2020 Mini Cooper SE first drive review: Uncompromised electric fun
An early taste of Mini’s first electric production has us eager for seconds.
Jon WongFormer editor for CNET Cars
Jon Wong was a reviews editor for CNET Cars. He test drove and wrote about new cars and oversaw coverage of automotive accessories and garage gear. In his spare time, he enjoys track days, caring for his fleet of old Japanese cars and searching for the next one to add to his garage.
Walking around the 2020 Mini Cooper SE development mule -- yes, the new electric version will be called SE -- it's difficult to spot many differences between the new battery electric version of the two-door hardtop and the normal, gas-powered car. The yellow camouflage wrap certainly doesn't help, but for the most part it looks like any old Mini Cooper.
The SE's sheet metal is unchanged from the base car. The 16- and 17-inch wheels are also the same ones found on all the other Cooper hardtops -- no funky, aero-friendly rollers here. There are, however, a couple of small differences beneath the vibrant wrap, including a specific front fascia with a new grille and rear bumper that doesn't have cutouts for an exhaust.
2020 Mini Cooper SE: Mini's electrified Cooper shows promise
Like the exterior, the inside of the SE is covered to hide it from prying eyes (and Mini wouldn't let me publish any photos), but I can tell you there's a new center console with an electronic parking brake. When sitting inside it feels like, well, a Mini Cooper, with a full backseat and 8.7 cubic feet of trunk space out back. That's the same as a regular Mini Hardtop, so buyers won't sacrifice cargo space for EV power. That's unlike the Mini E pilot program vehicles that were leased to a handful of customers back in 2009 that lost its backseat and most of its cargo area to a monstrous, 573-pound battery.
Instead, the new electric Mini Cooper's battery pack occupies space in the transmission tunnel and where the gas tank would normally be, preventing it from eating up precious room inside. The rest of the electric running gear is similar to the one in the
, according to Mini engineers. It has been modified to fit into the Mini body and, unlike the Bimmer, powers the front wheels instead of the rear.
Mini isn't talking about exact output figures or range information just yet, but in the i3 this drivetrain is rated at 170 horsepower, 184 pound-feet and has an EPA estimated driving range of 107 miles from a 33 kilowatt-hour battery. Mini did say the SE will hit 62 miles per hour in 7 to 8 seconds. The company also said charging a completely dead battery to 80 percent takes 40 minutes using a DC fast charger, and 3 hours with an 11-kilowatt AC charger.
Compared to its gas counterpart, the electric Mini carries around an additional 264 pounds, weighing in at 2,970 pounds. To cope with the extra mass, the Cooper's body-in-white gets reinforced A-pillars and side sills. Ride height is raised roughly a half inch and the front suspension geometry has been slightly retuned to help protect the battery when going over bigger road hazards such as speed bumps.
But what's it like to drive? Does the extra weight put a damper on the Cooper's fun-to-drive personality? To find out, Mini brought me to the
Driving Academy in Maisach, Germany, just west of Munich. There, I took the SE for a very brief spin around an autocross, through some lane change exercises and a short course simulating stop-and-go urban driving.
The autocross begins on a wet skid pad where the traction electronics efficiently launch the Cooper with hardly any wheel spin. A couple of sharp turns and lane changes provide a workout, but allow me to really feel the smoother, more precise stability control programming, something that is now built into the car's ECU, for quicker response. There's a hint of understeer through the hairpin corners, but overall grip is impressively high. It is worth noting that the test cars are rolling on sticky Pirelli P Zero 205/45R17 performance rubber, which surely helps it feel light on its feet.
The steering is direct, with nice weight and satisfying feedback. Power delivery is smooth with brisk launches and instant torque pulling the Cooper out of corners with a good head of steam. Without question, the electric Mini is great deal of fun to toss around.
On the urban driving course, the regenerative brakes offer a progressive pedal tuning allowing for easy-to-modulate stopping muscle with two modes of regen behavior. The default setting is more aggressive that will let hypermiling fans perform one-pedal driving through traffic. For those who prefer more traditional lift-off throttle behavior, flipping a toggle switch at the bottom of the center stack activates a lighter regen setting, with much less drag like in a normal car.
Sadly, my time with the new electric Mini SE development vehicle is limited to one stint around the courses lasting roughly 10 minutes. A more thorough drive and getting more detailed technical information will have to wait until the production version of the 2020 Mini Cooper SE makes its world debut in July. Production is slated to begin in November with sales beginning in the US by the end of the year. Until then, this brief stint in this development car provides a promising first look.
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