2020 Mini Cooper SE Electric First Drive Review: Blast from the Recent Past

An electric Mini seemed like a foregone conclusion a decade ago. Now that it’s here, was it worth the wait?

byJames Gilboy|
Mini Reviews photo

Mini was ahead of the curve when it toyed with electric drive tech back in 2009, with the experimental Mini E. But the program ran its course, and Mini shelved the electric Cooper, leaving the opportunity to upend the auto industry to a startup in Fremont. A decade later, Mini returned to the electric hatchback with the 2020 Cooper SE, picking up right where it left off. And with how much the car industry has changed in the last 10 years, it's a much taller task this time around.

The 2020 Mini Cooper SE, By the Numbers

  • Base Price: $29,990 ($36,900 as tested)
  • Powertrain: AC synchronous electric motor with 181 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque | 32.6 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery | front-wheel drive
  • 0-60 mph: 6.9 seconds
  • Top Speed: 93 mph
  • EPA Range: 110 miles (EPA cycle)
  • Charging Options: CCS port DC fast-charging up to 50 kW, 0-80 percent in 35 minutes, 0-100 in 84 | Home wallbox charging to 100 percent in 4.2 hours
  • Cargo Space: 8.7 cubic feet | 34 cubes with rear seats down
  • Quick Take: The Cooper SE at last delivers the delights of electric driving in an attractive Mini package, but unless you were holding out specifically for an electric Mini, you're better off waiting for the next one or shopping elsewhere.
2020 Mini Cooper SE, James Gilboy

A 2010-y 2020

The 2020 Mini Cooper SE so closely resembles the experimental 2009 Mini E that parallels must be ignored consciously. Like the Mini E, the Cooper SE is built from a standard Cooper architecture rather than a dedicated EV platform, meaning the only place to tuck the T-shaped, 32.6-kWh battery is by the rear axle, where the fuel tank is normally found. This wedges the SE's body up 0.7 inches, and inflates its weight to 3,153 pounds, though said mass is distributed roughly 50-50 front-to-back, and its concentration down low drops the SE's center of gravity 1.18 inches relative to a gas-powered Cooper S.

Dragging the whole shebang around by its front axle is a small AC motor plucked from the BMW i3 pushing out 181 horsepower—a slight downgrade from the Mini E's 200 hp in the name of battery lifespan. Still, it tows the SE from zip to 60 mph some 1.1 seconds quicker than the Mini E, though, and can achieve 110 miles of range without difficulty, and a cautious full-battery test would likely yield more than that based on average burn rates while driving around town.

The Low(er)down

Though the SE has extra bulk to carry around, it still skates around with the sure-footed, go-kart confidence of its fossil-fueled sister model, if not more so. Crank the steering wheel and it'll push back against your palms with assuring weight, and you can feel the SE's suspension shift around with the aid of higher-performance Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 3 summer tires. These sacrifice low rolling resistance for extra grip, but allow handling as precise as the SE's instant throttle response.

That power is a pleasure to have on quick tap and can drag the SE from a standstill to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, and though those numbers don't make the SE all that quick from an objective standpoint, that's still a better 0-60 time than most internal combustion econoboxes can muster these days. It's enough to take advantage of holes in traffic, but not sufficient to challenge anything with more performance cred—even some similarly priced EVs will beat it between lights.

2020 Mini Cooper SE, James Gilboy

Bronze Medalist

There's more than enough at hand for a good time though, and a good time the Cooper SE is, if one that could yet be better. The firm suspension and high, 39-psi tire pressure—a compromise to reduce rolling resistance and augment range—will jostle you into memorizing the location of every manhole cover in your city.

Coming off the throttle, regenerative braking engagement is a little too abrupt as well. The system offers two modes, neither of which try for the one-pedal driving that other EVs revel in, but even the stronger setting doesn't follow that quick initial bite with real significant stopping power. You'll find yourself using the regular friction brakes far more than you would in a Nissan Leaf Plus, for example. That would be fine were those pads and calipers set up to be a little less twitchy, but as such, driving a Mini SE smoothly requires an inordinate amount of focus.

Cowley Chic

Like the combustion-engined Cooper, the electric SE accommodates its four occupants and their belongings in as much comfort and style as you can find in this size and price range, electric or otherwise. Thought has been put into the finish of every surface, from the textured foam of the dashboard to the convincing faux-leather upholstery, whose quilted stitching entertains the eyes and hands alike.

Behinds and backs won't protest the ergonomics of the manually adjusted seats—an old-school touch that may disappoint people who expect their premium, high-tech compact to be so in every way, but hey, there's an extra .05 miles of range in it for you. (This is definitely not a real figure, though ditching power accessories like that can only save weight and a tiny bit of energy.) Elsewhere, typical-for-Mini pullback door handles aren't the easiest to use without reaching across with your opposite hand.

2020 Mini Cooper SE, James Gilboy

Stretching the Tech Budget

Most every car these days comes with a digital gauge cluster, and the 2020 Mini SE is no exception, though its 5.5-inch, tablet-like setup looks like it's begging for some touchscreen functionality whose absence will announce itself with the first involuntary jab of your finger. The proceedings are helpfully anchored on either side by a pair of analog dials for the state of charge and current electron burn rate. Sliding to the right (or left, if you're British), the central infotainment screen's Mini Connected system remains an unsophisticated piece of kit with questionable interface design. Apple CarPlay partially redeems it, but Android Auto is still incompatible.

A 12-speaker, 360-watt Harman-Kardon audio system sounds fine unless cranked to high volume, where its bass can go a little hoarse. But one of the benefits to an electric vehicle is being able to hear your music without trying to drown out powertrain noise, so turning it up to 11 is admittedly unnecessary. What little NVH issues you might encounter won't be an issue for long, because this electric Mini Cooper is designed for everything but long-distance driving.

Short Stride

There's simply no way around the fact that 110 miles of EPA-rated range won't even get you two hours of highway driving. But is that a bad thing for most everyday uses? Mini went to great lengths to maximize the SE's range by programming Green and Green+ driving modes into the SE, and equipping its navigation system to search for routes that use the least energy. 135 miles or more on a full charge is doable, but that kind of economy requires compromise; you aren't saving time by driving everywhere at 35 mph, so you're better off using fast chargers on longer trips. Even then, the SE is a little out of its depth, as DC fast-charging from empty to 80 percent takes 35 minutes on maximum input wattage of 50 kW, and more than twice as long for 100 percent. You're better off topping up at home every night with a wallbox charger, which takes 4.2 hours to charge to full at 7.4 kW or 3.5 hours at 11 kW.

Love Lost, or at First Sight?

The 2020 Mini Cooper SE offers the best combination of driving dynamics and style for an electric car in its price range—especially when you factor in how tax credits for which some competitors no longer qualify can drop the price to the low $20,000s—but it's still as compromised a mode of transportation as we thought electric vehicles would be in 2009. Its range and charge speed effectively fence it into developed areas, where its ride will prove a tad too unyielding for America's decaying infrastructure. Even as an urbanite's runabout, the 2020 Mini Cooper SE faces a hard sell against an increasingly crowded compact EV segment, wherein all competitors bring far more range—therefore flexibility and resale value—to the table.

Whether the Cooper SE is the car for you comes down to whether 110 miles sounds like a handicap to you. If it doesn't, and the Cooper SE's round, LED-studded eyes make you want to pinch its fenders, then give it a whirl. Personally, I'm holding out for Mini's next try at an electric vehicle. This first (real) shot landed close enough to give me high hopes for an on-target follow-up.

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2020 Mini Cooper SE, James Gilboy