Want to know how far electric cars have come in the last decade? Just ask the Mini Electric. Both of them. The first arrived in 2008, a test bed rather than a production car. Mini built 500 and leased them to human guinea pigs in the US—the beginning of a data-and-opinion harvest that would inform the launch of the BMW i family five years later and every electrified BMW since.
Fast-forward 11 years, and you might expect performance and range to have grown handsomely, but I’m staring at the spec sheet for the new 2019 Mini Electric, and you’d be wrong: 204hp (2008) plays 181hp (2019); the range was 241km then, 232km now; 0-100kph in 8.5sec in the old one, 7.5sec today.
What has changed is price and practicality—the batteries on the old one were, er, chunky. Chunky enough to swallow the entire rear cargo area and the backseat. The new Mini Electric, with its 32kWh T-shaped lithium-ion battery slipped under the floor, is still 160kg heavier than a Cooper S, but you get the same (read: still cramped) rear cargo area and seat space, and with prices starting at £24,400 (around P1.56 million) after the government grant in the UK, it costs £500 (about P32,000) less than an equivalently spec’d Cooper S, too. This is significant.
There’s a reason there’s an armada of small, affordable, everyday electric cars—the majority with ‘e’ grafted onto their badges—coming our way in the next six months. Stuff like the VW ID.3, the Peugeot e-208, and the Honda e—y’know, the ones we might actually be able to afford. We’ve reached a tipping point, where battery size and cost has reduced to the point where cars like this, with a little help from Her Majesty’s Government, can be priced in line with gasoline or diesel equivalents. And because most people with an interest in EVs have been ogling I-Paces, Teslas, and e-trons, without the wedge to actually buy one, there’s pent-up demand.
It’s taken a while, then, but Mini has made the sums add up...but only by positioning this car carefully. Firstly, you’ll only be able to buy it as a three-door—Mini’s best-selling body style. Fair enough. There will be only one power and performance level: 0-80% top-up in 35min from a 50kW DC charger, 181hp, 270Nm, FWD, totally insignificant 150kph top speed, which puts it in the Cooper S bracket for performance. That explains the trunklid’s Cooper S badge (despite it not actually featuring anywhere in the car’s name) and the fake air-scooped Cooper S hood.
Then we come to the WLTP range of 232km, only a handful more than the Honda e’s. It’ll be less than that in the real world, of course, because most of us won’t have the bottle to ever dip below 20% charge. It’s the same thinking as the Honda—fit a smaller battery and spend the money on stuff that matters, like interior quality and equipment—but when you can have an electric 208 with over 320km for a bit more money, the range feels a little mean.
Mini has resisted the temptation to over-tinker with the design. Want a spaceship? There’s already the BMW i3 for that. Your opportunity to make a statement is the optional 17-inch asymmetrical Corona wheels, lifted straight from the concept (anyone else seeing a three-pin plug?). Smaller changes include a new largely blanked-off front grille, protruding by an extra 17mm and striped in Energetic Yellow, although you can switch back to body color if you suffer from sensitive retinas.
The front and rear bumpers are a unique, slippery design to eke out a few extra kilometers—no splitters or Sport packs here—and you get LED lights front and back as standard. Get your ruler out and you’ll note that the car rides 15mm higher than the regular car—a necessary evil to fit those batteries in—although extended wheel arches disguise the damage.
Inside, it’s the first Mini with a new floating digital instrument screen behind the wheel—something that’ll be rolled out on all its models when their replacements arrive. A consumption dial, to let you know how leaden your right foot is, sits on the left, battery charge is on the right, and the whole thing is wrapped in an anti-glare coating that, while necessary on a sunny day, is a bit like looking at your vitals through a frosted bathroom window.
A mildly different center console features an electronic handbrake—a first for the three-door—while the dashboard houses toggle switches for adjusting the level of brake regen, flipping between Sport, Mid, and Green driving modes, and turning the traction control off.
Mini is open about this being very much a chassis designed for a combustion engine, modified to make batteries and motors fit...fortunately, that made its goal of making it drive as close to a Cooper S as possible infinitely simpler. There are tweaks to the suspension to account for the extra height and weight, and a new ARB system that’s supposedly three times faster than traditional DSC to eliminate wheelspin when you stomp on it at the lights, but the fundamentals are shared.
Frankly, I’m amazed I’ve managed to find quite so many words to talk about a car that’s familiar in every regard, besides a powertrain transplant. Hell, Mini’s even found a way to build it on the same production line in Oxford as the gasoline and diesel versions—marrying the batteries, motor, and power electronics in the exact same way the engine and the transmission meets the chassis. So, let’s embrace our sense of wonder for everyday electric cars while we still can; another decade and they’ll be the norm.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.