I've always had a huge roadblock when it comes to electric cars. No, I'm not talking about range anxiety -- it's the lack of an EV that's as fun to drive as it is affordable. Teslas are great, but they definitely aren't cheap. A Nissan Leaf won't really break the bank, but it's not exactly a blast to drive. Thankfully, Mini's new electric Cooper SE checks both of these boxes.
The Mini Cooper SE is only available in two-door Hardtop guise, in Signature, Signature Plus and Iconic trims. Sure, the Mini SE only gets 110 miles of range from its 32.6-kWh battery, which is far behind competitors like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt, but the trade-offs are a low price and great on-road manners.
The Mini can behave like a staid EV, quietly streaming down the highway or battling midcity traffic with ease. There's enough regenerative braking power for one-pedal driving, and there's an eDrive screen in the available 8.8-inch central infotainment system that displays options for Green, Green Plus or Mid settings that control the power delivery and climate control usage. If I want maximum range then I have to be prepared to go without air conditioning. The Green settings can even calculate efficiency and can warn me when I hit my desired threshold. Driving at 70 mph on the highway translates to 94% efficiency, but I'm OK with dropping to 92%, so my speed warning is set at 75 mph. It's a neat little feature.
When it's time to have a little fun, the Mini won't accelerate like a Tesla. In fact, it takes the SE about 7 seconds to reach 60 mph. That's a little quicker than a standard Mini Cooper Hardtop, but slower than the Cooper S. Yes, the Mini SE makes 181 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque, but it's also lugging around 300 pounds more than the standard car.
However, as soon as I hit a corner, I forget all about off-the-line performance. Once this little guy starts rolling it's unstoppable. The stiff, nicely controlled suspension is up for anything, and Mini's famous go-kart handling is in full effect. This is the sort of pizzazz that compact EVs have been missing. The fun factor easily makes up for anything else.
It's the packaging that really helps here. The SE's center of gravity is 1.2 inches lower than the Cooper S Hardtop, even though its ride height is raised a bit to make room for the battery. Further, the SE is less nose-heavy than the S, so it offers more balanced handling characteristics.
I love that the SE gets actual high-performance tires. Sure, they might be all-seasons, but the Goodyear Eagle F1s are by far the most aggressive tire available on a small electric hatchback. In Sport mode the regenerative braking is less aggressive, but when I really need to slow down, the mechanical brakes are a bit squishy.
The Mini SE can charge a measly 2% per hour on a standard household plug, while a Level 3 DC fast charger at 50 kW will give you 80% of a charge in 36 minutes. On my Chargepoint Level 2 home charger the Mini SE goes from 33% to 99% in a little over 3 hours.
Standard in-car tech consists of the Mini Connect infotainment system, located on a 6.5-inch touchscreen housed in a color-changing circular ring, though my Iconic-trim tester has the larger 8.8-inch screen option. Mini Connect is essentially a cuter version of BMW iDrive, meaning it has the same pros and cons. It's tough to pair a phone to take advantage of the wireless Apple CarPlay, and once I'm there, it's difficult to switch between it and the native system. Android Auto remains a no-go.
The optional onboard navigation is easy to use and has no trouble with voice commands. I can also use one-box entry to find my local ice cream parlor, which is nice. In the end, however, I find myself just using Google Maps through Apple CarPlay. Old habits die hard, I guess.
Cell phone charging duties are handled by two USB-A ports as well as a 12-volt outlet in the front. My tester also has optional wireless charging. There is a head-up display of sorts, but it uses a small screen that pops up in front of the windshield. It's tiny and kind of annoying, so I prefer to just leave it off.
Inside, the Cooper SE is as spacious as a Mini can be. It is quite remarkable how much headroom is in here for such a small car. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, I have no problem fitting, even in the backseat where my hindquarters slide farther back so my knees are actually quite close to the seat bottom. The digital dash is connected to the steering column, and I'm a bit too tall to get a look at the whole thing, as the top of the steering wheel obscures the screen a bit.
Driver-assistance features are lacking in the Mini SE. The little guy only has forward-collision warning, pedestrian alert and regular cruise control. Meanwhile the Nissan Leaf can be had with the excellent ProPilot Assist tech that combines adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, and the Chevy Bolt can be optioned up with blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist and rear cross-traffic alert.
Despite its size, the Mini has more cargo space than both the Leaf and the Bolt, with 34 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded. As for smaller-item storage, there is a tiny center console, but there is also a built-in phone holder that takes up most of the space. Lift it up and you'll find some open space below, but not much. The door pockets are pretty shallow, and while there are two cup holders up front, rear seat passengers will be fighting over the single space for cradling a beverage.
One of the best things about the Mini Cooper SE is its price: $30,750, including $850 for destination, and that's before any federal, state or local incentives. That's for the base Signature trim, of course; the Iconic model you see here starts at $37,750, though it's the only way to get the cool Power Spoke (not Corona Spoke) wheels.
Even with its shortcomings, the 2020 Mini Cooper SE is an EV I would buy. No, it doesn't have the range of its closest competitors, but you can't argue with that price. It's superfun to drive, too, and that's a huge selling point for me. Considering most folks don't use small hatchback EVs for long-range driving, I think a lot of them might be willing to sacrifice some range for a whole lot of style and fun.