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2020 Mini Electric | UK Review

The battery-powered Mini goes mainstream - but is fitting in with the crowd what buyers really want?

By Matt Bird / Friday, February 28, 2020

Be in no doubt: the Electric is a hugely significant car for Mini. At its UK launch the assembled journalists were told in no uncertain terms that it is the most important moment for the brand since the entire relaunch in 2001. Why? Because it's the culmination of more than a decade of research, stretching back to the original Mini E trial and incorporating lessons taken from seven years of BMW i3 sales (the car with which this Mini shares a powertrain). Already 70 per cent of the UK's pre-orders are from buyers new to the brand (with one in eight new Minis now expected to be Electric), and the car is even a big deal for Mini Oxford: it's now the first factory in the BMW Group to facilitate the production of ICE and BEV cars on the same line. (Note the cradle that holds the power unit under the bonnet, an alteration to ensure the robots used to engines can easily install the EV powertrain.) This is a huge undertaking for Mini.

More than that, the Electric arrives at a critical time. Its maker celebrated 60 years of the Mini brand last year, which is the sort of heritage an EV maker would sell its Silicon Valley soul for. And, in case you hadn't noticed, electric vehicle registrations are soaring. 2019, for example, was the first year that BEVs outsold PHEVs in the UK, a trend that's set to continue in the 2020s. As charging times fall, ranges climb and EV options increase, further substantial growth is inevitable.

So, into that mix comes the Mini Electric. A car that, to all intents and purposes, is just a Mini; in very stark contrast to the Honda e a cute and almost twee creation at odds with the rest of the range, the Electric is just a Mini. The T-shaped battery back has been fitted so that interior space is identical, the digital display is as we'll see in the GP, the driving position feels the same and the dash is unmistakably Mini. For the sake of familiarity it's great, because this new car requires no acclimatisation - although you do wonder if buyers might be expecting a little more for their government subsidy?

It's a similar story outside. While 'Electric Yellow' accents can be optioned, they aren't mandatory; leave those boxes unticked and, badges aside, it'll appear just like any other Mini. Although personalisation remains a significant theme, it's never going to have the instantly recognisable appeal of several big-name bespoke EVs - think i3, e, Zoe and so on. That said its unassuming nature may well appeal to as many as it puts off - the perks of an electric vehicle in a car that looks like any other could be exactly what's needed. It certainly did the Volkswagen e-Golf no harm.

A brief refresh on the vital stats. The Mini Electric is now a 1,365kg car, 145kg more than an automatic Cooper S, producing 184hp and 199lb ft from an electric motor, itself powered by a 28.9kWh battery. As mentioned, it's borrowed from an i3 S, though with modifications for this front-wheel drive installation. It can reach 62mph in 7.3 seconds, ahead of a 93mph top speed. The WLTP range is rated at 145 miles and, via a fast charger, that can be 80 per cent replenished in 36 minutes. The charge socket underneath the filler cap (in exactly the same place as for petrol) can accept AC and DC chargers, with a full 100 per cent juice from a wall charger in just over four hours. Or 12 hours if plugged into the socket by the microwave...

How does all this translate on the road? By and large, absolutely tremendously. For all the spiel about retaining traditional Mini driving characteristics, this Electric really does feel like a Cooper S to drive. Indeed, on certain scores it's better: a slight rearward nudge in weight distribution (and less weight on the nose) aids the sensation that it's all pivoting around the driver, the centre of gravity has dropped 30mm and the new traction control - directly incorporated into the motor control unit - makes the old system seem dim-witted.

It isn't perfect, though. The weight gain inevitably takes its toll on the ride, the Electric thumping and fidgeting where a standard car wouldn't, the steering feels to have gained some unwanted stickiness and the E doesn't have the turn-in bite of a conventional Cooper. That could be attributed to the tyres. Whatever the case, the Electric remains great to drive, more accurate and satisfying than any rival currently on offer; it scoots and darts around bends eagerly, imbued with very nearly all of the Mini agility and friskiness we've come to expect. Very precise pedal responses help in this respect, although a middle setting for the regenerative braking - where just the throttle can be used to slow down - might help, with one a little ineffective and one fairly abrupt. Otherwise, the Electric drives like a Mini - which should be regarded as a wholly good thing.

Shame about the sound, then. Granted, complaining about no noise in a Mini EV is like whingeing about too much at a gig - because you rather signed up for it - nevertheless, it remains a little dispiriting for a brand where noise has always been so important. As someone who drove around with rear seats always down and the rudest of rude exhausts always at noisy in a Works 210, aural excitement really is vital to the Mini sense of fun. That it is missing here does detract from the experience. A racket has been part of the Mini charm for more than half a century; it's the sort of emotional, historical baggage an i3 or Honda e doesn't carry. Now, obviously, it can't be entirely replicated here, though some noise of something going on would be welcome - the Mini's electric whine is even done quite meekly.

The flipside of all that is the most serene Mini progress - ride notwithstanding - that there must have been in the 21st century. It also means almost tranquil progress on dual carriageways and motorways, too, though that's inevitably where you'll watch the range plummet. To its credit, the Mini Electric showed 143 miles of range when started, against a WLTP claim of 144 miles. Charge and range readouts are crisp and clear, so any panics about insufficient range could only be levelled at the driver. We all need a recalibration when it comes to EVs, too; while a 70-mile range in a combustion engined car would have you searching out a forecourt, here it means there's still half a 'tank' remaining. Plus, it should be noted that all the research suggest that the typical customer does a handful of miles every day, meaning weekly charges for a Mini E looks likely. Which is no great hardship.

Despite all that, there is no escaping the fact that similarly priced cars - the e-208, Leaf, Zoe and so on - will get you further. Mini's counter argument is that its battery and motor design are more efficient, plus the fact that smaller, lighter batteries - as Honda claimed with the e - make a smaller and lighter car that takes less time to charge. Given the dynamic benefits wrought from doing this in the Mini's case, that looks like a wise decision. After all, who wants a car that can go further if it's lardy and no fun to drive?

In addition, Mini has made concessions to range anxiety, charging concerns and environmental impact. An alliance with BP Chargemaster means a wallbox can be fitted at your home for £450 and a subscription to its public chargers will cost the same each month as your Netflix account. A deal is in place with Ovo Energy to offer customers renewable electricity to charge their Mini Electric, and 97 per cent of the battery is recyclable. Add into that the fact that the i3's components are lasting better than expected - BMW anticipated a seven-year battery life at launch, where it now looks like 10 - and at least some of the usual concerns appear to have been addressed. There's even a Mini Electric Hub, which will tell you how often a Mini Electric would need a charge given your typical commute, where the nearest charger is and how long it would take. The idea, in principle, is to make the transition from petrol to electric as painless as it possibly can be.

Which, in truth, is what the Mini feels like as a product. It's damn near everything we've come to admire about an F56 Cooper S - the quality, the impish sense of fun, the performance - that just happens to be powered by electricity. One suspects that retaining so much of what characterises a Mini in a car driven by volts and not V-Power is not the work of a moment, and the seamlessness deserves praise. And given that Mini customers - by definition - have already accepted previous compromises in space and (arguably) value, the car's price and range limitations are likely to be palatable. Subscribing to people's expectations is the Electric's speciality; so much so that this might very well be the zero-emission supermini to convince the sceptics - it's really that good, and that familiar. A multitude of future group tests will be needed to sort out the segment's final pecking order. But don't be surprised if the Mini does rather well in them.


SPECIFICATION - MINI ELECTRIC
Engine:
32.6 kWh battery (gross figure; 28.9kWh net), single electric motor
Transmission: Single-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 184
Torque (lb ft): 199
0-62mph: 7.3 seconds
Top speed: 93mph
Weight: 1,365kg
MPG: 144 miles WLTP range
CO2: 0g/km (at tailpipe)
Price: £27,900 (Mini Electric Level 1, without Government grant; Level 2 £30,900, Level 3 £33,900)

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