Electric cars are efficient, and supposedly the way of the future.
But most attainable electric cars just aren’t cool. BMW seeks to change that with the 2021 MINI Cooper SE. While it isn’t the first fully electrified MINI ever made, it is the first one people are actually allowed to buy. Will the promise of iconic looks, an engaging chassis and premium build quality win the hearts of aesthetically-focused green motorists? We tested one to find out.
The reborn MINI is a design icon and the stylists haven’t messed with it much for the electric version. There are optional wheels that look like a UK plug socket and available lime green detailing but thankfully, both of those can be avoided for a more demure appearance. What isn’t optional is a smoothed-over front grille and little electric emblems on the fender trims, grille and liftgate. Past that, it’s the same modern Mini that people know and love.
The roof is still available in black or white two-tone, the front lamps are familiarly round and the faux hood scoop denoting an S model or higher is present as ever. Due to EU pedestrian safety legislation, the beltline has risen since the Cooper was first re-booted in the early 2000s but mid-range trims and up gain a panoramic moonroof which lets a lot of light into the interior. Of particular quirkiness are the Union Jack patterns in the taillamps, a bit of neon britannia to literally and figuratively light up every drive.
The charming aesthetic of the MINI Cooper SE continues on the inside with 1960s-inspired design traits. Dominating the dashboard is a circular binnacle housing the infotainment, a throwback to the centre-mounted speedometers of past MINIs. Circular motifs continue on the door cards and a row of toggle switches on the dashboard controls key functions from ignition to stability control level to drive mode. Those toggle switches operate with satisfying positivity and weighting, as do most controls from the indicator and wiper stalks to the volume knob.
More retro design is found on the charmingly-pleated seats, although unlike classic car seats these front seats are fantastic. Bolstering is very good, back support is quite decent and thigh support is manually adjustable to accommodate for different inseams. The rear seats are predictably tight, albeit not as tight as many would imagine. Because the wheelbase is fairly long for such a short car, MINI was able to carve out an impressive amount of passenger space in such a short footprint.
Beneath the quirky retro interior design, all of the in-cabin functions will be very familiar to anyone who’s spent significant time in a previous-generation BMW. The infotainment itself is a re-skinned, pared-down version of iDrive with a similar rotary controller and a touchscreen for added functionality. While it does involve a slight learning curve compared to other manufacturers’ systems, it’s a responsive system that’s easy to navigate through whilst on the move thanks to that rotary controller.
Adding to user-friendliness are three rotary controls for the climate control system with easy-to-read displays for temperature, vent position and fan speed conveniently nested within the knobs. Speaking of easy-to-read, the digital gauge cluster is clean, minimalist and easy to grab information from with a quick glance. Our tester came equipped with the optional Harman/Kardon sound system which exhibited good clarity and a reasonably balanced sound signature.
MINIs have always been renowned as fun-to-drive and the 2021 MINI Cooper SE amps that up with significant kick from the electric powertrain. Instead of employing a heavy layer of computerized torque-limiting to not alarm timid motorists, they’ve imbued the Cooper SE with all the torque at all times. The result is a small, eco-friendly hatchback that leaps off the line like a stabbed rat and delivers two fistfuls of maniacal torque steer. This is a Cooper S first and an electric car second, and with every day being arm day it’ll never let the driver forget that.
Another known characteristic of electric cars is weight. Batteries are extremely heavy and while they may be mounted low-down in the car, weight is still the enemy of performance. Just ask anyone at Lotus. The result is that the MINI Cooper SE weighs almost as much as a ten-year-old Toyota Camry. On paper, that can’t be good for cornering prowess, but cars aren’t driven on paper. In fact, MINI has done such a good job at preserving their trademark nimble character that the Cooper SE darts into turns and shoots through roundabouts just as well as a gasoline-powered Cooper S.
The only noticeable penalty is in ride quality, which goes from merely firm to quite harsh because of the heavy batteries. While it’s unlikely to be a dealbreaker to long-serving MINI customers, the way it pummels road imperfections may be uncouth and off-putting to those who are new to the brand.
So then, what’s the real compromise here other than price? In a word, range. While a Chevrolet Bolt or Hyundai Kona Electric can do well over 400 kilometres on a charge, the MINI Cooper SE has a rated maximum range of just 177 kilometers. While that may be just fine for European customers, many Canadians frequently exceed that. And then there’s something that happens in Canada for about half the year – it gets cold. Batteries hate the cold and EVs can often lose a significant chunk of their range in winter weather, often between 20 and 25 per cent. Suddenly that 177 kilometres becomes around 132 kilometres, fine for in-town driving but not exactly ideal for out-of-town journeys.
While advanced driver assists like lane-keep assistance and adaptive cruise control are standard equipment or at least optional for many competitors, the MINI Cooper SE doesn’t really offer any of that. It does offer automatic headlamps, stability control and a federally-mandated backup camera, but that’s about it. While that may be a turn-off for most drivers, some will revel in the lack of nannies telling them what to do. Nonetheless, it’s a significant disadvantage in a marketplace that desires a little extra help on the road.
Now here comes the bottom line for most car shoppers – cost. With electric cars being typically expensive and Mini being a premium brand, it would be easy to assume that the 2021 MINI Cooper SE is priced on-par with longer-range EVs. Happily, it isn’t. In fact at $39,990 to start, it’s the least-expensive new electric car in Canada. If limited range isn’t a deal-breaker, the Cooper SE is absolutely worth a closer look as its fun design, upscale build quality and sharp driving dynamics give it emotional appeal that’s hard to beat.