New MINI Electric prototype review

The MINI Electric is due on our roads early in 2020, and we’ve put a prototype model through its paces

The new MINI Electric is less than 12 months away, although its name will have evolved into the rather more on-brand MINI Cooper SE by the time it hits UK showrooms in 2020. Ahead of the car’s launch this summer and the start of production in the autumn, DrivingElectric got behind the wheel of a prototype model to see how the car is shaping up.

The MINI Electric (read Cooper SE) is effectively a three-door MINI built on the platform of the BMW i3 city car. The battery will provide 29kWh of capacity, which should translate into 120 miles of real-world range. Meanwhile, the 181bhp electric motor is the same unit found in the sporty i3s, although MINI has opted to install battery cells from Chinese supplier CATL, moving away from the Samsung-equipped i3.

The car weighs 1,360kg – some 130kg more than the combustion-engined Cooper S – with 200kg accounted for by the battery pack. This is located in the transmission tunnel, ensuring that interior space and boot capacity stays the same.

Our prototype test car is heavily camouflaged, although it’s possible to make out that the front grille is closed flush: we anticipate that it'll be offered in a range of colours at launch. The front bumper has been adapted to comply with pedestrian impact regulations, while the rear bumper benefits from a unique design owing to the absence of exhaust pipes.

The MINI Cooper SE’s ride height has been raised slightly in order to afford more protection for the battery, and it'll be sold with a choice of 16 or 17-inch wheels. Meanwhile, the charging socket rests under a discreet filler cap at the rear.

The camouflaging continues inside, but it’s evident that a digital instrument panel will feature in a ‘pod’ ahead of the steering wheel. A conventional, rectangular infotainment screen will take its usual place in MINI’s round centre console.

The British carmaker has withheld the Cooper SE’s performance figures for the time being, but on BMW’s test track it felt eager, with the kind of instant acceleration electric-car drivers will be familiar with. The response from the accelerator pedal feels linear, while the steering is surprisingly weighty.

Both of these characteristics will be adjustable, however: lifting up one of the shrouds on our test vehicle reveals that the driving mode selector has survived the transition to electric power. In corners, the MINI Cooper SE responds in much the same way as its petrol sibling: the front is quick to react to changes in direction, and good levels of grip will give drivers confidence behind the wheel.

Admittedly, you can feel the Cooper SE’s extra weight at times, with the suspension stiffened slightly to cope with the extra demand. This makes the ride firm, but far from uncomfortable. As such, it’s a very agile car; perhaps more so than any electric vehicle currently on sale.

The Cooper SE offers two levels of regenerative braking; the system that uses deceleration to replenish the battery. It works independently of the drive modes, and on its own delivers 0.19g of braking force (without needing to use the brake pedal) in its harshest setting: this is enough to slow the car down in most conditions. Meanwhile, the gentler of the two modes delivers 0.11g of braking force, allowing a little more coasting distance on the road.

Either mode will bring the car to a complete stop. Just like the i3 and Nissan Leaf, the Cooper SE can be driven without the brake pedal if you read the traffic ahead correctly.

The MINI Cooper SE has yet more tricks up its sleeve: Active Slip Regular uses the car’s electric motor to apply traction control in wet conditions. This means that even on slippery roads the acceleration is virtually flawless, with no hint of skidding from the tyres. It’s a feature that makes the MINI feel a step ahead of rivals like the Hyundai Kona Electric and Kia e-Niro.

If the MINI’s package has a weakness, it’s the range: 120 miles should be enough for the Cooper SE’s core customers, with the company estimating an average daily usage of 25 miles. However, with the likes of the new Peugeot e-208 offering in excess of 200 miles, there’s no denying that the MINI looks destined for city-based living. Still, if pricing is competitive it could be a hit. Watch this space.