Car Reviews

2021 Mini SE Prototype Review: The Fun-to-Drive Electric Car

What a difference 12 years makes

What a difference 12 years makes

Remember the Mini E, the first electric Mini? We drove it way back in 2008 and liked it a lot. “It is an astonishingly capable little car,” Gavin Green gushed after sampling it in Germany. “Throttle response is terrifically sharp, helped by the almost instant torque hit.” The Mini E had a 204-hp motor and boasted a 150-mile (241-km) range. There was only one not so small problem: The battery pack, a huge 5,088-cell lithium-ion arrangement that cost about $30,000 USD, added about 700 pounds (317 kg) to the car’s mass and filled the space where the rear seats and luggage compartment were in normal combustion engine Minis.

After a spin in an electric-powered 2021 Mini SE prototype, we can confirm that it, too, is an astonishingly capable little car, and for much the same reasons. It’s smooth, silent, and instant-on quick, with razor-sharp reactions that will leave you grinning from ear to ear as you pinball it through the twisties. What’s more, it has exactly the same rear seat and load space as a regular two-door Mini Hardtop, and BMW sources insist the production version of the SE, which is scheduled to go on sale in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2020, will be “competitively priced.” What a difference 12 years makes …

The Mini E was always intended as a science project. Just 500 were built and shipped to the U.S., and none was sold. Instead, BMW leased the cars to selected customers for $825 USD a month. At the end of the lease, they were returned to Germany and torn apart. The Mini E was a giant, real-world test and development project, BMW dipping its toe into the world of BEVs in an era when the Tesla Model S was barely a gleam in Elon Musk’s eye.

The Mini SE has been a long time coming, but there are good reasons for that. The 181-hp motor driving the front wheels is of BMW’s own design, as is the battery pack that stretches along the floorpan tunnel and fills the space under the rear seat reserved for a regular Mini’s gas tank. The Mini SE can also be built on the same assembly line as regular Minis, the power unit sitting in a cradle made from high-strength steel tube that bolts into the car using the same mounting points as the internal combustion engine.

Apart from the powertrain and the battery pack, the other major differences between the SE and a regular Mini Hardtop include the use of high-strength steel on the A-pillars and sills, plus the fitment of a large plate that runs under the front subframe from the firewall forward, to add strength and protect the powertrain. The SE also rides 0.6 inch higher than a Hardtop to ensure adequate ground clearance under the battery pack, using the longer shocks and springs from the Countryman SUV and Clubman wagon.

A bespoke BEV platform may have offered the packaging efficiency that made Alec Issigonis’ swinging-’60s Mini one of the most innovative small cars of all time. But the Mini SE’s convergence platform approach—using the same basic structure for internal combustion engine, plug-in hybrid, and BEV models—means less financial risk for BMW, whose high-tech, carbon-fiber-intensive, i car electric vehicle program has proven eye-wateringly expensive. Should it prove a hit, every sixth Mini coming down the line could be built as an electric-powered SE with no additional major investment.

There is one drawback with the convergence platform strategy, however. Although it cleverly makes use of existing nooks and crannies in the Mini body structure, the SE battery pack’s capacity is a relatively modest 33 kW-hr. Final numbers have yet to be confirmed, but Mini sources are claiming the SE will have an EPA combined range of 118 miles (190 km), or about half that of a Chevrolet Bolt.

You may not get as far in the Mini SE as you would in a Bolt, but our brief drive of one fitted with the optional 17-inch wheels and 205/45R17 Pirelli P Zero tires (16-inch wheels will be standard) suggests you’re going to have more fun along the way. The battery pack means the SE weighs about 290 pounds (131 kg) more than a Cooper S, but that extra mass is all low in the chassis, and there’s more toward the rear axle. The SE’s front-to-rear weight distribution is therefore 54/46, compared with 68/32 for the Cooper S, and despite the higher ride height, its center of gravity is also at least 12 percent lower.

The SE thus feels better balanced and more planted, especially on rapid changes of direction. And despite the instant availability of 199 lb-ft of torque, it has much better traction out of corners, thanks to a beautifully calibrated traction control system that directly modulates the motor’s output in real time. You can mash the throttle on a wet surface or midway through a slippery turn, and the Mini SE just hooks up and goes. You’re never aware, as in a conventional internal combustion engine vehicle, of the system cutting power; rather, it feels as if the motor is giving you its all, right to the limit of the tires’ adhesion. Our SE prototype had no trouble hanging with a well-driven Cooper S on a tight, twisting autocross track or on the faster, more sweeping road course at BMW’s Driving Academy at Maisach, just outside Munich.

BMW engineers are currently in the final stages of winter-testing SE prototypes in the Arctic Circle, after which they will undergo a final round of validation tests before start of production in November. One item on the agenda is the final tune of the electric power steering system; right now the SE’s steering lacks the crisp consistency of the regular Mini’s. Brake pedal feel is very good for an electric vehicle, however. The SE’s default regen mode allows for 0.19 g of retardation, enough to bring the car to a complete halt just by lifting off the accelerator pedal, perfect for one-pedal driving around town. In low regen mode—0.11 g of retardation on lift-off—the car coasts down like a conventional Mini with an automatic transmission, which means it flows nicely from corner to corner on a winding road. Just like a regular Mini.

And that’s exactly how the Mini SE is going to look on the road. There’s a new front fascia—with a new grille—and a new rear bumper without any exhaust openings, but only Mini fans are likely to pick the SE from a regular Mini in traffic. It’s much the same inside, too. There’s a new instrument pack on the steering column, and there’ll be new information graphics on the center display, but otherwise, it will look like a Mini. And, most important, it will drive like a Mini. The original Mini found fame as an everyday small car that happened to be an absolute blast to drive. And as electric cars go mainstream, the Mini SE looks set to follow in its wheel tracks.