(Bloomberg) — Last Saturday, after the first day of Formula E races in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Red Hook section, when the heat had so baked into the city’s asphalt it felt like the inside of a cast-iron pot, I, too, was able to get behind the wheel of the future: the all-electric Mini Cooper SE.
BMW Group’s next shot at the all-electric, daily driving market for the masses—its 2013 release of the i3 city car was an underpowered flop—is positioned as a $36,400 challenger to the Tesla Model 3, the current segment leader.
I drove a near-production prototype for some laps on the 2.5-mile track built to host the Formula E cars all weekend and can safely report: It’s a Mini. It’s neither imposing to behold nor bold from behind the wheel. What you expect is what you get, minus a bill at the pump.
Mini Cooper SE: The Looks
With its endearing round headlights, the miniature two-door, rear-hatch body, and the friendly flat roof of every Mini you’ve come to know and love, the brand-new electric Mini Cooper SE is as familiar as ever, down to the premium accoutrements that come standard: LED headlamps, multizone automatic air conditioning, auxiliary heating, electric parking, and connected navigation looped through a futuristic central and very Mini-esque round touchscreen.
Some differences: The body of the new Mini Cooper sits 18 millimeters (less than an inch) higher than its counterparts, due to some engineering requirements for placement of the electric battery and motor. And it has short overhangs and widely set wheels to set it apart as the first purely electrically powered Mini, though I don’t expect you’ll notice right away—I certainly didn’t. The production version will offer three different trim levels and a host of sporty color mixes.
There will also be a distinctive sound created especially for the Mini Cooper SE, generated via a speaker system that guarantees “an acoustic presence on the road that is typical of Mini,” as BMW puts it.
Mini Cooper SE: The Performance
That evening in Brooklyn, I didn’t hear anything. And due to the controlled nature of the session—it was a lead-and-follow exercise with a few fellow journalists—I can’t speak to the day-to-day nature of this little beaut. But the 181-horsepower front-wheel-drive coupe has the acceleration (zero-62 mph in 7.3 seconds), low center of gravity, and intense agility of a go-kart, even if the top speed is limited to a paltry 93.2 mph. I can hit that on my buddy’s Vespa.
Speed aside, I liked how the 135-kilowatt battery sits deep in the car, so there’s no obstructions along the bottom center of the floor, and the luggage compartment at the back is just as welcoming and spacious as that of any other Mini. Four driving modes, including Sport and Green, enhanced the experience as I twisted the Mini around the track; I selected them via a switch located on the right side of the starting button.
While charging capacities went untested during the event—BMW says it can hit 80% charge in 35 minutes—I can, however, vouch that the regenerative braking on the Mini Cooper SE is much improved over the nausea-inducing version I suffered in an earlier prototype years ago. Where those were so abrupt it felt like whiplash every time I lifted my foot off the gas, these were almost smooth.
What’s more, you can adjust the amount of braking regeneration (read: the level of abruptness) you want to deal with on any given drive by playing with the toggle switch positioned to the left of the start/stop switch. It means you can drive with just one foot, if you want, allowing the car to slow and even stop by just letting off the gas.
All this with battery range of 168 miles, so the electric Mini Cooper SE heralds the electrified vehicle most feasible as a daily driver yet from a BMW Group brand. It will go on sale in early 2020.