Mini Countryman Cooper S E preview: Mini’s first electric hybrid hits the road

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By its own management’s admission the Mini brand has overstretched itself. Like a greedy child with eyes bigger than its belly, the once maker of an uber-compact car has seen its range balloon. Now Mini makes a whole host of options, including cabrios, coupes, a little estate, and an SUV.

The last of which is the “Maxi Mini”, better known by its badge as the Mini Countryman, which has been refreshed for 2017 and is now a whopping 20cm longer than the first-generation model (hardly “Mini”, eh?). But that’s not the big take-away for the 2017 Countryman. Because for the first time in the company’s history Mini has introduced a hybrid.

Say hello to the Mini Countryman Cooper S E. Yes, it’s something of a mouthful to say, but that all-important “E” is there to signify “electric”, just in case you were wondering. But – and having come away with mixed impressions having driven the Countryman in petrol S trim – is the hybrid as electric to drive as its E-stamped name would suggest?

So why expand the range even further, when Mini’s management has stated it now wants to calm things down and simplify?

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For the past 10 years one trend has dominated the car world: the growth of SUVs and their more car-like twin, the so-called crossover. But the next big trend – and the one that’s likely to dominate the next decade – is the so-called electrification of cars. That industry speaks for the addition of battery-powered models, creating either pure battery EVs or, by putting a petrol engine and some batteries alongside an electric motor, a plug-in hybrid.

The Mini Countryman S E is a vehicle designed to ride the wave of both these trends. Its SUV qualities mean it’s higher riding, with a commanding a driving position, along with the extra space that many drivers want from a car. Meanwhile, the 1.5 litre petrol engine and 88hp electric motor mean it’s capable of going 25 miles on electric power alone, while officially producing 49 g/km of CO2 emissions.

The Countryman S E has some other impressive numbers up its sleeve. Lobbing the petrol and the electric motor into one drivetrain gives it a combined output of 224hp. That’s more than the regular petrol Cooper S – making this the best performing Countryman in the range, bar the John Cooper Works. It can haul its (slightly awkward-looking) posterior to 62-miles per hour in 6.8 seconds. And because the electric motor works on the back axle, and the petrol on the front, the Countryman gets to retain its All4 four-wheel drive capabilities.

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Mini nerds and petrolheads may be amused to hear that this is actually the first Mini that can be called rear-wheel drive. Well, when running in purely electric mode, anyway. It can do 25 miles on battery without needing the petrol engine at all.

Charging the battery back up at home should take three hours, 15 minutes from empty to full, says Mini. That’s something we can’t test just yet.

One number that you won’t be able to escape is the price. The Cooper S E is priced someway above others in the range, starting at £31,574 – although you do currently get £2,500 off this price through the UK government’s plugged-in cars grant. Mini also points out that for company car drivers in the 40 per cent tax bracket, a Cooper S E will save them over £100 in tax, versus the regular Cooper D diesel. But the Cooper D list prices at £23,000. So do your sums carefully – especially if you’re buying privately.

Numbers are one thing, but it’s actually out on the road where the Cooper S E impresses.

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Mini bigs-up its products as fun to drive, even emphasising sporty go-kart feel through the interface displays and language. Calling a one-and-a-half tonne SUV a go-kart goes beyond the pale, so the Cooper S E never truly feels fun to drive in a way its hatchback brothers do.

However, despite the weight of the batteries on board, the Cooper S E does feel “chuckable”. The steering is hefty, and the weight of those batteries we believe actually settles the ride down. This S E model was distinctly less crashy when compared to the Cooper S petrol we drove at the car’s launch. Smaller wheels and the weight of the batteries and rear motor no doubt help this.

But the real star of the show is the powertrain, with that electric motor zipping you away with a real urgency. The standard 6-speed auto gearbox is unobtrusive in the way it shuffles the power when the petrol-engine kicks in, too. You will know when that happens, because the 1.5-litre is a 3-cylinder, as used in the Mini Cooper, and it’s got a throaty throb that’s characteristic of a 3-cylinder engine set up. Yet while it can’t offer the refinement of a BMW, its slightly more audible character suits the Mini quite well. One caveat is that we spent little time in this Mini on a motorway, which is when you’re more likely to have the engine as a constant background sound, so we’re unable to say how well it truly copes in that scenario.

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Like the BMW 530e, the powertrain can be run in three modes, selected via toggling through them via a button that sits next to the giant, yellow-coloured starter switch. Max EDrive keeps things electric for 25 miles and up to 45mph; Auto EDrive (the default starting mode) mixes petrol and electric power, but if you’re gentle with the accelerator or are pootling around town, you won’t find it hard to keep things all electric; Save Battery mode does what is says on the tin, bringing in the petrol unit to conserve battery charge for a later point in the journey.

Floor the accelerator, however, and the car will give you both power sources in pretty much all these modes. Around town and out in the country that translates as the Countryman Cooper S E being a willing accomplice – and certainly more fun to drive than many other crossovers at this level, if not quite the go-kart that Mini would have you believe.

Working out which cars are the Countryman’s rivals is a notably tricky job.

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In size terms, with its new found length, it’s heading towards Nissan Qashqai size – but it certainly doesn’t feel like that inside. And those batteries do unfortunately rob you of most of the underfloor boot space you find in the petrol and diesel Countryman models. Nissan don’t offer a plug-in hybrid Qashqai, so the only real rival in powertrain terms is Mitsubishi’s ubiquitous Outlander PHEV, which offers 33 miles of pure electric range and much more space for less cash.

So where does this leave the Mini? Well, rather like any other Mini, it’s a car you’ll only think about buying because your heart wants it. It’s not a pure logic purchase.

Loving it might be a bit of an issue, though, given that it’s blessed with a face only a mother could love. Perhaps you’ll find its design less awkward than we do, but what most people will enjoy is the high quality interior and materials, premium package options and the class-leading and easy-to-use infotainment system – with an 8.8-inch wide screen display, connected services and the option of a head-up display.

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The Mini is certainly a special place to sit, even more so than some bigger and more premium name rivals such as the BMW X1. And the Mini feels quite sophisticated and premium, so long as you can get on board with the circular design theme.

First Impressions

In many ways, then, the Countryman S E is an acquired taste. It’s an unusual and pricey proposition. But the Mini brand is hugely appealing to many and this new powertrain setup works well.

With diesel under question by many consumers, the S E perhaps represents the powertrain of the future in the SUV/Crossover sector. Ultimately, while it might not appeal to all, if you’re comfortable with the basic concept of a Mini SUV, then this is the car in the company’s range that has the most pragmatic appeal.

It’s big enough for a family of four, but small enough for city parking, reasonably fun to drive, and with a distinct character. The 25 miles of electric range and the potential fuel saving/environmental benefit is the cherry on top.

Critics have long wondered when a Mini that looked to the future (rather than go back to its roots) would arrive. It might not look it, but the Countryman Cooper S E is, perhaps, that very car.

(pocket-lint.com, https://goo.gl/WNzwPy)

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