EV battle: Honda e vs. Mini Cooper SE

2020’s most exciting electric city cars are here. Is this the moment EVs go mainstream?
by Jack Rix and Ollie Kew | Apr 18, 2020

“The Honda hasn’t pressed home any kind of advantage over the Mini, despite being a product of fresh organic farmer’s market ingredients, not reheated leftovers”

I’ve heard of manufacturers going to extreme lengths to show the capabilities of their product, but Honda arranging the worst storm the Costa Blanca has seen in 30 years, just to demo the rain-repellent coating on its new wing cameras? That’s beyond the call.

But not even Storm Gloria—or knowing Mr. Kew is donning a Hawaiian shirt and living out his Scarface fantasies in Miami while I’m splashing around somewhere near Benidorm—can dampen my positivity for this little car. It’s the Urban EV Concept that became a legend, the legend that became a prototype, and the prototype that became the dinkiest, most desirable thing since the Suzuki Jimny. And I want one.

So will thousands of others, many of whom would’ve considered themselves allergic to electric until now. That’s the power of good design. But a baby face only takes you so far—there are hurdles to scale before embarking on Honda e ownership.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

While Honda has kept the dimensions to Fiat-500-plus-a-bit and battery size to a compact 35.5kWh, the price starts at a juicy £26,160 (P1.66 million) for the 134hp car, rising to £28,660 (P1.82 million) for the 152hp, higher-spec Advance model. To justify prices that eclipse that of the larger, rangier VW ID.3, Honda hasn’t held back with the trinkets.

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As standard, you get cameras for wing and rearview mirrors, 100kW DC rapid-charging capability in 30 minutes, an app to precondition the car and babysit it while it charges, too many driver-assist systems to write down, and several acres of screen. And it’s all wrapped in a subtly retro color and material palette designed to click with the cheeky exterior.

So you’ve made your peace with price. What about space? The rear is just big enough for me to sit behind me, but me is 5ft 8in. The rear cargo area is small—171 liters with the rear seats up and 861 liters with them down, which is decent, if you can use it as a two-seater. Honda has done its maths here—it’s just practical enough to justify if your mind’s already made up.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

Now...range. A claimed 220km (or 201km if you upsize from 16-inch rims to 17-inchers) means 160-170km in the real world, which isn’t great next to 320km+ ID.3s and e-208s—but it’s a conscious decision, says Honda. This is strictly an urban runabout, so why blunt it with more batteries than necessary? As one poetic engineer put it: “If you want to design an iPhone, why would you make an iPad just to get a bigger battery in there?”

Still here? Excellent, you’re keen. Time for the really good stuff. Both power outputs have the same amount of torque, 314Nm, so the 0-100kph difference isn’t stark: 9sec vs 8.3sec. Probably more useful though is nil to around 50kph, for which I have no official numbers, so I shall describe as “pleasingly nippy.”

It really zips away from a standstill, and hats off to Honda for the throttle tuning, because the e never lurches or jerks—there’s just smooth urgent progress however binary your foot is. The fact that it’s rear-wheel-drive (key to its 50:50 weight distribution) will please the Ari Vatanens among you, and I can confirm a prod of the throttle on a wet cobbled roundabout in Valencia will result in lurid oversteer and a trouser change. And that’s with the traction control on.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

Back to carving effortlessly and peacefully through city traffic. It nails that, too. The variable-ratio steering (3.1 turns lock to lock) is light and direct, not nearly as twirly as a Fiat 500, and has a ludicrously tight 8.6-meter turning circle. It’s heavy for a supermini at over 1,500kg, but nothing instant torque can’t negate, while the low center of gravity means it doesn’t roll in corners, but rather leans gently side to side. There’s a sense of agility and enthusiasm that, let’s be honest, we were expecting, but a refinement and maturity that perhaps we weren’t.

The fully independent suspension smothers the road like something a lot bigger, and the silence in the cabin, even when you get up to and beyond 100kph, is evidence it’s been deliciously over-engineered. Honda knew it had a clean sheet of paper for this one and the world was watching.

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More buttons to play with—a choice of Normal or Sport modes for needlessly sharpening the throttle. More useful is a one-pedal mode that dials up the regen so it’s possible to stop without touching the brake. You can pick from three levels of increasingly aggressive retardation using the paddles behind the wheel. Neat solution.

PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

So, too, are camera nodules instead of wing mirrors—decreasing the car’s width, reducing overall drag and wind noise, delivering all-weather visibility—but in practice, they’re a bit rubbish. They’re mounted low and angled too far down, so you get a wonderful view of the rear wheel arch, but not the traffic following behind. Similar problems with the rearview screen—it takes your eyes precious seconds to adjust from looking down the road to a digital display 12 inches from your face. Plus, every car looks like its aggressively tailgating you. Perhaps they were trying to get a closer look inside...

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Honda calls it a lounge-style interior. It’s true, if your lounge has retro furniture and six TVs. With the squishy fabric seats in the front, a bench seat in the back, and slabs of fake wood trim, Honda has pulled off a modern, retro-infused, architect-designed vibe that just feels different to anything else out there. The screens: two six-inch displays for the wing mirrors, an 8.8-inch instrument cluster behind the wheel, the rearview display, and the two side-by-side 12.3-inch screens as the centerpiece (complete with an Elon-baiting aquarium mode). Each features six shortcuts on the outer edge and can run separate apps at the same time. Those apps can be swapped at the touch of a button.

You’ll find USB sockets everywhere, two up front, two in the rear: a 12V socket, a 230V AC power outlet, and an HDMI input. In theory, this means you plug in your Xbox and play it on the central screen. Connect it to the on-board Wi-Fi hotspot and online gaming is yours while you wait for the car to charge. Who knows? Running out of battery could become the highlight of your day. Frankly, I’m sold. Can you tell? But there is another, more familiar way to do the fashionable urban EV thing. Over to you, Tony Montana...

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

Say hello to my little electric friend.

The irony of flying transatlantic to attend the launch of a zero-emission cars built in Oxford is not lost on me. Neither is the fact that we’ve flown into Miami’s bleakest day for a generation. So, less Hawaiian shirt, more thick-knit jumper, and the Mini Electric’s 32.6kWh battery immediately concedes a couple of kilometers of range to juice the window demisters.

Another petite, retro EV. Not as cute as the Honda, is it? Like Ronaldo, the Mini has ballooned since its heyday, and it’s gotten steadily less adorable. There’s twee Brexit taillights and doe eyes, but for the plug-in Mini, no old-school chrome filler cap. A lazily blanked-off grille. You can delete the fluoro-yellow highlights. And those plug-socket-motif wheels that only make sense to Brits, because it’s a UK-spec three-pin design: optional. You get 16-inchers as standard because narrower tires eke out more range.

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The name’s confusing, too. Worldwide, this is the Mini Cooper SE. In Britain, it’s the Mini Electric, but keeps Cooper S badges. The power output—and there is only one—matches the 2.0-liter gasoline Cooper S, too: 182hp, through the front wheels. It’s slower from 0-100 than the traditional hot hatch, taking 7.3sec, but nips from zero to 30mph (48kph) in under 4sec.

PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

Now, there is a key difference between Jack’s Hello Kittymobile and my Lilliput Lane cottage on wheels, but it’s not as critical as you might think. His panda cub is a clean-sheet, bespoke-from-the-wheels-up EV. New platform, new packaging that’ll never house a combustion engine. It’s not a Jazz in a Comic-Con costume. But the Mini, of course, is a converted internal-combustion car. What the engineers have done is transplanted tech from the BMW i3, which is bespoke, brilliantly packaged—and hasn’t sold—into a much more cramped, compromised package that we all know sells by the shipload. It’s less brave than the Honda. But in the EV adoption battle, this might well be the iPod to the Honda’s Zune. [The Honda’s what?—ed] Exactly.

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Here’s why that doesn’t matter: The Honda hasn’t pressed home any kind of advantage over the Mini, despite being a product of fresh organic farmer’s market ingredients, not reheated leftovers.

The Mini’s lighter—at 1,365kg, it’s 145kg more than a Cooper S gasoline, but the same again lighter than the Honda. Despite the car riding 18mm higher (to make room for the batteries in the depths of the chassis), its center of gravity is lower than the regular Mini’s. It’s also better-balanced across all four wheels, which you can feel in the drive.

It’s much faster, too. It’s a three-door only, so access to the backseat is a pinch, but six-foot me can just squeeze behind six-foot me. The rear cargo area is larger: 211 liters. And though prices roll past £30,000 (P1.9 million) for the top-spec 3 model seen here complete with Harman-Kardon hi-fi, reversing camera, and leather seats, the entry-level Mini Electric 1 starts at £24,400 (P1.55 million) after the government backhander. So, you bag a quicker, more spacious car with 15-30km more real-world range, for a lower price. So much for the Honda’s ambitious clean sheet. Game, set, and match point to the Anglo-Kraut.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

But the Mini double-faults on the cabin. Can retro cars date? Right now, the Mini is in the uncanny area between cool and kitsch. The fundamentals, obviously, remain bang on: The driving position is low, straight-legged, and thoroughly sports car, chunky wheel reaching out to meet your grasp. However, against the Honda’s screen bank, the oblong screen awkwardly jammed into the circular bezel where the giant speedo used to sit just looks plain wrong. The screen itself is fabulous: sharp, fast, and operable either with finger touch or BMW iDrive. Proper best-of-both-worlds for typing and swiping. But the design just looks odd.

There’s this odd mix of great tech and pastiche touches. The i3’s one-pedal regen is employed, but to switch the car from max energy-capture to coast, it’s not a paddle shifter but one of the unsighted toggle switches you use. The new digi-screen behind the steering wheel is great, but it strictly displays only speed and trip data—no nav map or smartphone media, and none of the Honda e-aster eggs.

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Mini’s gimmick has always been a sincere one: handling. You put up with a somewhat boisterous ride, but score an alert, puppy-dog enthusiasm for corners matched with grown-up refinement. The Electric is different—you sense the dampers heaving under the extra flab, working hard to keep the body in check...but they do. And though it’s not quite as chuckable as the gasoline one, you’ve got to concentrate hard to notice. It’s a properly rounded EV, this, not just a drag-race one-trick pony.

PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

And thanks to fiendishly clever traction control inherited from—you guessed it, the i3—wheelspin is nixed predictively when you mash the throttle, not reactively with wasteful stabs of brake. I’m not a roundabout drift king, then, but I’ll get back to the airport without a 3.5-hour wallbox recharge.

On the way, I can see behind me, because I have conventional mirrors, not selfie cameras. That pretty much sums up this car, and how it may lose the cuteness battle but win the sales war against the precious Honda. The Mini is tried and tested. Some of it’s been blooded in the far more radical BMW i3, but the bits you see and touch are all surefire crowd pleasers. And on previous form, those are the tactics that weather the storm.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni
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