First drive: 2023 Mini Cooper Electric prototype review

20 Mini Cooper SE prototype review 2023 lead driving road

A full decade since the last all-new Mini hatch comes the most radical yet, with a new design and platform, plus EV power

The Mini Electric wasn’t the first hatchback EV and it certainly isn’t the best, but it was the first car to show that EVs don’t need to be 600bhp dragsters to have a sense of fun.

Despite being a bit of an afterthought (effectively an ICE Mini Hatch with batteries taking the place of the engine, fuel tank and exhaust), it managed to combine instant electric punch and a pointy chassis into something quite compelling.

Of course, its short range is a big handicap, and newer cars like the Fiat 500, MG 4 and Cupra Born have since eclipsed it as our favourite affordable driver’s EVs, but the Electric still serves as strong proof of concept for the battery-powered hot hatch, and it has been a bit of a commercial success for Mini, making up a fifth of all the brand’s sales these days.

For the second generation, Mini is doing things properly. This time, the car is based on a dedicated EV platform, which was developed as part of the Spotlight Automotive joint venture with China’s Great Wall Motors. Yes, of Ora Funky Cat infamy.

Thankfully, the new car – now called Mini Cooper E, or Cooper SE for the more powerful and longer-range version – doesn’t share anything with the Cat, as they were separate developments.

The new platform gives it the range that it was so sorely lacking before. The Cooper E has 180bhp and a 40kWh battery for a theoretical range of about 185 miles, while the Cooper SE gets 215bhp and a 54kWh battery, which results in a projected range of about 240 miles. For comparison, today’s Electric gets 143 miles from a measly 32.6kWh.

Further down the line, there will also be a John Cooper Works, or JCW – effectively a Cooper S with more power and less range.

Despite the new platform, the Cooper E is about the same size as the Electric. It’s slightly wider and has a longer wheelbase, but it’s a tad shorter, too, with less of a rear overhang. It also retains the multi-link rear axle that’s very unusual for a car this small.

The prototypes I drove were still covered in a colourful camouflage, but we’ve since seen photos of the exterior, and I got a peek under the sheets covering the interior, which exhibits the same reductionist approach.

Gone are the chrome adornments and almost all physical controls. Even the gauge cluster in front of the driver has been deleted. Taking responsibility for nearly all those things is a large, round central touchscreen. Being OLED, it’s very thin and has minimal bezel.

As much as I like chunky old-school controls, I must admit that it looks quite cool and seemingly works okay, even running very buggy prototype software. Like in a Tesla, you quickly get used to looking slightly right for the speed, plus a head-up display is optional.

With no buttons and the gear selector relocated to a toggle under the screen, the centre console is left free for storage, while the dashboard’s round air vents have been ditched in favour of slimmer items, but some character has been added in with colourful woven materials on some trims.

What hasn’t changed is that, despite the battery pack being under the passenger compartment, the driving position is pleasingly low. The seats no longer have an adjustable thigh bolster but are still very comfortable and supportive, and unsurprisingly the rear seat is still not exactly suitable for adults.

Despite the modernisation of the interior (for better or for worse), you start and stop the new Mini with something that looks quite like an ignition key, adding a bit of control and theatre.

We first headed out on a short road loop, followed by some time on a technical little test track. A conclusive verdict and a star rating will follow once we’ve driven a finished car, but first impressions are very positive indeed.

The steering is transformed. The engineers say they’re still working on dialling in some on-centre feel, but it already felt pretty good to me. The leaden feel and limp turn-in that characterises many versions of the current Mini has been banished completely. It’s now actually quite light, even in Sport driving mode, feeling natural and delicately letting you know what’s going on. And the hint of torque steer when you accelerate hard out of corners is all part of the hot hatch experience.

With just 2.2 turns lock to lock, the rack is pretty direct, and it’s a fixed ratio, so while it takes a moment of acclimatisation, you always know how much turn-in you’re going to get.

The chassis backs up the fast steering with grip and response, even on winter tyres in cold and wet conditions. The nose darts into corners in a way that the old car’s never did. You can easily load up the front end and then bring the rear out to play at will.

If that isn’t your bag and you prefer the steadier balance that Minis have tended towards, you haven’t been forgotten about. The engineers have put a lot of work into the traction and stability control systems, and it shows. Leave everything on and the systems will carefully mete out power to maintain traction while smoothly intervening to maintain the agile handling while keeping the rear axle firmly in line.

DSC Sport mode is possibly even more impressive, because it maintains the traction and nips at the individual brakes to subtly rotate the car into corners. It lets you play with the balance of the car and even encourages it, while still keeping an eye out to make sure that things don’t get out of hand. DSC Off will still rein in the worst of the wheelspin but will let you throw shapes on track to your heart’s content.

The one dynamic question concerns the ride. Even on Austria’s uber-smooth roads, the new Mini is obviously quite a firmly suspended car. We wouldn’t expect anything else from a sporty small hatchback, and to its credit our 17in-wheeled example dispatched both the mean compressions on the test track and any drainage cover I could run over on the road with poise, rounding off sharp edges in the way that high-quality dampers tend to do. How it will deal with a bumpy B-road remains to be seen, however.

While I’m speculating, it’s impossible to say anything conclusive about range yet, but the Mini Electric is very efficient in the real world, so there’s a good chance that this quality has been carried over. In any case, you will be buying the Cooper SE for the longer range rather than the extra performance.

Both versions are pleasantly nippy in that EV way, and the difference is slight at best. Typically for a BMW Group EV, the level of regenerative braking is set in a menu and there’s no coasting mode, but there are adaptive and one-pedal modes.

It’s way too early for prices, but it’s safe to assume that they will all start with a three. Between that, the final infotainment system, the range and the ride, there are still quite a few unknowns about the Cooper E. At the same time, there’s little evidence to suggest that any of those things is likely to be problematic, and I’ve been impressed so far with the style, character and driving experience. If the Mini Electric floated the idea of a hot hatch EV, this new one has a good shot at making it real.

Technical specifications: Mini Cooper SE

Price: tbc, Motors: 1x AC synchronous, electrically excited, Power: 215bhp, Torque: tbc, Gearbox: single-speed, front-wheel drive, Kerbweight: 1500kg (est), 0-62mph: 7.0sec (est), Top speed: 100mph (est), Battery: lithium-ion, 54kWh, Range: 240 miles (WLTP target), DC rapid charging rate: tbc.

Source: Autocar

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