EV Battle : Honda E & MINI Cooper SE Electric Drive [review]

By topgear, 11 April 2020

2020’s most exciting electric city cars are here. Is this the moment EVs go mainstream?

I’ve heard of manufacturers going to extreme lengths to show the capabilities of their product, but Honda arranging the worst storm the Costa Blanca has seen in 30 years, just to demo the rain-repellent coating on its new wing cameras? That’s beyond the call.

But not even Storm Gloria, or knowing Mr Kew is donning a Hawaiian shirt, porn-star shades and living out his Scarface fantasies in Miami while I’m splashing around somewhere near Benidorm, can dampen my positivity for this little car.

It’s the Urban EV Concept that became a legend, the legend that became a prototype and the prototype that became the dinkiest, most desirable thing since the Suzuki Jimny. And I want one.

STORY Jack Rix & Ollie Kew
PHOTOS Mark Riccioni

So will thousands of others, many of whom would’ve considered themselves allergic to electric until now. That’s the power of good design. But a baby face only takes you so far (just ask Ollie), there are hurdles to scale before embarking on Honda e ownership.

While Honda has kept the dimensions to Fiat-500-plus-a-bit and battery size to a compact 35.5kWh, the starting price isn't cheap for either the 135hp or 155hp, higher-spec Advance model. To justify prices that eclipse the larger, rangier VW ID.3, Honda hasn’t held back with the trinkets. 

As standard, you get cameras for wing mirrors and rear-view mirror, 100kW DC rapid charging capability in 30 minutes, an app to precondition the car and babysit it while it charges, too many driver-assist systems to write down and several acres of screen. And it’s all wrapped in a subtly retro colour and material palette designed to click with the cheeky exterior.

So you’ve made your peace with price, what about space? The rear is just big enough for me to sit behind me, but me is 5ft 8in. The boot is small – 171 litres with the rear seats up (about the same as a Fiat 500), but 861 litres with them down, which is decent, if you can use it as a two-seater. Honda has done its maths here – it’s just practical enough to justify if your mind’s already made up.

Now… range. A claimed 220km (or 200km if you upsize from 16s to 17s) means 160–175km in the real world, which isn’t great next to 320km-plus ID.3s and e-208s, but a conscious decision, says Honda.

This is strictly an urban runabout so why blunt it with more batteries than necessary? As one poetic engineer put it: “If you want to design an iPhone, why would you make an iPad just to get a bigger battery in there?” 

Still here? Excellent, you’re keen. Time for the really good stuff. Both power outputs have the same amount of torque, 315Nm, so the 0–100km/h difference isn’t stark: 9.0secs vs 8.3. Probably more useful though is 0–50km/h for which I have no official numbers, so I shall describe as “pleasingly nippy”. 

It really zips away from a standstill, and hats off to Honda for the throttle tuning, because it never lurches or jerks, just smooth urgent progress however binary your foot is. The fact that it’s RWD (key to its 50:50 weight distribution) will please the Ari Vatanens among you, and I can confirm a prod of the throttle on a wet cobbled roundabout in Valencia will result in lurid oversteer and a trouser change. And that’s with the traction control on.

Back to carving effortlessly and peacefully through city traffic. It nails that too. The variable ratio steering (3.1 turns lock to lock) is light and direct, not nearly as twirly as a Fiat 500, and has a ludicrously tight 8.6m turning circle – just a smidge more than a black cab. It’s heavy for a supermini at over 1,500kg, but nothing instant torque can’t negate, while the low centre of gravity means it doesn’t roll in corners, it leans gently side to side. There’s a sense of agility and enthusiasm that, let’s be honest, we were expecting, but a refinement and maturity that perhaps we weren’t.

The fully independent suspension smothers the road like something a lot bigger, and the silence in the cabin, even when you get up to and beyond 60mph is evidence it’s been deliciously over-engineered. Honda knew it had a clean sheet of paper for this one and the world was watching. 

More buttons to play with – a choice of Normal or Sport modes for needlessly sharpening the throttle. More useful is a one-pedal mode that dials up the regen so it’s possible to stop without touching the brake. You can pick from three levels of increasingly aggressive retardation using the paddles behind the wheel. Neat solution. 

So too are camera nodules instead of wing mirrors – decreasing the car’s width, reducing overall drag and wind noise, delivering all-weather visibility – but in practice they’re a bit pants.

Mounted low and angled too far down, you get a wonderful view of the rear wheelarch, but not the traffic following behind. Similar problems with the rear-view screen – it takes your eyes precious seconds to adjust from looking down the road to a digital display 12in from your face. Plus every car looks like its aggressively tailgating you. Perhaps they were trying to get a closer look inside…

Honda calls it a lounge-style interior. It’s true, if your lounge has retro furniture and six TVs. With the squishy fabric seats in the front, bench seat in the back and slabs of fake wood trim, Honda has pulled off a modern, retro-infused, architect-designed vibe that just feels different to anything else out there.

The screens – two six-inch displays for the wing mirrors, an 8.8-inch instrument cluster behind the wheel, the rear-view display and then two, side-by-side 12.3-inch screens as the centrepiece (complete with an Elon-baiting aquarium mode).

Each features six shortcuts on the outer edge, can run separate apps at the same time and those apps can be swapped at the touch of a button. 

You’ll find USB sockets everywhere – two up front, two in the rear – a 12V socket, a 230V AC power outlet and an HDMI input. In theory, this means you plug in your Xbox and play it on the central screen.

Connect it to the onboard wifi hotspot (free for the first year, subscription after that) and online gaming is yours while you wait for the car to charge. Who knows? Running out of battery could become the highlight of your day.

Frankly, I’m sold. Can you tell? But there is another, more familiar way to do the fashionable urban EV thing. Over to you Tony Montana…

Say hello to my little electric friend.

The irony of flying transatlantic to attend the launch of a zero-emission car built in Oxford is not lost on me. Neither is the fact we’ve flown into Miami’s bleakest day for a generation.

So, less Hawaiian shirt, more thick-knit jumper, and the MINI Electric’s 32.6kWh battery immediately concedes a couple of klicks’ range to juice the window demisters: 205 to go.

(Click HERE for our First Drive of the MINI Cooper SE)

Another petite, retro EV. Not as cute as the Honda, is it? Like Ronaldo, the MINI has ballooned since its heyday, and it’s got steadily less adorable. There’s twee Brexit tail-lights and doe eyes, but for the plug-in MINI, no old-school chrome filler cap.

A lazily blanked-off grille. You can delete the fluoro-yellow highlights. And those plug-socket-motif wheels that only make sense to Brits, because it’s a UK-spec three-pin design: optional. You get 16s as standard because narrower tyres eke out more range.

The name’s confusing too. Worldwide, this is the MINI Cooper SE. In Britain, it’s the MINI Electric, but keeps Cooper S badges. The power output – and there is only one – matches the 2.0-litre petrol Cooper S too. 184hp, through the front wheels. It’s slower from 0–100 than the traditional hot hatch, taking 7.3secs, but nips from zero to 48km/h in under four seconds.

Now, there is a key difference between Jack’s Hello Kittymobile and my Lilliput Lane cottage on wheels, but it’s not as critical as you might think. His panda cub is a clean-sheet, bespoke-from-the-wheels-up EV. New platform, new packaging, that’ll never house a combustion engine. It’s not a Jazz in a Comic-Con costume.

But the MINI, of course, is a converted petrol car. What the engineers have done is transplanted tech from the BMW i3, which is bespoke, brilliantly packaged – and hasn’t sold – into a much more cramped, compromised package that we all know sells by the shipload. It’s less brave than the Honda. But in the EV adoption battle, this might well be the iPod to the Honda’s Zune. [The Honda’s what? – ed] Exactly.

Here’s why that doesn’t matter – the Honda hasn’t pressed home any kind of advantage, despite being a product of fresh organic farmer’s market ingredients, not reheated leftovers.

The MINI's lighter – at 1,365kg it’s 145kg more than a Cooper S petrol, but the same again lighter than the Honda. Despite riding 18mm higher (to make room for the batteries in the depths of the chassis), the centre of gravity is lower than the regular MINI. It’s better-balanced across all four wheels too, which you can feel in the drive.

It’s much faster too. It’s a 3dr only, so access to the back seats is a pinch, but six-foot me can just squeeze behind six-foot me. Unlucky, Jack. The boot is larger: 211 litres.

But the MINI double-faults on the cabin. Can retro cars date? Right now, the MINI's in the uncanny area between cool and kitsch. The fundamentals, obviously, remain bang on: the driving position is low, straight-legged, and thoroughly sports car, chunky wheel reaching out to meet your grasp.

However, against the Honda’s John Lewis TV department screen bank, the oblong screen awkwardly jammed into the circular bezel where the giant speedo used to sit just looks plain wrong. The screen itself is fabulous: sharp, fast, and operable either with finger touch or BMW iDrive. Proper best-of-both-worlds for typing and swiping. But the design just looks odd.

There’s this odd mix of great tech and pastiche touches. The i3’s one-pedal regen is employed, but to switch the car from max energy-capture to coast, it’s not a paddleshifter, but one of the unsighted toggle switches you use. The new digi-screen behind the steering wheel is great, but strictly displays speed and trip data – no nav map or smartphone media, and none of the Honda e-aster eggs.

MINI's gimmick has always been a sincere one: handling. You put up with a somewhat boisterous ride, but score an alert, puppy-dog enthusiasm for corners matched with grown-up refinement. The Electric is different – you sense the dampers heaving under the extra flab, working hard to keep the body in check… but they do.

And though it’s not quite as chuckable as the petrol one, you’ve got to concentrate hard to notice. It’s a properly rounded EV this, not just a drag-race one-trick pony.

And thanks to fiendishly clever traction control inherited from – you guessed it, the i3 – wheelspin is nixed predictively when you mash the throttle, not reactively with wasteful stabs of brake. I’m not a roundabout drift king like Jack, then, but I’ll get back to the airport without a 3.5hr wallbox recharge.

On the way, I can see behind me, because I have conventional mirrors, not selfie cameras. That pretty much sums up this car, and how it may lose the cuteness battle but win the sales war against the precious Honda.

The MINI is tried ’n’ tested. Some of it’s been blooded in the far more radical BMW i3, but the bits you see and touch are all sure-fire crowd-pleasers. And on previous form, those are the tactics that weather the storm. 

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