2020 Mini Cooper SE Drivers’ Notes | Photos, specs, impressions

The 2020 Mini Cooper SE is Mini’s first electric car that it’s actually selling widely to the public, rather than a quasi-experimental product a select few could lease. While in most respects, it looks like a plain Mini Hardtop or Cooper S, it instead has a BMW i3 electric motor under the hood. The SE makes 181 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. Between the front seats and under the rear seats are battery packs that give the Mini an estimated 110 miles of range. The new powertrain means the electric Mini sits ever so slightly higher, but it has a lower center of gravity than other Minis, and it has a perfectly even weight distribution front to rear.

To get an idea as to what it’s like to live with this spunky little commuter, Managing Editor Greg Rasa in Seattle and News Editor Joel Stocksdale in Detroit each spent a week with one. Both cars were the top shelf Iconic trim, bringing the starting price to $37,750 after the $850 destination charge. The SE is also eligible for the $7,500 federal tax credit, making that high price sting a bit less. Check out their thoughts in the discussion below.

Joel Stocksdale: Want to talk Mini?

Greg Rasa: Sure. So, how to begin … Fun car. Way fun.

JS: So much fun! I took it out for pleasure cruises at least every other day just because it was such a blast.

GR: I took mine on some long outings and was pleased with it in every respect. Some background: I drove a 2013 Leaf as a commuter for a couple of years, so that’s kind of my baseline for an EV — utilitarian, basic, purpose-built for commuting. And of course I have driven other EVs quite a bit, Niro, etc. The difference with the Mini is apparent from the first impression. Stepping into it, there’s a wow factor. Nice interior, quilted seats, yellow racing stripe in the carbon fiber-look dash, goofy space-age sounds. Everything screams fun.

2020 Mini Cooper SE Drivers' Notes | Photos, specs, impressions 2 Rice Tire

JS: What really got me fired up about the driving was the handling. Minis are already great in corners, but this one feels particularly good, and I think a lot of it has to do with the weight balance. It’s an even 50/50 front/rear distribution, and you can feel that in turns. It’s very neutral and has loads of grip despite the low-rolling-resistance tires. I desperately want to take one to an autocross event.

GR: Yes, very grippy. All EVs tend to handle well, I think, given how planted they are with the battery weight down low, but the Mini is the best yet. You’re in a John Cooper Works (JCW) now, right? So you’re kind of benchmarking against that?

JS: A little bit. It’s a Countryman JCW, so it’s bigger, and the seating position is higher. I’m actually not enjoying it as much, and part of that is that I miss the responsiveness of the electric motor. It’s so nice having immediate and precise throttle response. Also loved the aggressive regenerative braking setting on the SE.

GR: I live at the top of a pretty steep hill, so in my last drive yesterday I launched it from a stop at the beginning of the hillclimb. Felt like a light plane taking off. I haven’t looked up 0-to-60 on the electric Mini (6.9 seconds, 0.4 second slower than a Cooper S -Ed), but it at least gave the illusion of speed with its responsiveness and torque.

JS: It’s a quick little thing. Though I wouldn’t mind a bit more power. The surge feels like it falls off a bit as the speed rises, and it doesn’t launch as hard as the Hyundai, Kia and Chevy EVs. More power isn’t necessary by any means, it’s still gutsy and fun, and I can’t help but imagine a Mini Cooper JCWE with like, 200 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. It would be hilarious. Actually, maybe that would be a little too much power. Even now, I was noticing some torque steer when flooring it, and it doesn’t have a limited-slip differential, so without careful throttle application, you could spin the inside tire powering out of corners.

GR: So let’s talk about range, since the EPA 110-mile rating might cause some people to dismiss it out of hand. I have quite a few thoughts about that, but am wondering what your experience was.

JS: That’s been a bit of a concern of mine, too, especially since I tend to take longer drives out of state at least once a month. Or at least I did until the pandemic hit. But I think it would still cover the other, let’s say 90%, of my driving needs. I visit friends over in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area often, so I did a trial drive to Ypsilanti and back (I didn’t actually have contact with anyone). I left with a full charge and an indicated range of about 105 miles. I arrived back home with an estimated range of about 15 miles. The actual distance was 96.8 miles round trip. I did adhere to speed limits, and I had it in the Green+ mode, which deactivates temperature control to help with range.

GR: That’s excellent, and consistent with the car I drove. I took two longish trips. When we discovered we were both scheduled to get a Mini SE, we discussed taking photos of our cars in characteristically Seattle and Detroit settings, so on day one I wound through the backroads of King County, from the wine country of Woodinville down through the “Twin Peaks” territory of Snoqualmie Falls and North Bend. The second half of the trip was all highway back home. The outing was 72 miles, and the car’s readout said I had depleted 40 miles of range with 55 remaining, and the battery half-depleted.

Which brings me to a gripe about this car: Most EV drivers take the “guessometer” mileage reading with a grain of salt, and pay closer attention to percentage of battery life remaining. But in all the displays, I could not find that. The main display’s battery gauge simply shows battery life in eighths, as in, I had four-eighths left. I’ve not seen an EV before that didn’t show an exact number.

On the second outing, I headed to West Seattle for the classic shot with the Seattle skyline in the background (the one you see in a lot of car ads), and swung by the Museum of Flight along the way. That trip was 65 miles, half surface streets and half highway, with roughly the same results. Oh yes, there was also a shorter trip north to hit the Mukilteo lighthouse and to eat some clams at Ivar’s.

2020 Mini Cooper SE Drivers' Notes | Photos, specs, impressions 3 Rice Tire

JS: Yeah, it would be nice to have a more precise battery percentage gauge. And this also shows that your driving efficiency will make a difference in your range. I maxed out at about 3.8 miles per kWh, and I think you said you got more.

GR: Yes, I was getting 4.3 miles/kWh. The regenerative braking on this car is very heavy — at the max, one-pedal driving. Your miles were all highway, so 3.8 is also quite good. My sense of this car is that it could do the EPA number of 110 miles entirely on the highway, as you demonstrated. And just around town, with all that regen in play, well … I think I could do even better than 4.3, and could squeeze 140 miles out of a charge. As a city and all-around fun car, zero qualms about the range of the Mini SE.

JS: One other note on range, I did my trip when it was high-40 to low-50 degrees. I’d be a little worried about the range dropping further in the middle of a Michigan winter. On the plus side, the Mini does come standard with DC fast charging, in addition to Level 2 charging and 120-volt household outlet charging. The DC fast charging can get you to an 80% charge in a little over half an hour, according to Mini. I didn’t try it out, instead doing all my charging on the household charger. I was surprised at how adequate that was. Plugging it in overnight usually got me to about 80% in the morning, or 80% at quitting time if I had depleted it down to that 15 mile mark. I think a Level 2 charger would be nice to have, but I don’t think it would be necessary with this car. How were you going about charging?

GR: I charged at Level 1 (120 volts, via the cord the car comes with), which I knew would be just fine. In all my time with a Leaf, I never got a Level 2 charger. I’d leave for work at 80%, come home at 30%, plug it in, and it’d be good to go again by morning. The same thing happened with this Mini. After each of these trips, it took an overnight charge and was set to jet.

So, did you like the wheels? I liked the wheels. (They’re the shape of a British electrical socket.)

JS: Yes I love the funky wheels. They’re very cool. Admittedly, if I owned one, I would probably be looking for some aftermarket wheels because I like to personalize my cars, but these are very good stock wheels. They’re only available on the top trim level, though. All other trims get very basic, normal Mini wheels. So really, it’s a very normal looking car except for those optional wheels and the filled-in grille.

2020 Mini Cooper SE Drivers' Notes | Photos, specs, impressions 4 Rice Tire

GR: So your mention of top trim reminds me: The Monroney on this car was $37,750 including $850 destination charge. So you’d get it down to $30,000 with the federal incentive — and maybe way below that given all the market factors in play right now. And the interior is so stylish, handling is great … this car is a bargain for how it looks and drives.

JS: I totally agree, and you can get lower trim models for well under $30,000 with the federal tax incentive, and they’re all fairly well equipped. And really, there’s hardly anything about this car I dislike except for the range. I suppose I wish the infotainment system was a little easier to use. Like a lot of BMW products, there are a lot of menus to dig through to find things. But it’s as stylish as any Mini, and I appreciate the fact that you can sit nice and low in this car. So many EVs are little crossovers, which already put you high up, and then the batteries are right under the floor, so that pushes you up even more. In this car, the batteries are down the center and under the rear seats, so you get the same Mini seating position. If there was anything I’d really like to see, it would be a slightly longer-range one, close to 200 miles. Even if that meant they had to remove the rear seats to make some space for extra batteries. And really, the Mini’s rear seats are unusable for anyone other than a small child or a dog, so why not pitch them, add a couple batteries, and make a huge flat load area?

2020 Mini Cooper SE Drivers' Notes | Photos, specs, impressions 5 Rice Tire

GR: Great idea! And yes, I had issues with the menus. To me, the most important screen on an EV is the trip computer. But every time you start the car, you have to go digging through menus again to find it, two or three levels down. Maybe there’s a way to save screen preference, but the screen that’s up when you leave should simply come back when you climb in again.

But the only big gripe was that inability to see a precise battery life percentage. There were little quirks, but hey, it wouldn’t be a British (German) car without a couple of those.

That reminds me to mention a final, great thing about choosing an EV: There’s very little maintenance.

JS: Yeah, it’s nice that there aren’t as many parts to go wrong in the Mini SE as a gas one.

GR: Final thoughts?

JS: I really love this little car. It’s pretty much the electric car I’ve been waiting for, even if the range is a touch shorter than I’d like. It’s an affordable EV that’s actually fun to drive and stylish. Up until now, almost every truly affordable EV, no matter how good to drive, has been a staid or frumpy machine, or an uninspired compliance car. This is actually something exciting that combines the inherent advantages of EV powertrains with a fun chassis, and again, it doesn’t require luxury car money. I hope this is just the first of many fun little EVs.

GR: Once people drive it, they’ll discover that the range will work for them a lot better than they thought. I’m with you right down the line. It was great fun.

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