The EV debate and a review: Getting along examined through the Mini Cooper SE
My experiences driving the Mini Cooper SE have prodded me to share my thoughts on not only the car itself, but a divisive issue among petrolheads.
Dear DT reader, you, as a car fanatic, are likely to already have an opinion on EVs, but whether you love or hate them, or somewhere in-between, hear me out if you will, on the issue.
In the article below, I recall my experiences of spending some time with a new Mini Cooper SE, review the car, give my two cents about the role of electric cars, and address the issue fueling much hate in the petrolhead community: are they truly the death of emotion, the downfall of our beloved internal combustion, should we set fire to them all or embrace the new breed? Let's launch with instant torque, right into it.
I got my hands on this 2020 model Mini Cooper SE (aka Mini Electric, to be used interchangeably from now on) thanks to a student of mine, who, knowing how much of a scholar or cars I am, lent it to me. Big thanks to her. In order to be able to talk about the various questions the EV debate poses, let us look at the car first, in detail.
The idea of an electric Mini is not a new one, as the 2010 Mini E already demonstrated the company's interest in the direction, although only in limited numbers and more like an experiment. The true harbinger of the Electric was the 2017 concept by the same name. We like production cars that more or less stick to the concept, (European 8th gen. Honda Civic comes to mind) and the Mini Electric is similar, preserving most unique visual traits of the show car.
What's inside your burger? - A comparison
The design serves the same purpose as an insect burger...hear me out! It's familiar enough to the point where it can reel in people who would otherwise be repulsed by a new product, and through hopefully satisfying experience it opens minds to be more accepting of its essence, leading to chewing on a fried locust or buying a car of uniquely EV design and origin. Performance too, imitates a contemporary petrol Cooper S as much as it's possible within EV realms. The petrol's 6.8 second 0-100 km/h time is not leagues ahead of the Electric's 7.3, but I am sure the latter performs just as well, if not better, from a standing start to around 30-40 km/h due to the tire-screeching instant torque. Top speed lacks as you would expect from the electric, with its single speed fixed ratio transmission only taking it up to 150 km/h (93 MPH) as opposed to the petrol's 235 (146 MPH), and as much as I can relate to the argument of "when do you ever truly use your top speed?", that figure is a bit of a tight fit even on the motorway. Power is also in the same ballpark, with the petrol's turbocharged 2.0 inline four taking an around 10 HP and 10 Nm advantage (184 to 192 HP, 270 to 280 Nm).
Anyway, I am walking a thin line on being boring with numbers, let me just say that unless you travel on the motorway, performance is in the same league. What about handling? I would describe it as stiff and responsive, and although I have never driven the petrol Cooper, I can imagine it being similar, maybe a bit sharper. The EV nature of the car creates an interesting situation: it is a good 200kgs heavier due to the batteries, BUT the placement of the batteries gives it a lower center of gravity. I could obviously not give it the racetrack treatment, but it felt responsive and grippy in tight corners and around roundabouts, even at more than intended speeds.
My personal highlights and observations
With performance numbers and comparison to place the car out of the way, let me just point out some of the other things I feel are noteworthy, without being exhaustive on every single detail, starting with the interior. It's an interesting battleground of rugged, eco, and premium, with the latter definitely on the losing end. Funnily enough I am used to cheap, nasty interiors, as well as premium feeling ones with nice materials, and this one is neither. Plastics and rubbers are abundant, and while not creaky and sticky yet, it's hard to predict longevity on these. Other surfaces, especially the cloth part of the seats feel like the the recycled materials you can find in the BMW i3. Although I have no certain knowledge whether the Electric uses the same material, it feels very similar. Then there are some quality touches, such as the switches, the central infotainment, and digital gauge cluster. It's a weird amalgamation but a pleasant place to be nonetheless.
You truly feel like an environmentally conscious ace pilot with this setup.
As customary with EVs, upon starting it up with the rather stylish switch, it bongs to let you know it's on, which I still find amusing not having been exposed to this much. It is not completely silent, mind you, you can definitely hear the stressed whirring of the engine under heavy acceleration, which feels a lot more satisfying than dead silence, although admittedly not as nice as an engine note.
On the sizing of the car, while I can completely get behind the argument that the Mini got fat and became the "Maxi", I have to mention how size is relative, and with the ever spreading SUV and 7 seater SUV dis...I mean trend, as I drove between a BMW X5 and a Lexus RX I felt like this is pretty much how the original Mini must have felt like between average family cars in the '60s.
Keeping the iconic round middle dial is essential, even if it's now the infotainment screen.
Regenerative braking is adjustable, but its default setting is the strongest, and if I owned the car I would turn it way down, because it leads to one pedal driving, which is unnatural to me. As soon as I lifted off, hoping to coast to a light or through an intersection, the car quickly came to a halt, which led to me slightly accelerating just so regenerative braking wouldn't kick in, like how you accelerate in a Trabant even when you are speeding downhill to keep the engine lubricated. Luckily, having to unnecessarily apply throttle is where similarities end with the East German people's car. Speaking of adjustable, there are four driving modes in total. I mostly left it in sport, which, unlike a fancy "M" button, doesn't completely transform the car, but it makes steering a bit heavier, and sharpens throttle response. The BMW i3s's motor moves the Electric more than adequately, however it's propelling a slightly heavier car here. Performance is definite warm hatch territory. Mid is your standard mode, while green and green+ are a bit like the battery saver on your mobile phone as they don't only retard the throttle but also shut off wasteful systems, like AC.
The Electric has all the features you would expect on a car of its class, with most of them useful, but a few are a bit more gimmicky than others, like the Union Jack tail lights, or the door lights, which still feel a bit like they came from AutoZone's "visual improvement" isle to me personally.
Clarkson would suggest indicators that go up like the Third Reich salute in response!
Some styling elements which are unique to the Cooper SE, like the yellow mirrors or the rims styled after electric sockets, are optional, if you prefer your car looking more like its internal combustion counterparts. I personally would proudly display these distinguishing features, just like the owner does.
To summarise, I enjoyed spending time with the Cooper SE, and most of my gripes simply come from my inexperience with EVs. Due to its limited top speed and range of 240-270kms (150-167 miles), and exponentially decreasing rate of acceleration the faster you go, it is undeniably at home in the city. This is exactly what I would use it for, running errands and commuting sound like fun in this car. I feel like EV technology has progressed far enough that the SE feels like a proper alternative to its petrol counterparts, so long as it stays within the city. And not just an alternative in terms of numbers, but most crucially in feel and fun. As a petrolhead welcoming electric cars with no bias whatsoever, I wore a wide grin almost all the way through my time with the car - not while stationary in traffic, that would have looked weird - and sure, it could use some additional driver involvement in the form of a manual gearbox or engine sound, but these are not deal-breakers for me. This is a good point to get general, so onto the philosophical question of this piece.
I did not mention the wheels imitating the British type AC power plugs as gimmicks. That's because I rather like them! :)
Is the soulless EV takeover coming?
"Good news!" I say, as you inevitably read this quotation in James May's voice. In my opinion, it isn't, although bear in mind that we are treading on the realm of the subjective here, so if you opinion differs, that's perfectly fine. First of all, I would argue that electric cars are not soulless, because what constitutes the soul of a car? Is it only the engine and drivetrain? I don't think so. For a theoretical exercise, imagine if all internal combustion cars in the world had the same - let's say 2 litre, 4 cylinder - engine, with an automatic transmission. Terrifying, I know, but, an Ariel Atom would still be a blast and a pleasure to throw around, a Rolls Royce Phantom would still be the pinnacle of luxury and would make you feel like king of the world, and a Toyota Camry would still be dreary. Heritage, design, materials, handling, weight, grip, weight distribution, even your experiences with a car on the personal level, these all contribute to a vehicle's personality, so I don't agree with the notion that EVs are just appliances.
Secondly, let's talk about technological takeover. When a new piece of technology comes along, providing an alternative solution to an already existing problem, it can only overthrow its predecessor if it performs better in almost all or all aspects, and has no significant drawbacks. Otherwise it merely becomes an interesting option, like LaserDisc, for someone seeking particular advantages. As it stands currently, numerous factors hold EV technology back, chiefly range, charging speed, battery lifespan, and infrastructure. If you ask me, these problems can be reduced, sure, but they are not likely to go away very soon, and a single one of them is enough to prevent a total takeover.
Thirdly, even if the shift happens, and electric cars become the norm - as much as this contradicts point two, let's just roll with it - there is no way our beloved petrol car will ever be unattainable or fall behind a veil of great exclusivity. Look at all former, now replaced technology and their enthusiasts for confirmation. Whether you are into typewriters, radios, newspapers, historical firearms, or propeller aircraft, these are still available, you can find like-minded enthusiasts to enjoy them with, you can utilize them, and sure, some are more expensive than others, but their buy-in is not more expensive than in their prime, at least at the entry level. So even if all or almost all new cars go electric, how ever unlikely, you will still be able to buy yourself an affordable petrol car.
As it stands right now, electric cars offer their advantages to those who feel like they can benefit from them, and do not intrude into the lives of those who don't extend an inviting arm, and what's wrong with an alternative people enjoy?
This concludes my two cents on the issue, I think open-mindedness is essential in the topic, and a non-biased appreciation of electric cars for the experience they offer, without a fear for the future. I, personally, will be glad to try more EVs in the future, and possibly tell you all about them in a mildly coherent article or two. :) Thank you for reading, and do share your opinions below for a discussion.