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First drive: 2020 Mini Cooper SE comes with a big but

June 2, 2020

The 2020 Mini Cooper SE electric vehicle comes with a big but. It’s cute, it’s punchy, it’s distinct, it’s versatile, but... But. The range is only 110 miles. That’s a but so big even Sir Mix-a-Lot ain’t down with that. 

That “but” narrows the usefulness of the 2020 Mini Cooper SE. Even if a Mini is a third car for most owners, as Mini spokesman Andrew Cutler told me, the limited range and rough ride quality limit it to duty as a city car or suburban runabout, as long as you have access to a plug and live in a sunny area with few potholes.

The Mini Cooper SE three-door hatch uses a 32.6-kwh lithium ion battery to power punch it’s way to 110 miles. In sport mode, its 199 pound-feet of torque can spin the front wheels off the line, and the thrust is gut-dropping and grin-inducing. Mini quotes a 0-60 mph time of 6.9 seconds, but the first 30 mph is particularly fun. 

The battery pack is set in the floor between the front seats and under the rear seats, which contributes to a low ride height that connects the car with the road much more directly than the muted feel of many other electric vehicles. It’s fun to drive, and fantasies of playing cat and mouse in the alleys of Europe’s capital cities plays out even in the neutered field of suburbia. 

It has an adult go-kart feel, with better safety features and much cuter design elements. That nimble but stiff ride can be taxing on longer hauls. The front single-joint spring strut suspension originally used on older, smaller 3-Series models is paired with an independent rear suspension. Add hard summer tires wrapped around 17-inch alloy Power Spoke wheels designed in the shape of a UK standard outlet, and the stiff ride makes dodging urban potholes more a necessity than a game. In subsequent 30-mile trips from the suburbs to the depths of Chicago in spring, the fun factor faded as I approached my destination and the potholes multiplied. 

I experienced no range anxiety on my downtown roundtrippers, in part because I used the heavier regen brake setting, which is aggressive enough to bring the car to a stop without pressing the brake. The range counter seemed on the conservative side, anyway, as it should be. Even in the normal setting, there is still a significant pull from the regenerative braking system as you lay off the throttle.

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

The Mini Cooper SE has a 7.4-kw onboard charger and Mini says it can be charged in four hours on a Level 2 home charger or AC public charger, or it can be charged up to 80% with a 50-kw Level 3 fast charger in 40 minutes. The driver would need the break as much as the battery needs the juice. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to stop every 85 minutes or so for a recharge that would take about half as long. At home with a 120-volt supply, the SE can fully charge in 24 hours. 

And herein lies the but: It can’t be a primary car, unless you work from home or very close to home.  It can be a fun weekender, or even a show car novelty. Even if the range were doubled from 110 miles to match the competition, the 2020 Mini Cooper SE is not really meant for long trips. It’s wound too tight to be comfortable on long stretches. It’s a shame you can’t spend more time in it because this car is a hoot in bursts.

It’s quirky, too, inside and out, loaded with distinction and charm. Everything is circles, from the vents and door handles to the logos and climate controls. Even the 8.8-inch touchscreen is housed in a circle that changes colors—if you activate the parking sensors while pulling into a spot, it’ll go from green to red. Fun. Cute. The ovoid instrument cluster is the size of a handheld video game console. So much of the interior is like the endearing globular eyes of a Pixar character. You can’t help but smile at it. 

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

The rear seats fit two tweens, but it took some negotiation. I’m 5-foot-8, and I had to move the seat forward to make everyone uncomfortable. That was a necessarily short trip, too, but who’s expecting much rear-seat comfort from a three-door hatch? The rest of the week, I kept the rear seats down. A clever storage shelf enables two heights, for a flat load floor when the seats are down or a deeper one when the seats are up. 

The heated front seats are well bolstered, but snug. Larger-proportioned people might choose a more critical adjective than snug. Elbows must jostle for position on the center elbow rest—it’s a one-elbow kinda town. The controller dial for the infotainment system on the center console is mini, but it’s easier to just use the touchscreen. Same goes for the head-up display and steering wheel controls; it’s a nifty gadget that works best at night.  

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

2020 Mini Cooper SE

Cute and fun might not be enough without functionality. My tester cost $37,750, but the federal EV tax credit and certain state rebates can drop the price under $30,000. There are much more expensive toys on wheels, but are EV shoppers seeking a rough-riding quirky cute joy ride?  

Like, oh, my, God, Becky, I can’t get past the but; the 2020 Mini Cooper SE has such limited appeal. 


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