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2020 Mini Cooper SE Electric first drive review: Fun electric fizz on a short leash

Mini's first EV is no Tesla fighter, but it's boldly styled, fun and shockingly affordable.

The Mini Cooper SE is one of the least expensive ways to go electric.

Mini

Forgive me. As I stand at the Miami media launch of the 2020 Mini Cooper SE Electric, I can't help but be struck by a sense of deja vu. Company officials claim this is the "first electric Mini," and they're right -- kinda sorta. 

I'm having deja vu because over a decade ago, I remember BMW's reborn city-car brand making a big deal about another cute little electric, the Mini E. That model, while produced in some volume, was never technically for sale. The company built hundreds as part of a large-scale global test fleet, leasing them to hand-picked consumers and utility companies to gather data and to test acceptance of electric car life. Remember, we're talking 2009, the dawn of modern EVs -- back when Elon Musk was still stuffing laptop batteries in a handful of Lotus sports cars. It would be years before Tesla's moonshot Model S would even break cover. 

You'd be forgiven for forgetting, but Mini was an early pioneer in electrification. What's more, most who drove the short-lived 2009-2010 Mini E loved it, even with its limited range and substantially curbed practicality (the car's battery pack was so bulky it necessitated a rearseatectomy). 

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As a small-car company with upscale positioning and an inherent focus on urban commuting, Mini seemed like a natural fit to become a leader in electric cars, arguably even more so than Nissan and its first-gen Leaf (which launched about the same time). After all, Mini's premium prices seemingly stood a better chance of absorbing the high costs of early EV development. Yet despite Mini's successful demonstrator fleet test, the brand unplugged, going dark on the tech for a decade, right up until this 2020 Cooper SE. (Oh, you could count the plug-in hybrid Mini Countryman that launched in 2018, but I'm talking cars that run on juice, the whole juice and nothing but the juice.)

Philosophically, that old 2009 Mini E and this new 2020 Cooper Electric share a great deal. In hardware terms, however, they don't share so much as a Mini emblem. Even so, the pair share remarkably similar specifications.

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2009 Mini E

Power

181 hp, 199 lb-ft

201 hp, 220 lb-ft

Acceleration

6.9 seconds (60 mph)

8.5 seconds (62 mph)

Top speed

93 mph

95 mph

Battery

32.6 kWh

35 kWh

Range

110 miles (est.)

100 miles (est.)

Curb weight

3,153 pounds

3,230 pounds

Given over a decade of research and development time has passed between them, there's surprisingly little daylight between these two in any given performance area. Despite having less power, the new SE definitely has an acceleration edge, and it ekes out a smidge more range, too. But in today's compact electric market, one populated by the likes of the second-gen Leaf, the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the Hyundai Kona Electric and Kia's Niro and upcoming Soul EVs, this new 2020 Mini Cooper Electric trails the pack on range. It's likewise no great shakes in terms of acceleration.

Despite all of that, even after a day spent mixing it up in Southern Florida's hateful, entropic stop-and-go traffic, I'm oddly charmed and find myself rooting for this little electric car. 

Fittingly for an EV, there's a new 5.5-inch digital cluster, plus yellow accenting.

Mini

Look beyond those spec-sheet numbers, and the new SE makes a much better case for itself than its distant relative. This 2020 model certainly has greatly improved practicality as a four-seater, possessing the same size hatch as its gas counterpart (8.7 cubic feet; 34 with the rear seats folded). The SE has improved charging capabilities, too. AC charge rates at 7.4 kilowatts work out to a 4-hour charge time. If you can find a 50-kW DC fast-charger, you're looking at 80% replenishment in 36 minutes. And then, of course, there's the new car's wealth of modern convenience and safety features, its more robust-feeling cabin and so on.

There's one more key criteria that, at least for me, singlehandedly rewrites this car's narrative, turning it from a disappointing also-ran to a surprisingly compelling proposition: price. The 2020 Mini Cooper SE starts at $29,900 in base Signature guise -- the same starting MSRP as a 2020 Nissan Leaf. Plus, even when option-free, the Mini comes with a whole host of standard features, including navigation, Apple CarPlay integration and full LED lighting. 

Within its own showroom, the SE lines up best in terms of specs with the midrange Mini Cooper S Hardtop Signature, which is actually costlier at $30,900. More importantly, the SE's battery powertrain qualifies it for a $7,500 federal tax credit, not to mention state and local incentives. Depending on where you live, that means you could potentially park one of these in your garage for well under $20,000. Modern Minis have rarely, if ever, been value propositions, but this one changes the rules: It's effectively the same price as the dowdier Leaf and many thousands cheaper than its primary BEV rivals from the US and Korea. (Never mind any Tesla Model 3 comparisons. At $39,900 before delivery, a Standard Range Plus is much costlier, but it delivers significantly larger dimensions and much higher performance.)

Now that we've gotten all of those boring-but-important math lessons out of the way, it's time to see if you might actually want one. Let's start with the SE looks. We've had since 2014 to embrace this third-generation F56 Mini's appearance. Today's Mini Hardtop is the bubbly ornamental goldfish to the original 2001-era R50's Finding Nemo. Both are cute, but to my eye, today's model is markedly showier, visually fussier and ultimately less visually endearing. 

That's the 2009 Mini E next to the new SE. Part of a large-scale test, it was only leased to select parties, never sold.

Mini

The transition to EV hasn't brought many visual changes, but I like what the company has done on the way to electrification. Key differences include a smoothed-out front grille with mail-slot intake, a unique rear bumper trim and various highlighter-yellow accents. The top-shelf Iconic trim I tested ($36,900 plus options and delivery) also features a set of unusual 17-inch wheels. The latter are a bit busy on account of their knurled perimeter detailing, but I like the unique asymmetric spoke pattern. Don't worry, if you're more conservative (or just more frugal), conventional 16-inch alloys come on lesser models.

Inside, things are mostly unchanged, with the most significant difference being the substitution of an oval digital cluster in place of the gas Cooper's overlapping analog gauges. Along with traditional functions like vehicle speed, the 5.5-inch screen displays the battery's state of charge, available range and drive mode, along with select navigation and audio information. The Mini SE also gets the new joysticklike electronic gearshift selector found in the revised Clubman five-seater, slightly revised switchgear and a brace of matching yellow accents. It all works well enough, though some ergonomics remain fussy in the interest of fashion over function, shifter included. 

My loaded test car also features a larger, 8.8-inch touchscreen (a 6.5-inch unit comes standard, but all models come with embedded navigation). Weirdly, the latter's maps simultaneously show both charging locations and gas stations -- maybe in case you develop a Slurpee craving.

Uncharacteristically, I've left discussion of the 2020 Mini Cooper SE's performance to the very end, because my drive was sadly limited in both time and dynamic opportunities. Simply put, Miami's flat, straight and traffic-choked roads make for a miserable place to assess a car for anything other than commuting manners. Fortunately, commuting is likely to be very important to Mini Electric owners, and in this scenario, the little juicebox sparkles. 

Mini knows there's not enough asymmetry in cars today. Check out these wacky optional 17-inch wheels.

Mini

It takes a few miles to get used to the SE's deceleration rate if you've got its adjustable regenerative braking on its high setting like I did most of the time. However, once you get acclimated, this one-pedal driving method is thoroughly enjoyable and it simultaneously stashes as many electrons away for later use as possible. 

With the BMW i3-sourced electric motor's 199 pound-feet of torque available from the moment you plant your right foot, off-the-line acceleration feels genuinely brisk, and the Mini's tidy footprint makes it easy to exploit gaps in traffic that might otherwise be squandered by larger automobiles. At 6.9 seconds, the SE's 0-to-60-mph time is ultimately slower than the gas Cooper S' 6.5 seconds, but it's quicker than the base Cooper (7.5) and its 0-to-30-mph urgency feels superior to both.

The SE's lithium-ion battery is arranged in a T formation, and Mini has raised the model's ground clearance slightly to sink the pack low in the frame rails while still allowing enough daylight beneath to protect the cells. You'd think that higher ride height would degrade handling, but with the battery pack's substantial heft mounted so low, Mini says the car's center of gravity is actually 1.2 inches below that of a Cooper S. The SE's ideal 50/50 weight distribution, quick rack-and-pinion electric power steering and uniquely calibrated stability control should make for more entertaining handling than any EV in its class. Unfortunately, it'll take a day with either windier roads and much less traffic or a closed course to even get this car's 205/45R17-series Goodyear F1 summer run-flat rubber up to temperature, let alone to pass definitive judgment.

What I can tell you is that the Mini Electric happily handles elevated highway speeds, a feeling that builds from the moment you attack an onramp and appreciate how level and planted the chassis feels. Especially if you've never driven an EV, this car's modest 93-mph v-max and small size might suggest it'd be unhappy on the highway, but the Mini feels good, its front strut/rear multiline suspension delivering a typically Euro-firm but well-damped ride and its electric motor offering plenty of passing power. 

While a one-day test hardly makes for definitive results, based on my mixed city and freeway usage, Mini's EPA-estimated range of 110 miles seems realistic. As main EV rivals offer between 149 and 258 miles of range (base Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Kona, respectively), this Mini's numbers seem pretty miserly by comparison -- even if that 110 miles will accommodate well over 90% of most people's daily driving needs without breaking a sweat. 

As a Michigander, however, I admit the SE's small battery pack would likely give me pause over its cold-weather performance. Winter temps do a number on EV range, and even though the SE has a unique heat pump said to use 75% less energy than a traditional electric heater, I'd still be concerned that longer commutes might result in range anxiety on particularly frigid days. To its credit, Mini isn't limiting SE distribution to select states like many other automakers, it's rolling the model out nationwide beginning in March. That in mind, I think this car is still probably best suited for customers in more temperate states.

Admittedly, I'm puzzled about what took Mini so long to get back in the EV game, and I'm a bit bummed that the 2020 Mini Cooper SE isn't anywhere near as innovative or ambitious as BMW's own i3. Then again, given the latter's huge development costs and higher MSRP (to say nothing of the lackluster US sales of all EVs not wearing a Tesla badge), this conservative approach is likely a far more sustainable path. Ultimately, the 2020 Mini SE Electric is fun to drive and priced well enough that it deserves to earn its way on to shopping lists -- especially among those who never thought they could afford to go electric.

Priced from $29,900, you could actually land one of these in your garage for under $20k after tax incentives.

Mini

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.