Martin Gurdon

What it’s like to drive the new Mini Electric

What it's like to drive the new Mini Electric
The new Mini Electric
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Most electric cars no longer look peculiar, and the battery powered Mini is a good example of this.

Go back a decade and electric cars were either tiny city vehicles with crude, shed like bodies or bigger and a bit weird. The original Nissan Leaf had the contours of a giant child’s shoe. The current, less outre one looks like a Micra after a heavy lunch.

Before Tesla made electric cars desirable, motor manufacturers didn’t see them as commercial propositions, and paid lip service with prototypes that were about as appealing as a thorn twig scourge. Now the legislative and commercial landscape has changed, and the rush is on to turn electric cars into every day consumer durables.

So, the electric Mini has the familiar rounded front end, bug eyed headlamps, sawn off profile and styling tropes that pay aesthetic tribute to the 1959 original. The instruments and controls aren’t radically different, looking as if they’ve been inspired variously by Italian coffee making devices and 1950s mantlepiece clocks, although everything is easy enough to read and find.

The three-door only car can seat four grown-ups in a compact, bijou cabin. The compactness is particularly noticeable in the rear, where lounging about room has never been a Mini strong point. Nor has boot space, but the back seat up, 211 litres offered is no worse than the standard version.

Mini has cleverly re-engineered a car not designed from the ground up as an electric vehicle. Its batteries and ancillaries live under the back seats and where the fuel tank and exhaust used to be.

It’s a great deal better than the electric Minis briefly offered a dozen years ago. Where the back seats originally went was a large, carpeted hump containing enormous batteries and behind that vestigial luggage space with room for an anorexic sponge bag.

That car sounded like a dentist’s drill, went like stink and scuttled round corners with the verve of a roller skate. Today’s version no longer sounds offensive but is equally entertaining, with sharp, accurate steering helped by firm suspension that sometimes creates knobbly riding characteristics.

Internal combustion engines expend quite a lot of energy driving bits of themselves. Electric motors, with very few moving parts, do not, and this 184hp car’s lack of mechanical inertia and instant power are rather appealing. 0-62 takes 7.3sec, which is similar to the hooliganistic turbo petrol Cooper S.

There are three basic trim levels, and the usual blizzard of options. Electric Minis come with a sat nav that keeps an eye on charging stations and battery power, and will offer to re-route to one if it feels that the car is going to expire for want of amps.

The Cooper S I drove behaved like a regular automatic and had a quartet of power delivery modes controlled by a dashboard switch. Lift your foot from the accelerator and the motor charges the batteries as it slows. The fiercer the engine ‘braking’ the more juice is generated, and once you get used to the slightly unnerving feeling of speed being rapidly scrubbed off, you barely touch the brakes. This makes town driving in particular less fraught.

Mini is claiming the car will travel 145 miles between charges (about half an equivalent conventional car’s range), and this will be less if it’s very cold or hot and you make free with wipers, lights, air conditioning, etc.

So the Mini electric is a car for short, urban commutes rather than camping holidays in Cornwall.

Charging times vary from 12 hours from a domestic, three pin plug, to a little over three hours for a garage wall unit. Find a fast charging point, and electrical replenishment is yours in under forty minutes.

The public charging station network is a bit of a Klondike free-for-all of competing providers, and being a technophobe with a wind up mobile phone, I’ve yet to make one work, not having a child available to show me how.

Other people manage, and many electric car owners adore them. I liked the battery Mini. It’s fun and on paper a user friendly car, but living with it would require a greater degree of compromise than its conventional siblings. I suspect that equation is already changing as the technology matures, but it hasn’t changed yet.