Plug-in Mini’s more mean than green
MINI'S first plug-in hybrid wraps hot hatch get-up-and-go in a green mantle. The Cooper S E Countryman All4, due to reach Australia in March or April, is a speedy little SUV that's also a part-time electric vehicle.
When the three-cylinder engine driving its front wheels and the electric motor connected to the rear wheels are working together, the Mini delivers serious shove in the back. The plug-in has standing start acceleration to rival the hottest model in the existing Countryman range, the John Cooper Works.
The pace of the electrified Countryman isn't really a complete surprise; it's propelled by basically the same set-up as the $300,000 BMW i8 supercar. The Mini brand is owned by BMW.
The Australian price of the Countryman plug-in hasn't been announced, but Mini's European pricing policy points to about $60,000.
In BMW's sleek, scissor-doored 2+2 coupe the turbo engine and its transmission are behind the cabin and the electric drive is to the front wheels. These positions are reversed in the plug-in Countryman but its turbocharged triple engine and electric induction motor are each closely related to the i8's - they're just toned down a little for the Mini.
Set up for the Countryman, BMW's perky 1.5-litre delivers up to 100kW through a six-speed auto. Maximum output of the punchy electric motor is 65kW, driving through a simple single-speed transmission.
There's a 36L fuel tank for the engine and the 7.6kWh lithium-ion battery beneath the rear seat stores electricity for the motor.
Choosing to drive electric is simple. On the dash, below the big circular centre dial, is a switch to toggle through the car's three modes. Select Max eDrive and the E Countryman will run at up to 125km/h solely on battery until charge drops to near empty.
In Auto eDrive, the car operates as a hybrid. It can reach 80km/h on electric power in this mode but relies mostly on the petrol engine, which shuts down when the accelerator is released and when stationary to save fuel.
The Save Battery mode uses the engine to propel the car and to recharge the battery to 90 per cent. This increases fuel consumption but preserves or improves battery charge for use when needed.
It's a mode designed for Europe, where plug-in vehicles are permitted in some city zones and conventional cars are forbidden or obliged to pay a fee.
Regardless of the selected mode, fully flooring the accelerator will always prompt the E Countryman to deliver maximum engine and motor power for that impressively eager wide-open throttle performance.
The electric motor helps get it off the line smartly and the throaty turbo triple contributes more and more as speed increases. It's faster than the typical small SUV and its sharply responsive steering and good road grip also make it more fun to drive.
The sporty suspension, however, also means it doesn't ride the bumps with great comfort.
The E Countryman's electric motor, mounted under the rear floor, slightly reduces cargo volume. Some will find the interior style overdone, though the five-seat passenger compartment is reasonably roomy and versatile.
Judged on plug-in prowess, however, the electrified Countryman isn't brilliant. Its relatively small battery means electric-only range isn't great, especially in colder weather.
ON THE ROAD
The Cooper S E Countryman All4 has been on sale in the UK since the middle of 2017. So we borrowed one there for the chilly Christmas and New Year period and racked up more than 800km over a fortnight.
Recharged each night, the Mini typically covered 20km-30km on battery power alone before switching automatically to Auto eDrive mode and firing up its engine.
Via the car's central screen it was easy to bring it up to charge using off-peak power or to prepare the interior temperature for a selected departure time.
If the Countryman is plugged in, preheating the interior draws grid power and noticeably extends the electric driving range - but even using this handy feature, the Mini could get nowhere near its claimed 40km electric range. Perhaps in milder weather it might.
The short range meant only 35 per cent of the total distance covered could be driven using only battery power, despite diligent recharging. Still, it was worth doing.
The 95 octane fuel required by the Mini costs the equivalent of $2.25 a litre in the UK, while electricity is a little less expensive there than in much of Australia.
This means the energy cost per kilometre driven on electricity was half the price of burning petrol in hybrid mode.
Consumption in Auto eHybrid mode was about 8.0L/100km.
In Australia, where petrol is much less expensive, the economic advantages will be much less. And the relatively short electric driving range also limits the environmental benefits.
So the first electrified Mini, paradoxically, works better as sporty-driver than a planet-saver.
E BY GUM
The "e" badges near the Countryman plug-in's front wheels aren't just decoration. The one on the left is the cover for the car's charging port. It takes the industry standard Type 2 (or Mennekes) plug. Charging from a home power point takes a little more than three hours, less with a more powerful Mini wallbox.
BMW, owner of the Mini brand, uses exactly the same plug-in hybrid powertrain as the electrified Countryman in one of its own products. But the BMW 225xe Active Tourer, a small people-mover, isn't sold in Australia.
MINI COOPER S E COUNTRYMAN ALL4
PRICE $60,000 (est)
SAFETY 5 stars
ENGINE 1.5-litre 3-cyl turbo, synchronous induction motor, 165kW/385Nm
0-100KM/H 6.8 secs