Mini Cooper SE: Can a retro icon light up SA’s electric future?

Most would welcome reprieve from the gnawing anxiety of having to visit a petrol station these days. This is the kind of relief one may expect when settling behind the wheel of the Mini Cooper SE — which offers electric vehicle (EV) and all the perks that come with it at a considerably lower price than South Africans are used to.

For years the South African electric car market has been stifled by high prices, the result of limited availability as well as prohibitive import tariffs. The Mini Cooper SE is an effort to change this. At a cost of about R700 000, this hatchback comes in at a fraction of the price of other popular electric cars. The Audi RS e-tron GT, for example, will cost you almost three times that amount.

At the end of the day, the SE is not cheap. But electric vehicle converts and Mini devotees may be more than willing to make the investment. As testament to this, the SE has emerged as one of the most in-demand from the shallow pool of EVs on offer in South Africa.

At first glance, the all-electric model looks like any other Mini designed during the BMW-governed era and retains the ethos the car has been loyal to since time immemorial: delivering all the convenience of a compact city car without sacrificing on its idiosyncratic style. 

The SE does make a nod towards a more charged future in which others on the Oxford brand’s line-up may find themselves no longer fitting in. The hatchback boasts striking yellow accents and a more aerodynamic bumper, giving it a taut, athletic presence.

Inside, the SE is luxurious, yet comfortable. It has the trappings of the contemporary Mini, including a slick infotainment system where the classic model’s iconic speedometer once lived. Although it can be a bit fiddly to figure out at first, once you do manage to connect to the bluetooth, the SE’s speakers offer excellent sound quality to fill the near-silence that comes with ditching the combustion engine.

The Mini does have a reputation for being a bit of a go-kart and the same applies to the SE, but the electric pedal adds a new element to the hatchback’s handling. The SE’s powerful acceleration offers that whiplash feeling when your foot hits the pedal — but when you take it off, you’ll come to an equally jarring halt. 

This is a characteristic of the SE’s regenerative braking, which lets you recover some of the kinetic energy every time you brake. Although this feature may be a bit unsettling at first, it is relatively easy to get used to after taking it out for a couple of spins and it lives up to the would-be tagline of the electric era: true one-pedal driving.

All in all, the SE has a lot going for it: it is electric, giving you the moral leg up on petrol heads with no shame about their part in destroying urban air quality. Its price tag isn’t prohibitive. And it looks and feels great.

But, as with most investments, going in on an SE does come with its compromises. The first, and probably the most obvious given the Mini’s reputation, is space. 

Although the front is roomy and almost spaceship-like, the back seat borders on the redundant. This is fine for a small, childless person like myself. But, unless your crew is made up only of clowns, the SE’s size could be a dealbreaker. Then again, Mini Cooper enthusiasts know what they are getting into.

A greater drawback of the SE is its range. Mini claims that its all-electric offering will take you 215km, which is really not a lot considering the aforementioned Audi has a theoretical range of between 433km and 472km. 

Some may point out that the Mini is a city car by design, so it simply does not require the range of a long-distance truck. But a couple hundred kilometres really doesn’t give you a lot of scope to get lost, especially considering the search for a charging station still feels like an Easter egg hunt.

Remember that dread of visiting a petrol station during today’s inflation-lit hellscape? Well it is, unfortunately, matched by the prospect of being stranded somewhere between the Johannesburg city centre and Sandton with no electricity source in sight. 

Of course, anyone who bets on an electric car future, in which the Mini Cooper SE will probably dominate, is also geared towards change. They know that change is inevitable and want a whip that reflects that they are at peace with that. So for those less anxious about parting ways with old faithful, I say go for it.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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