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2020 Mini Cooper SE First Drive: It’s Electric, But Is It Fun?

Can an electric Mini still be a real Mini?

Seasoned automotive writers love to pass on nuggets of industry wisdom to greenhorn writers;  little tidbits like who throws the best post-auto show parties, which airline is best for which boondoggle, and the do's and don'ts of dealing with public relations folk. Several years ago, longtime industry expert and current Automobile Detroit Bureau Chief Todd Lassa imparted to me a few lessons over sack lunches in our Detroit office.  One message from that day stuck with me more than others: "If an automaker ever launches a car in Florida, you can be sure the car can't handle worth a damn," Lassa warned.

I recalled these cautionary words as I made the day-long jaunt from Los Angeles to Miami for the launch of the new, all-electric Mini Cooper SE. From panhandle to tip, Florida is the flattest state in the nation, beset with an overabundance of arrow-straight roads broken only by excruciatingly long stoplights and interminable traffic congestion. Perfect for a Rolls-Royce Phantom (the British marque is also a subsidiary of Mini parent BMW AG), but a strange setting to launch a small performance-ish EV hatchback, especially one from the brand founded on the very idea of fun-to-drive in a small package.

I'm not projecting; Mini trumpets this as a zingy, eco-friendly, future-forward little sports hatch, going so far as to tack on the vaunted "S" postscript to the Cooper name, a badge reserved for the sharper, more performance-oriented Coopers in the lineup. In dino-burning form, it doesn't possess quite the same aggression as the rip-snorting John Cooper Works or track-hungry GP, but the S is a step above the regular Cooper, with hardware like bigger brakes and stiffer suspension.

It stands to reason this SE, then,  should be the EV hatch to pick over the Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf if you care as much about driving as you do about reducing that pesky carbon footprint. There's reasonable power parity between the internal-combustion S and the sparky SE; compare the 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder's 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque to the 181 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque from the SE's BMW i3-sourced electric drivetrain. Straight line performance is nearly identical to the S, capable of a 0-60 mph sprint in 6.9 seconds, on its way to a low top speed of 93 mph.

As we learned from our previous short drive in an SE prototype, it wasn't all that tricky to cram the i3 drivetrain under the Cooper shell. It retains the same T-shaped layout as the Bimmer, only flipped to put the motor in the front rather than the rear, in keeping with the front-wheel-drive layout of the UKL1 platform. Only a few points of the subframe and chassis were changed from the combustion Cooper, and special dampers fitted to handle the extra bulk resulted in a 0.6-inch increase in ride height. All the gasoline-soaked bits like the fuel tank and lines are replaced with battery-related stuff, so it was almost a perfect fit-so mild are the modifications that cargo space is unaffected, and the SE is built on the same production lines as the gas-powered variants.

A 32.6-kWh battery provides the juice for a low 100-something-mile range yet to be submitted to the EPA. Mini predicts 110 miles of range, but during our short drive, the range indicator climbed as high as the 130-mile mark. That's noticeably down when compared to the Leaf (150 mi base) and Bolt (259 mi), but I don't expect this small two-door hatch to be driven outside of congested urban areas and their closely-spaced charge points. When you do plug in, the SE fast-charges from dead to 80 percent charge in 35 minutes at public fast-charge stations, or a home charger capable of 7.4 kW will brim the battery in four hours.

On the subject of congested urban environments, that's exactly where the entirety of this brief drive took place. I let my drive partner take the first stint, a route cutting north through the traffic-lined heart of Miami to Fort Lauderdale. Between roads as flat and straight as a plate of matzo, and immobile traffic caused by egregiously inattentive drivers and closed construction lanes, it's likely our average speed barely broke the 20-mph barrier.

I took the return stint that ran down heavily-trafficked Interstate 95. Aside from some purposefully aggressive lane changes, I can say nearly nothing about the handling and chassis setup, other than the SE's reasonably comfortable ride and a well-tuned regenerative braking system. For highway cruising, the electric steering was busy, but not so frenetic it became tiresome.

Pinning the go-pedal from a dead stop rewards the driver with a brief rush of delicious EV torque before leveling off after inner-city speeds. Acceleration from 50 - 70 mph is more than enough for most scenarios, as is the 93 mph top speed. Four distinct driving modes affect the throttle response, steering, and battery efficiency, with a "Green Plus" mode that limits or cuts comfort functions like heated seats and A/C for the sake of range conservation.

As we've experienced previously in the Porsche Taycan, it seems the Germans are universally resistant to one-pedal driving; there are only two levels of lift-off regen available on the SE. On its most aggressive setting, the regen scrubs enough speed to navigate slow traffic, but not enough to keep your foot off the brake for any extended length of time. When in normal regen mode, resistance is less intrusive, letting the SE coast almost as smoothly as its gas-powered counterpart.

After 35 miles of traffic and unbroken pavement, I left Miami knowing only slightly more about the dynamics of the production Cooper SE than I did after the prototype drive last year, though conceptually, I now have a better grasp. This is not the first EV hot hatch. "Warm" hatch is a more apt descriptor, the new electric Cooper SE being only moderately more fun to drive than an equivalent Bolt or Leaf. It's definitely not engaging enough to steal away eco-curious drivers from their Volkswagen GTIs or Subaru WRXs.

That's likely intentional. It's not really meant to attract enthusiasts, but to appeal to both existing Mini owners and to any potential customers in the market for a smaller, premium EV. It's far and away the most fashionable electrified city car we've ever driven, and in that regard, a launch in the heart of Miami's Design District makes more sense. The asymmetrical wheels and neon-yellow accents fit right in Miami's mix of art deco and modernist aesthetic better than anything short of a highlighter-colored Lamborghini.

For an automaker whose products are notoriously more expensive than the competition, the Cooper SE is reasonably priced-provided you live in the right region. A base price of $30,750 gets a respectable slice of standard equipment, including LED headlights, leatherette upholstery, leather steering wheel, heated front seats, 6.5-inch infotainment screen (including navigation and Apple CarPlay), keyless entry, automatic wipers, and heated mirrors. An extra $3,000 adds niceties like panoramic moon roof, power folding mirrors, and Harman-Kardon sound system. Spend a total of $37,750, and it comes equipped with a heads-up display, 8.8-inch infotainment touchscreen, and wireless charging, among other things. This is all for fancy finery; Mini claims in the right state and with the correct tax rebates, certain buyers will pay as little as $17,900.

So, without driving this on any semblance of open road-curvy or otherwise-I judge the 2020 Cooper SE to be tidy little city EV that makes you look as cool as you feel, at least if you're the type of buyer I (and Mini) thinks you are. If this isn't the electro-charged hyper-hatch you long for, give it a few years-I reckon Mini has a lot more battery packs in its future.

2020 Mini Cooper SE
ON SALE March 2020
PRICE $30,750 (base)
ELECTRIC MOTOR 1 AC synchronous motor, 181 hp and 199 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION single-speed fixed-ratio transmission
LAYOUT 3-door, 4-passenger, front-motor, FWD hatch
EPA MILEAGE 110 mi (est)
L x W x H TBA
WHEELBASE TBA
WEIGHT 3,153 lb
0-60 MPH 6.9 seconds (mfr. )
TOP SPEED 93 mph