Having just said goodbye to a very tumultuous 2020, test driving one of the newest electric cars on the limited Australian EV market was, to say the least, not a bad way to start 2021.
Even more so perhaps because the particular EV in question was the new all-electric Mini, which officially launched in Australia in mid-2020.
It may be a small car, but with its feisty electric drivetrain and Mini DNA to boot, it proved without a doubt it could fit right in from the NSW North Coast to in amongst the bling (and the high-performance vehicles) that personifies Australia’s Gold Coast.
The Mini Electric Hatch, otherwise known as the Cooper SE, is BMW’s first pure electric vehicle under the Mini badge, and it bears all the DNA of the iconic British brand amplifying its big personality.
It is priced in Australia from $59,900 and is one of the shorter-range vehicles on the market with a 32.6kWh battery and 233km range according to the European WLTP cycle (in real-world driving this ends up at about 180km).
Although price-wise it sits not far below longer-range EVs such as the Hyundai Kona Electric and the Tesla Model 3, its distinctive Mini styling and compact three-door body offers instead a pure electric option for those after a small car that stands out from the crowd.
Arriving atop a flatbed in the Northern Rivers of NSW amid the typical uncertainties that Covid-19 thrust upon travel in 2020 meant that I had the opportunity to take the Mini on a short road trip while on holiday, and try out the legendary go-kart handling that Mini has sought to imbue into the electric drivetrain both on the highway and in the Big Bling (aka Gold Coast).
But first, I had to top up the charge – while it is around 90km from home to our stay on the Gold Coast, and the Mini had about 140km range according to the dashboard I’d prefer to be better safe than sorry, particularly with an electric car I’ve not driven before.
And so to the local Chargefox Ballina fast charger I headed and got my first experience of why it is considered a “conversation car” as a fellow plug-in hybrid owner who couldn’t go past his first time sighting a Mini Electric stopped for an enthusiastic chat.
Crossing the Queensland border the next day drew another reaction: while explaining why I had Victorian plates and an NSW licence heading into Queensland during a pandemic, the electric Mini did its own job of impressing border control staff who saw us off with wide grins.
Reactions aside, my early impressions that this is a vehicle that offers a fun driving experience both on and off the highway were not let down.
As a friend who recently bought the Mini Cooper SE described to me: “You know when you ask yourself if you can make that tight lane change in busy traffic? The answer is always yes!”
I was assured that of the four driving modes on offer (Sport, Mid, Green and Green+), Sport was the one to choose – it opens up the throttle to throw you back in the seat when you put the foot down at the lights – although to be honest, even the Mid has enough oomph to impress. Switching to Green will reduce energy consumed by auxiliary systems such as climate control to gain a few more kilometres of range if needed.
The Mini’s tight handling is quick to respond, as is its take-off – on the highway, it overtakes trucks nimbly and belies its diminutive size as its instant torque allows it to zip ahead (I loved this – I hate driving next to trucks on the highway and this made the overtaking all the more gratifying).
The experience was equally enjoyable once we hit holiday traffic – leaving Porsches and Maseratis for dust at traffic lights in this little EV is deeply satisfying.
Mini’s regenerative braking demands one-pedal driving – as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, the car will slow down to optimise energy recovery.
While I take easily to this type of driving (the Leaf also drives this way), I was disappointed by the absence of adaptive cruise control on the highway which would have made the constant attention to other traffic speed that much easier.
Once at our destination, we still had around 50km left in the battery according to the status display. However, we were glad we topped up at Ballina because both the NRMA charger at Byron Bay’s The Farm and the RACQ charger near Coolangatta airport were both out of action – it was a shame to see both chargers on this route during the busy holiday period down at the same time.
Thankfully the reception staff at our stay said we could use a powerpoint in the parking lot to recharge – and as luck would have it, there was one right next to our designated spot (I had in our rush to leave neglected to pack a Tesla adapter that would have meant we could use numerous AC charging sites on the Gold Coast).
A word of warning though: once plugged in the Mini assumed we were charging at the top AC rate of 11kW, when in fact it would have been only 2kW.
Dutifully asking a teenager to unplug at the time the Mini said it would be full without checking the battery status caught us off guard the next day when we realised we had only gained 25 more kilometres of range and needed to charge overnight the next night to be able to get home.
Inside, the electric Mini is surprisingly spacious – well, for the front row at least and as long as you don’t have more than one passenger. I had two, my 14 and 16-year-old sons. There was a dot of negotiation as the older 6’2″ one traded a half-inch of knee space for some jellybeans.
The retro-style jukebox interior was a winner also – combined with the first foot on the pedal take-off, both drew the admiration of my 14-year-old who immediately asked how much the electric Mini costs and pronounced he wanted to buy one.
Personally, I liked the touches like the changing semi-circle of colour (blue for vehicle settings, orange for navigation and green for music), plus the fact you can access the weather (once set up via the Mini smartphone app) and even have the news read out to you as you drive.
Connecting my iPhone to the Mini’s BlueTooth was simple, and using Apple CarPlay to access my Spotify account, combined with the easy-to-use voice control (there’s a button on the steering wheel) I was in connectivity heaven, aside from the fact I didn’t find time to connect the smartphone app.
Navigation, music, vehicle settings and even maintenance notices can be accessed using voice control.
One thing that I noticed, however, was the prominence of petrol stations in the navigation display, while we accessed DC and AC charger locations, which weren’t up-to-date, via the voice control (this no doubt can also be done through the circular touch screen display).
Queried about this, a spokesperson for Mini said in a note by email that, “The Mini Electric’s touchscreen or voice control system is continuously updated with the latest navigation data supplied by the factory. Also, it can also be paired up to your smartphone and accessed via the Mini Connected app. The software will be continuously updated, so the latest batch of EV chargers should be reflected with upcoming software updates.”
Design on the outside of the vehicle is well-considered, although perhaps the plug icon used for both the wheels and badges on the car will only signal to the initiated that this is an electric car. The British flag design of the rear lights brought over from Mini’s OCE vehicles is of course also a nice touch, as is the Mini logo which shines on the ground next to the driver’s door when the vehicle is unlocked.
There is no doubt at all – as the car maker’s marketing slogan expounds: “It’s a Mini!”
This article has been updated with information about navigation data and software updates via the Mini Connected smartphone app.
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.