The 2020 Mini Cooper SE Is a Fun Ride That’s Over Too Soon
Yes, it nails the qualities you expect from a Mini with electric power. But who’s it supposed to be for?
Odds are that if Sir Alec Issigonis were alive today, and tasked with making a small city car with a wheel at each corner and a surprising amount of luggage space, that car would not run on gasoline. Maybe that's why the Mini Cooper's transition to electric power in 2020 feels so natural: a small, fun, practical car that can out-park almost anything and is primarily meant for short urban jaunts is a great candidate for trading an engine for a lithium-ion battery pack.
That's a fancy way of saying that the 2020 Mini Cooper SE makes a lot of sense. Mini's parent company BMW is going big on plug-in hybrids and EVs across the board, so electrifying its smallest car is a no-brainer. The end result is something that nails all the fun driving dynamics people expect from a Cooper S, with a huge dose of instant electric torque and no climate guilt to go along with it.
But given its 110-mile range, which won't keep Elon Musk awake at night, EV buyers may be better off looking at other options—even if those aren't quite as amusing to drive.
(Full Disclosure: Mini loaned us a Cooper SE for a week with a full charge for review.)
2020 Mini Cooper SE: By The Numbers
- Base Price (as Tested): $29,900 ($37,500)
- Powertrain: 32.6 kWh lithium-ion battery/single-speed transmission
- Horsepower: 181 horsepower
- Torque: 199 pound-feet of torque
- EV Range: 110 miles (EPA rated)
- Curb Weight: 3,153 pounds
You Know What You're In For
I'll preface this review by saying I'm a big Mini fan. I owned an R56 Cooper S, which was an absolute blast when it worked (though it often didn't) and then a nearly identical F56 Cooper S. That one didn't give me any problems in 30,000 miles before I sold it when I moved to New York. They're small, quick, kind of weird, and can park in spots that will humiliate just about any other vehicle.
What I'm not, however, is a Mini fanboy. I'm not blind to the reasons people are turned off to them: too-cute looks, a poor track record for reliability, a harsh ride, and often a baffling price tag. You either get Minis or you don't. I do, but I understand why others don't.
In that vein, the Cooper SE is for the faithful. It's not an all-new EV from the ground up, but an adaptation of the existing F56 chassis that's been around since the 2014 model year. The T-shaped battery (rated at a scant 32.6 kWh) is installed is in the vehicle floor and mated to the electric motor from the BMW i3, although that's mounted to the front axle here. In fact, you wouldn't even know it was much different from a gasoline-powered Cooper S unless you knew to look for signs like the neon yellow trim or those trick "Corona Spoke" wheels. (That name had to be changed for obvious reasons.)
So the hardware behind the Cooper SE is in no way new. It's definitely no half-assed compliance car, but it doesn't feel as cutting-edge as a Porsche Taycan or any current Tesla.
Still, I can tell you that within 10 minutes of driving this tester, I was back on my old Mini habits. Dive-bombing corners, darting around big SUVs like they're stationary objects, driving it like I stole it much of the time—I had forgotten how much I enjoyed being in these cars, and the Cooper SE provided a quick reminder. Simply put, it's a blast to drive. You may not get the crushing electric acceleration of a Tesla Model 3 Performance, but with 181 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of instant electric torque in a car this small, you won't be missing out on fun. It definitely feels quicker than Mini's quoted 6.9-second zero to 60 time, and surges to highway speeds pretty effortlessly. It's high time traditional enthusiasts come around to just how fun EVs can be.
Granted, at 3,153 pounds—nearly 300 more than a Cooper S—it's porkier than you'd expect at this size, but the battery pack being mounted in the floor yields a low center of gravity that helps keep the go-kart feel intact. (Okay, it doesn't really feel like a go-kart; that's just marketing hype. But it's definitely closer than your average hot hatchback.) Add in aggressive regenerative braking that lets you augment your speed going into a corner without the brake pedal and you have a little electric rocket that's never disappointing to drive.
The suspension has been retuned here to accommodate the extra weight, and as a result, I was pleasantly surprised to find a ride quality that was more pleasant in mostly city driving than a standard Cooper S. And it's nowhere near as brutally punishing as my old R56—that's one thing I really don't miss about that car. The ride may be on the firmer side, as it should be for a small, sporting car, but I had no issues with it here in New York. I can't say the same for a lot of BMW's current offerings, especially the M cars.
Inside, it's pretty standard Cooper fare, with a few notable changes. (If you like circles, great! If not, find another car, probably.) On the SE, the standard analog gauge cluster gets swapped for a slick new digital display that's also now available on other Mini models, and the old automatic gear lever has been replaced with a rectangular toggle switch. Beyond that, you probably wouldn't even know you were in an EV until you flipped the power switch and were met with silence at startup. It remains the same inside as always: surprisingly spacious, especially with the back seats down, and full of premium-feeling materials true to its BMW heritage.
Tech And Charging
The Mini Connected 6.5-inch touch screen infotainment system—basically BMW's iDrive with some graphical changes—is now standard across the whole Mini range. The latest version of iDrive is among the industry's best right now, but my Cooper SE tester had some strange Bluetooth issues, including songs skipping and dropping the connection entirely. I haven't had that experience on other Minis and BMWs, so I'm willing to chalk it up to the kind of fluke you'd hopefully get fixed under warranty. Other than that, the system is fast, thorough, and intuitive, from scrolling menus to using navigation.
But this is a non-Tesla EV, and I live in America, so keeping it charged is still contingent upon where and how you live. Everything about living in New York City is generally a pain in the ass, although never a dull one, and that principle certainly extends to EV charging. BMW really wants you to charge your EV or plug-in hybrid in your home garage or at work; neither option applies to me, which I think kind of undercuts the Mini SE's mission as a city car. (I have yet to run a 100-foot extension cord out my apartment window to charge a press tester EV; maybe I'll do that next time and just ask forgiveness after the fact.)
As I mentioned earlier, the Cooper SE's range is a mere 110 miles. Many tests I've seen have pushed it past that, and Inside EVs even took one on a road trip where they saw well over 100 miles of range. But in a world where 400-mile Teslas are expected to be the norm, many American buyers—people who want their cars to do it all, generally—will be immediately turned off to that.
For charging, I settled on a station inside the IKEA in Brooklyn's Red Hook, which was otherwise completely closed thanks to the ongoing pandemic. (Yes, charging my EV at an abandoned IKEA was the most dystopian thing I've done in all this, thanks for asking.) With 33 percent of a charge remaining—about 29 miles, according to the car—I connected it to a Blink Level 2 charger around 6:30 p.m. one evening and came back three hours later to find an 88 percent charge, rated at 88 miles. Total cost: $11.37. Definitely cheaper than filling up.
Mini says that on a public fast-charging 50 kW DC station, the Cooper SE will hit 80 percent charge in just 36 minutes; not bad at all. Of course, home charging is probably your best option, and most Cooper SE buyers will go that route, or charge at the office. But for many cities, until we get a widespread, easy charging network that's consistently reliable, living with it may be more of a challenge than with a gasoline car.
Who Is It For?
That's what really tripped me up about the Cooper SE. It should be obvious that I enjoyed driving it, and indeed I was sad to give it back, which to me is the ultimate metric of whether a car I test is "good" or not. And the Cooper SE is indeed good. I just keep wondering who the target audience is. It should be me, as a Mini fan who would love to own an EV. And its price tag as tested here, $37,750 before you throw in the $7,500 EV tax credit, isn't bad at all.
But it's still limited to 110 miles of range. As a prospective EV buyer, I'd be more compelled by the Chevrolet Bolt EV with 259 miles, or the Nissan Leaf S Plus with 226 miles, or even the Kia Niro EV at 239 miles. All of them provide more size and capability than the Cooper as well, without being too overwhelmingly large.
If you love Minis, and if you have a short commute, home charging options, plan on using your car mostly for errands and short trips and maybe own something with a conventional engine, by all means—take a look at the Cooper SE. But if you need it to be your only car and want to trade gas for electrons, you have more useful choices out there. They just may not put as big a smile on your face.