counterparts at the brand's Oxford production plant.

Charging Across an Asphalt Wasteland

That comes later. We've crossed the globe to drive these silent prototypes, inside of which everything is hidden behind thick, rough-cut sheets of black felt held fast with gaffer's tape. Flashes of the characteristically chunky Mini switchgear nevertheless gleam from the few exposed areas. It's a lead-follow scenario through an extensive cone course, and we're not given much time to acclimate to either the route or the car before the exercise ends.

At first whiff, it drives exactly like what you might expect from an electrified Cooper hatch. The strong initial torque surge is typical for EVs, though acceleration drops off after the initial yank forward. The speedometer was obscured, but we estimate the SE pulls readily up to 40 or 50 mph before tapering off. Later, engineers confided the zero-to-62-mph estimate to be between seven and eight seconds.

We're happy to report that ditching the S's fizzy 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has done little to diminish the Mini's charming handling dynamics. Even with an estimated 250-plus-pound weight penalty, the SE enthusiastically bobs and weaves through slaloms, skidpads, and quick lane-change exercises. The steering is quick and nicely weighted through the thickly sectioned wheel, and mass transfer across the chassis isn't abrupt despite the increased ride height. Keeping the batteries down low means we expect there isn't much change to the regular car's center of gravity.

However, once we rolled back into the staging area, we discovered a little secret; in contrast to the low-rolling-resistance tires that will be on the production car, our prototypes were shod with sticky Pirelli P Zeros, perhaps imparting cornering verve beyond what showroom examples may be capable of.

Still, this is a fun little car. We were especially impressed by the regenerative brakes, which were tuned far more intuitively than most other regen systems from other automakers. There was very little of the traditional springy dead-space between the top and bite point and was quick to haul the silent hatch down from speed. We also futzed around with the drivetrain's two-step regenerative resistance braking, toggled by a rocker switch on the lower portion of the center stack. In standard mode, resistance is noticeable, slowing the car enough to only necessitate minor-to-moderate braking input.

Will Being the Cheeky EV Be Enough?

Overall, it seems as if it will be a fun little car. We were especially impressed by the regenerative brakes, which were tuned to deliver intuitive feedback. There was very little of the traditional springy dead-space between the top and initial deceleration, and they confidently hauled the hatch down from speed. We also futzed with the two-step regenerative resistance braking, toggled by a rocker switch on the lower portion of the center stack. In standard mode, resistance is noticeable, slowing the car enough to only necessitate minor-to-moderate braking input. The other mode cuts most of the off-throttle resistance, allowing the car to coast as would a normal combustion-powered Cooper. Realistically, we'd like to see an additional level of resistance that's even more aggressive. Competitors like the Bolt offer a range of resistance levels and allow drivers to tailor the amount to the situation.

Out brief taste indicates the new SE will look, drive, and feel like the modern Mini Coopers we've enjoyed for three generations. Beyond its inherent importance in bringing full electrification back to the Mini brand, it's a notable car in the market. Mini made a conscious decision to base its newest electric coupe on the sporty Cooper S, which will set it in a class of its own, at least for the moment. As of right now, the Mini Cooper SE's most obvious competitors are the Volkswagen e-Golf, Fiat 500e, Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, and Hyundai Kona Electric. Notice anything? There isn't an enthusiast special among them, as sharp to drive as some may be. Although, if the Mini's range is indeed far lower than that of the leaders in the class, being a hoot to drive ultimately may not help its case much when green-leaning buyers start to do their value calculations.

The official reveal of the Cooper SE is slated for July of this year, and production will commence on November 1. Early adopters can expect deliveries to begin sometime in early 2020.

Automobile Mag Logoemail newsletter

Stay Updated

Car news, reviews, and more!