Driven! 2020 Mini Cooper SE Electric

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at
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Between its swamp-flat, always-swamped roads, and a populace that seems happy to live life below 25 miles per hour, Miami may be America’s worst city to test an automobile. But that unhurried pace makes Miami a good match for the Mini Cooper SE, an affordable electric city car whose driving range is mostly too short for Interstate road trips, anyway.

  • The Mini Cooper SE is a fully electric, four-seat coupe powered by a 184-horsepower electric motor.
  • Range is estimated at just 110 miles, making the electric Mini more of a city car than something designed to replace your SUV.
  • Starting price is $30,745 before any EV rebates or tax incentives, making the Cooper SE one of the most affordable electric vehicles on the market.

Cooper SE’s $30,745 base price sharply undercuts longer-range competitors. (Photo: Mini)

At home in the city

I’d briefly driven the Cooper SE in another big city – at the Formula E race in my Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, where the Mini squirted around the temporary race circuit in near-silent fashion, the Manhattan skyline soaring over the grandstands. Here in Florida, I found myself crawling-and-cruising from Miami’s Institute for Contemporary Art, where a row of Mini SE’s were plugged into the museum’s parking-garage chargers, to Ft. Lauderdale.

En route, the Mini sips battery juice and recoups it via two levels of regenerative braking, selectable via a familiar aircraft-style Mini toggle switch. The heavier level allows the “one-pedal” driving favored by many EV fans, where lifting off the accelerator decelerates the car without having to touch the brake pedal. Here, the Mini’s throttle could take cues from the Nissan Leaf’s excellent e-Pedal, which has a more finely-tuned, natural-feeling spectrum of responses.

At 3,153 pounds, the Cooper SE is among the market’s lightest EVs, allowing it to dodge slowpokes like a Florida skiff dodges manatees. Four selectable driving modes range from a Sport setting to a Green+ mode that dials down heating and A/C to save energy. Mini cites a peppy, 6.9-second run from 0-60 mph, with 184 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. On a freeway run, the itty-bitty Mini pulls with appealing authority to its electronically limited, 93-mph top speed. Call it just-right power for any urban scenario, including merges into fast-moving freeway traffic.

A high-style interior remains a top Mini selling point. (Photo: Mini)

BMW family DNA

This two-door hatchback adopts a carryover version of the battery pack, electric motor and single-speed transmission from the BMW i3. The big difference is that 135-kilowatt motor powers the Mini’s front wheels, versus the rears for the i3. (BMW owns the British Mini brand, with the Cooper SE built at the Mini factory in Oxford, England). During this sunny cruise to Ft. Lauderdale, beset by bumper-car traffic that would wreck the mileage of even a thrifty gasoline car, the Cooper SE returns the electric equivalent of more than 125 mpg. The Mini employs a T-shaped, 32.6 kilowatt-hour battery, along with a more-efficient HVAC heat pump to optimize range during cold ambient temperatures.

Like any electric car, the Mini can’t fill that battery to its brim, leaving a buffer in the interest of long life. Mini touted this Cooper’s new battery warranty of eight years or 100,000 miles. So with an actual, 28.9 kilowatt-hours of usable energy, my Cooper SE was on pace for a roughly 130-mile range, well beyond the EPA’s 110-mile estimate.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking: 110 miles? Why, that’s barely enough for my busy day of commuting, hot yoga and a cold beer.

Mini’s sense of style carries over into the exterior; note the Union Jack LED taillamps. (Photo: Mini)

Not a Tesla

Let’s not sugarcoat it: If you’re eyeballing a Tesla Model 3 with up to 322 miles of driving range; or a Chevrolet Bolt or Nissan Leaf Plus with their 259- and 215-mile ranges, respectively, the Mini SE’s official 110-mile range can seem overmatched and underwhelming. That’s even more true in light of electric SUV’s like the Audi e-Tron and Jaguar i-Pace, either one topping 200 miles.

But here’s the thing: You’re never going to cram as many lithium-ion batteries into a 12.5-foot-long, subcompact Mini as you could into a larger car or SUV. And what appears to be a limitation, viewed another way, is that the Mini is freed from carrying excess lithium-ion baggage. With “only” 484 pounds of pricey batteries – including lighter, more-compact cells than in the i3 – the Mini can hold down its curb weight, keep a lid on monthly payments, and maintain much of the efficiency and frisky handling for which Mini is famed.

The Cooper SE makes more sense as a second or third car than as primary transportation. (Photo: Mini)

The right tool for the job

I’ve personally begun to make peace with the idea of a relatively short-range EV, as long as its makers are honest about its capabilities and realistic on pricing.  Michael Peyton, vice-president of Mini of the Americas, is among executives who describe the Mini SE as more a second car in the household – or the third or fourth car – than a primary mode of transportation. “On the rational side, 80 percent of all Mini households own two or more cars,” Peyton says, allowing this electric runabout to complement the family fleet at an appealing price.

A smaller battery also means relatively shorter charging times. With its robust, 7.4-kilowatt onboard charger, the Mini can be juiced from near-empty to full in as little as four hours, on a standard 240-volt, Level 2 charging station. DC fast-charging capability is standard, with a 50-kilowatt capacity that can deliver an 80-percent charge in 40 minutes. The familiar SAE combo plug sits behind a flap above the right-hand rear wheel, where the fuel nozzle resides in a standard Mini.

Regarding an official EPA mpge rating, or an electric “miles per gallon equivalent,” BMW expects a rating of 115 mpge city and 100 mpge highway. A 108 mpge combined rating would fall short of the Chevy Bolt’s 119 mpge, the 134 of the Model 3 Standard Range Plus, or the market-leading 136 of the Hyundai Ioniq. Mpge can be confusing, but think of it this way: One gallon of regular unleaded contains 33.4 kilowatts of energy. The Mini’s battery holds 28.9 kilowatts of useable juice. So the Cooper SE carries the equivalent of less than 0.9 gallons of gasoline, yet it can cover 110 miles or more. Any way you slice it, this is one seriously efficient automobile.

One benefit of its small battery is that the Mini can fully charge in four hours on a Level 2 charger. (Photo: Mini)

All the Mini style

Other reasons to buy a Mini are that you’re crazy about their charming designs, their striking interiors, or the way that they drive and feel a lot like a BMW. Because they basically are BMW’s. The electrified version draws a bit more visual current with embossed badges and optional yellow (or gray) trim on side mirrors, front end and side sills, and the interior. The traditional, hexagonal grille is closed off, because little cooling air is needed up front. Funky, 17-inch wheels flaunt a geometric pattern that recalls an English wall socket. Those wheels are wrapped in Goodyear tires that raise performance hopes with their “Eagle F1” sidewall logos, but dash them with the reality that these are low rolling-resistance tires, designed to save energy rather than maximize handling.

The Mini’s pie-sized display screen occupies center stage, with a 5.5-inch, black-panel driver’s display perched atop the leather-wrapped steering wheel. Deeply comfortable, fat-bolstered seats, including a manual thigh extender, are executed in natty diamond-stitched leather. Those seats, materials, switches and luxury goodies all lift the interior to legit luxury standards. The Mini’s petite size still demands sacrifices, including a back seat that’s barely usable unless front occupants slide forward a bit to open up space. And while the added battery doesn’t steal any luggage room, there’s wasn’t much in the first place: The cargo hatch is too small for even a pair of rollerbags, unless you fold the split rear seats.

Optional 17-inch wheels have a cool, asymmetrical design. (Photo: Mini)

Short range means big value

Here’s the big payback for limited range: The Mini SE costs $30,745 to start, compared with $37,495 for the Bolt and $39,125 for the Leaf S Plus, and it’s more luxurious and fun-to-drive than either. The Mini division vows that dealers will sell and service the Cooper SE wherever Mini sells cars, which is currently in 39 states.

Naturally, Mini urges us to subtract the rich incentives that federal and state governments dangle to EV buyers. Chop off $7,500 in a federal tax credit, and the Cooper SE’s base price falls to $23,245, on par with your typical Honda Civics or Toyota Corollas. Knock off up to $4,000 more in state credits in EV hotbeds like California or Colorado, and some enterprising shoppers may find a base electric Mini for around $20,000. Even a fully-decked Cooper SE Iconic edition, starting from $37,750, drops to $30,250 with the federal credit alone.

All told, the Mini Cooper SE – a stylish British coupe, with a great backstory and now electricity – seems fairly priced for this level of design, performance and clean tech. Just keep your eyes peeled for chargers when you venture beyond city limits, as you’re going to need them.

About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at
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