Right now, there are two kinds of electric cars: Those that most people can afford, and those that people are actually excited to own and drive. Sat between these two poles is a soft, nougat-y center that, as far as I can tell, no automaker seems particularly interested in drilling into. Except, maybe, for Mini.
Much of the conversation surrounding the battery-electric Cooper SE concerns its range, which I can understand. Whether 110 miles is enough for most Americans — or, more crucially, whether they think it is — the fact of the matter is that limitation will immediately strike it from many shoppers’ short lists.
But enough has been said about the SE’s distance on a charge, and I don’t want to dwell on that here. I want to talk about the SE’s worth as a hot hatch. OK, maybe more like a warm hatch. Because, as someone who daily drives a Fiesta ST, I fear that cheap, joyful, shoe-shaped grocery-getters are exactly the kind of vehicles being left behind as electrification takes root. This Mini has my best interests in mind, when every other EV has told me my interests are wrong. For that, it deserves my attention.
Earlier this week, I got to know the Cooper SE for a solid hour-and-a-half in and around BMW’s Performance Center at the Thermal Club in California. Our initial meeting took place on an autocross track, which is the ideal environment for a Mini — especially one with instant torque that tops out at 93 MPH. My only pre-flight adjustment was to put the little guy in Sport mode, and we were off to the races.
The Cooper SE weighs a tick under 3,100 pounds. That’s a lot for a car like this — some 260 pounds more than a regular Cooper S — but it’s also not as much as it could’ve been if the SE had the range everyone knocks it for lacking. Those batteries are placed low and centrally, in a “T” formation between the front passengers and under the rear ones. Still, mass is mass, and the SE can’t help but throw its weight around, squatting and rolling upon corner entry when you ask everything of the front tires.
But the steering remains tight as ever, and the drama is part of the fun. The SE still feels like a Mini, just a heftier one that’s ironically more eager to go. I had a blast on our autocross date. The computers forbid you from smoking it off the line, but in Sport mode they’ll still let you get nice and loose in the turns and inject on-demand torque to skitter around or straighten things out at your discretion.
On the canyon roads, I had time to notice other qualities — some more welcome than others. Coming from my Fiesta, I unsurprisingly lamented having no excuse to move my left foot or right hand with regularity. The pull of regeneration when letting off the throttle is another aspect of EVs I keep thinking I’ll come to terms with, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Some folks, like our old pal Justin Westbrook, who drove the Cooper SE when it originally launched, get down with the whole one-pedal driving shtick. There’s very little coasting in autocross, so I didn’t notice it on the track. Once I was on the street though, I opted for the low-regen mode as soon as I could locate the toggle for it (it’s positioned immediately left of the start/stop switch). This almost gave the SE the off-throttle momentum of a gas-powered car, but it’s the best I was going to get as the regen can’t be turned off entirely. Also, there’s arguably no point to owning an EV if you can’t put up with it.
The SE has hustle, with 181 horsepower and 191 lb-ft of torque, allowing it to complete the sprint to 60 MPH in nearly seven seconds flat. But it’s the oomph that kicks in for passes and highway merges that will especially surprise you if you’re coming from another baby hot hatch. It’s an unexpected sensation when sitting in the cabin of a Mini, because occupants aren’t given a wealth of reminders in the SE that this happens to be the electric one.
Sure, there’s a fixation on highlighter yellow trim in places. And the instrument panel — which takes the form of a pill-shaped screen with a nice, readability-enhancing matte finish — is dominated by information on range and charge use. But the SE’s interior is weird, not because it’s an EV, but because it’s a Mini. And I like that about it.
I like the ring of RGB LEDs encircling the infotainment screen that dance when you adjust practically anything in the car, even climate-control fan speed and media volume. I like the optional tweed seats and funky door handles, which have the lock and unlock buttons on the part you lift, something I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before. And even in Sport mode, the ride is comfortable enough and reasonably quiet for a car like this — no squeaks or rattles like I’m all too accustomed to hearing in my car. It’s a charming and nice but not luxurious setting, like all hot hatch interiors should be.
It’s also affordable! With no options, the base model costs $30,750 including destination — but that’s before you deduct the $7,500 federal tax credit. Getting into an EV for about $23,000 doesn’t sound like a bad deal at all, especially when the EV in question is actually fun to drive.
That brings me back around to the question I had asked myself before I got into the Cooper SE: Could I part with my Fiesta ST for it? Hell no. My car’s just more fun, even when you take the third pedal out of the equation. And yeah — 110 miles is about 40 or 50 short of what my personal range anxiety will allow me to accept. Call me part of the problem, I get it.
But here’s the thing: I know the SE’s heart is in the right place, and that’s more than I could say for its peers. When Mini returns in a couple of years with a new EV, ideally designed to be electric from the outset with batteries that can go further on a charge given the same weight penalty, that one will be harder to ignore. By then, I also hope it’s still not the only electric hot hatch fighting the good fight.