by Frank A. AukoferA vivid reminder of how far electric vehicles have progressed in a relatively short time is to compare the 2021 MINI Cooper SE Hardtop two-door with its predecessor.

It’s not widely known except by the cognoscenti, but Great Britain’s MINI delivered an electric MINI 11 years ago. The company brought one to the Los Angeles Auto Show and sponsored drives by journalists, including this one.

Though all of the driving was in LA’s traffic, the MINI had the moves of a fairly well developed electric car — instant torque, or twisting force, because electric motors deliver their maximum torque as soon as they are switched on, unlike internal combustion engines that need to build rpms to attain the same thing. It was the perfect bitty car for shooting holes in traffic.

The big drawback was that, given the state of the art of battery power then, the electric MINI hatchback was a two-seater. The battery pack, built up from more than 5,000 small batteries, weighed more than 550 pounds and took up the entire back seat space.

Called the MINI E, it was an experiment. Only 500 were built and leased in 2009 to selected individuals in California, New Jersey and New York.

The year before, the Tesla Roadster, from the company founded by Elon Musk, made its debut in the marketplace. It was followed by the Mitsubishi iMIEV and the Nissan Leaf. Since then almost every manufacturer on the planet has developed an electric vehicle, as well as hybrids and plug-in hybrids.

Now we have the 2021 MINI Cooper SE, introduced as a 2020. It’s a two-door hatchback, not unlike that 2009 model. But its lithium-ion battery pack lies under the floor, so there’s space for four passengers. However, it’s still a MINI that is just 12 feet 7 inches long with 80 cubic feet of space for passengers and 9 cubic feet for cargo under the rear hatch. 

The front seats are supportive and comfortable enough for a long trip, though folks in back likely would start squirming and protesting after awhile. Surprisingly, given its short subcompact stature, the MINI SE has a surprisingly supple ride, soaking up bumps and uneven pavement without getting out of shape.

Of course, it also carves corners with aplomb. But as with the 2009 E, the 2021’s forte is the cut and thrust of traffic, both on city streets and crowded freeways. It can nail 60 mph from rest in a less than seven seconds and the throttle response is instant. Punch the pedal at a stoplight and you’ll quickly be looking at the big-bore bad boys in your mirrors.

One electric motor powered by the 32.6 kWh battery pack makes 181 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque to drive the front wheels. The transmission is a single-speed automatic because electric motors don’t actually need transmissions.

The MINI SE’s system is nearly identical to the one in Germany’s BMW i3 electric — no surprise because BMW owns MINI. Like the i3, the MINI has an aggressive regenerative braking system that enables so-called one-pedal driving. Lift your foot off the accelerator and the MINI immediately slows down as if the driver had hit the brakes. Time it correctly and you can drive to a stop without touching the brake pedal.

On the MINI, however, you can use a toggle switch (what else on a British car?) on the dash to select low or high regenerative braking. Using either enhances the range. Still, the maximum range, according to the EPA, is 110 miles — not the worst nor best among current electrics—and gives the MINI a city/highway/combined miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) of 115/100/108.

You can also select from four drive modes: Sport, Mid, Green and Green Plus. The Sport mode makes the MINI feel quicker and more responsive. Mid is a balanced setting and Green and Green Plus help battery charging in concert with the regenerative braking. The downside is that Green Plus switches off battery-depleting systems like automatic climate control. Charging up to 80% can take as little as 36 minutes with a high-speed charger.

Like its immediate 2020 SE predecessor, the 2021 model has an arresting look. The tester was done up with an off-white body and a black top with yellow accents that included the outside mirrors as well as front and rear trim. An older woman, unsolicited, pronounced it as the cutest car she had ever seen.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 MINI Cooper SE Hardtop 2 Door electric hatchback.
  • Motor: Single electric with 32.6 kWh battery pack; 181 hp, 199 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Single-speed automatic.
  • Overall length: 12 feet 7 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 80/9 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,153 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined miles per gallon equivalent: 115/100/108 MPGe. 
  • Range: Up to 110 miles. 
  • Base price, including destination charge: $30,750.
  • Price as tested: $37,750.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) MINI