(CNN)By replacing the gasoline engine and transmission with batteries and electric motors, Mini has created the most all-around enjoyable Mini Cooper yet. Unfortunately, by packing it all into the smallest version of the car in the automaker’s lineup, it also made it impractical for a whole lot of people who might otherwise love the idea of an all-electric Mini.
Of course, Minis are designed to constantly remind you, the driver, that you are in a very small car. The dashboard is high and the windows are narrow, leaving you looking out at the world as if you’re in a miniature tank. (For contrast, look at — or rather, out of — the even smaller Fiat 500 and get a panoramic view of the road ahead.)
Minis are fun to drive, though, and I usually enjoy them for a couple of days before that hemmed in feeling starts to wear on me. With the electric Mini Cooper SE, though, I found that I just kept on enjoying it day after day. I credit a lot of that to the lack of engine noise. The Mini’s optional 3- and 4-cylinder turbocharged engines have a decent sound to them, but being freed from an engine’s roar altogether does a lot to make the car seem somehow roomier and more comfortable. It’s certainly a nicer place to be for the long haul.
The other cool thing about an electric motor is that it actually suits the Mini’s personality so well. This car seems like it was meant to be electric. Electric motors provide instant pulling power from the moment they start spinning. That’s why most electric cars don’t need a transmission with more than one gear. Unlike gasoline engines, electric motors can pull hard at any speed.
So the Mini Cooper SE feels properly jaunty, quick and responsive. The E in Mini Cooper SE stands for electric, of course, but the rest of the name is borrowed from the performance-oriented Mini Cooper S. The SE has just a shade less horsepower than the S, but that power is delivered instantly.
Takeoffs are smooth and fast, despite the car’s obvious extra weight thanks to heavy batteries. It still corners nicely though because the batteries are down between the seats, putting the weight fairly low in the body of the car. The ride is firm, but not brutal.
When you turn it on, the Mini Cooper SE defaults to a “one pedal” driving setup. That means that when you press on the accelerator, the Mini speeds forward, but when you lift off the accelerator it doesn’t just coast. Instead, the electric motor stays connected to the wheels and slows the car down. The more you lift off the pedal, the more it slows. With a few minutes of practice you can even come to a full stop at a stop sign or red light without ever having to touch the brake pedal and it makes slowing down for curves easy and fluid.
The best thing about the Mini Cooper SE, though, is the price. Starting at $29,900, it costs about as much as the Mini Cooper S. And that’s before factoring in $7,500 federal tax credit. With that taken into account, plus any state or local tax incentives you might get, it actually ends up costing considerably less.
But two things stopped me from like the Mini Cooper SE more: Its size and its driving range of just 110 miles on a charge.
If the Mini Cooper SE had been designed from the outset as an EV, it might be more efficient in using its battery power. But instead, Mini’s owners at BMW made the decision to adapt the basic design of the gasoline-fueled Mini for an electric car. That means the Cooper SE loses out on a lot of potential benefits that can come when engineers don’t have to design a car around an engine and transmission.
Designed-from-the-start electric cars with similarly sized battery packs, like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt EV, can go farther before needing to recharge. To be fair, though, the Leaf, in particular, is a snooze to drive compared to the fun and peppy Mini.
Also, the Mini Cooper SE exists only in two-door form, making it the miniest Mini in the lineup. For most adult drivers this is, functionally speaking, a three-seat car. The right-side back seat will be uncomfortable but the left-hand seat, the one behind the driver, will mostly be used as a package shelf. It would be nice to have electric drive available in one of Mini’s slightly larger models. Or maybe Mini could go all-in in on clean fun and put this electric drive system into the Mini Cooper convertible.
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