FIRST DRIVE | Limited range, high price makes the 2020 Mini Cooper SE a tough sell
You are looking at the cheapest fully-electric new car on sale in the country. But take that with a squirt of sanitiser, because the R642,000 basic asking price of the Mini Hatch Cooper SE is bound to induce a grimace on the faces of most South African consumers at present.
It is the most expensive three-door Mini you can have, ahead of the John Cooper Works (JCW) at R600,000 on the dot.
But we really ought not to be surprised at such a lofty entrance fee. The realm of battery-powered mobility remains, in our country, a niche for the well-heeled. And it will stay that way until the technology is democratised. How? First, and most obviously, by way of more affordable offerings.
Imagine an electric car in the A-segment category, for example, like the Volkswagen E-Up! which is not sold here. Yes, they really did keep the exclamation mark in the title. Our national energy parastatal needs to gets its house in order. Not only by keeping the lights on, but by developing charging infrastructure that would make usage of an electric car viable in the real world.
Manufacturers also need incentives to pursue the avenue more vigorously. Shoppers need a sweetener that would compel them to ditch internal combustion too. Anyway, these are sentiments that you would have no doubt read in opinion columns before.
For now, we can all agree that the evolution is an exciting one – a point that was affirmed brilliantly by the road-shredding Porsche Taycan we reviewed here last month. And there is much to admire about the plug-in Cooper SE too, even though it is beset by certain impediments.
There are two trim levels on offer; the standard “S” and the more generously-appointed “L” version. Expectedly, the model boasts a list of (subtle) stylistic distinctions over the fossil-fuelled derivatives. A bespoke 17-inch alloy-wheel is among them, wielding a design said to mimic that of a domestic wall socket.
Interestingly, the style goes by the name of Electric Corona Spoke (1NV) on the specifications list. Bear in mind that the C-word was loaded with fewer connotations when the car was announced in July 2019.
Plug-shaped motifs, yellow decorations and a grille absent of traditional slats (no engine to cool remember?) provide additional hints. But few, if any fellow road users seemed to look twice, or consider that this was a bit different to the average Cooper you might find parked outside a Starbucks.
The same low-key approach applies to the interior. Which, apart from an extremely dramatic audio greeting on start-up, offers little warning that you are steering a Mini powered by volts not pistons.
This lack of pomp and ceremony is understandable, since the goal is to normalise the technology. People have already passed the stage of initial novelty. We are beyond egg-shaped oddities like the BMW i3, which had to be radical in execution because it heralded a step in uncharted waters.
On the face of things, there are no glaring compromises in layout over the regular three-door Hatch. Luggage space, for example, remains unchanged (211l or 731l with the seats folded). And that is because the lithium-ion battery pack, with its 12 modules and total energy content of 32.6kWh, sits in a T-shaped arrangement in the floor.
This made me think of the Mini E (R56) trial fleet, a few of which were availed to our market for tests back in 2013. It had a big, clumsy battery pack that occupied the whole of the rear passenger section. Those were early days indeed.
The SE does ride slightly higher compared to a normal Cooper S, however – an 18mm increase was needed to give the battery set-up extra breathing space from the ground. It balances out, says Mini, since the omission of a cumbersome engine in the nose makes for superior weight distribution over the petrol-swilling sibling. Of course, it is also considerably heavier: at 1,365kg the brand claims it is “only” 145kg heavier than the other car.
While there is a sense of this extra load from behind the wheel, the SE could not be described as pedestrian in its sprinting abilities, packing 135kW and 270Nm. The 0-100km/h dash is dispatched in 7.2 seconds, while the more relevant around-town jog from 0-60km/h is performed in 3.9 seconds. All done in that instantaneous, finger-snapping-quick way that makes stabbing the right pedal in an electric car so addictive.
It certainly moves along with more composure than the tall, skinny-wheeled cousin from BMW we referenced earlier.
My test route was about 45.5km, beginning at the local BMW headquarters in Midrand, to Melrose Arch via the back roads and returning on the freeway. The full-charge range of 150km displayed was fairly accurate, since the readout indicated 103km after giving back the key. Still, that 150km potential was underwhelming when stacked against the ideal figure of 270km promised in the technical release.
The company says the quoted range differs from market to market and that the car on sale in our country has been specified for hot weather conditions, ostensibly the reason for its short legs.
After the initial experience of its sprightly acceleration in Sport mode, the selector toggle was set to the more appropriate Green setting. Green+ was avoided, because it bans the use of conveniences such as climate control and heated seats – there was no need for such extremism on this occasion.
The severity of the regenerative braking can be adjusted between mild and intense: with the latter engaged, the middle pedal rarely sees use. In fact, Mini put the car on the vaunted North Loop of the Nürburgring in October last year and said that its driver powered through the Green Hell without even using the brakes once.
Charging will take about 12 hours via a standard household socket. The optional Mini Electric Wallbox (R30,000), meanwhile, will facilitate an 80% charge in two-and-a-half hours and a full battery in three-and-a-half. Fast-charging stations are available at five BMW dealerships, allowing for 80% capacity in as little as 35 minutes. The rest accommodate charging via the standard 11kW AC outlets.
The SE is not going to account for a significant portion of Mini sales. But it is a notable harbinger of widespread electrification for the rest of the portfolio. We hope subsequent introductions will up the ante in the travelling range department.
Cooper SE (Trim S): R642,000
Cooper SE (Trim L): R722,000