Micro Machines : BMW i3s & Honda e & MINI Cooper SE Drive Review

By davidkhoo, 15 August 2021

Singapore - If you’re still indulging in your monthly magazine fix of TopGear Singapore, odds are you regard cars as fun first, transport second.

As the rising tide of political and regulatory pressures turns cars into ‘more of the same’, we should be celebrating the fun in the few that keep the faith… while we still can.

These days, you can’t talk EVs without folks throwing in plenty of technical gobbledygook and liberal Tesla name-dropping.

With regards to the first point, anoraks may appreciate a beard-stroky discourse on the science behind EVs, but it has the unintended effect of alienating ‘regular’ people looking at going electric.

Some buyers are only keen on the main attributes: looks, performance and arguably the most important, cool factor.

Now, the second point regarding Tesla is understandable given its recent re-entry into the Singapore market and just as quickly as that, a ‘Tesla Paradigm’ has been established.

What does this mean? With a base Model 3 priced under S$115k (w/o COE) at time of writing, EVs launched by the other car brands are benchmarked against it... even if many overlook the fact that not everybody wants one.

If you’re looking for a mode of quick transport, a Model 3 should tick all the tangible tech boxes for you.

Objectively, Tesla’s tech toys, performance and range rival (and surpass) the offerings from its car brand contemporaries and is cheaper to boot.

However, as a dyed-in-wool petrolhead, things are less black/white… and all about the 50 shades of grey.

The intangible emotional elements that imbue the cars with a respective brand’s DNA matters to us… and not necessarily who-beats-whom in Top Trumps.

After all, fast isn’t always fun and emotional trumps empirical everyday.

It’s not that the cents and sense don’t matter, but the current state of EV adoption in Singapore is in a relative infancy.

This means the funky EVs we’re featuring appeal to the lucky minority that can run one for fun (and not for workhorse duties) without worrying about triflings like range or the availability of public charging facilities.

In fact, we think these fun EVs will likely form part of multi-car garages no less, so if you’re out of juice, there are other cars to take out while it stays home...

Moreover, with rapid leaps in electric powertrain technology (versus the maturity of ICE), every new model is a big jump over the last in terms of, well, everything

This means that trying to keep up with technology is like looking for the end of the rainbow… you’ll never get to it if you hold out for the next-new, so it’s better to enjoy the here-and-now and surf the wave of the electric revolution before it becomes commonplace.

We prefer to get our funk-on right-here-right-now with one of these electric compact cars for a quick fix during school/tarpow runs, as opposed to stressing over whether an EV can replace ICE.

It’s cool to indulge in an EV that looks as rad as its powertrain, as opposed to just another crossover workhorse – as we mentioned earlier, there’s plenty of time for that soon enough.

So, while some obsess over tech specs or join the line to ogle the latest department store showroom, we binned all discussions on ‘cents and sense’ to celebrate this all-electric ensemble of manic micro machines: the BMW i3s, Honda e and MINI Cooper SE.

Bim’ Me Up! - BMW i3s

Think of BMW i as an eco-warrior skunkworks project that fast-tracks alternative powertrain vehicles from concept to production in a shorter time than it would take to go through the regular rigmarole.

However, it isn’t just about the end product, because the ‘i3’ lifecycle is a holistic (albeit satisfyingly overengineered) one that embraces sustainable processes and material sources from start to end, as well as encompasses advanced urban mobility solutions.

We’re long-time fans of the BMW i3, which is now available in a sporty i3s 120Ah all-electric form to take advantage of the government’s EV adoption incentive.

(Click HERE to read about the time we drove the i3 94Ah into JB for a day of meals and wheels)

The i3s’ quirky design has long polarised opinions, but we like its distinctive ‘oddball’ aesthetics. Seven years on, the styling of BMW’s pert and perky city-warrior is none the worse for the wear.

Inside and out, the i3s stands apart from the regular models (yet remains indisputably BMW), which to our mind, underscores its status as BMW’s visionary urban mobility solution, especially at its launch.

Like the McLaren sportscars, the i3 is built around a carbonfibre cell, with the sexy stuff left tantalisingly unpainted for you to admire during ingress/egress.

There’s a chic, Nordic feel to the airy cabin, which doesn’t just see the use of recycled materials, but is almost fully sustainable.

Funky suicide-style opening doors let rear passengers in, but we know of owners who keep the rear seats permanently folded flat for better utility, especially since it mostly carries driver and plus-one.

With its compact proportions and zippy performance, the i3s is best for quick insertions into town for meals and errands. The 1.3-tonnes-plus i3s’ 184hp/270Nm translate to a 6.9secs 0-100km/h time, but the magic is in the 3.7secs 0-60km/h surge that’ll leave sportier cars in its dust.

(Click HERE to read about the showdown between the i3 and an original Fiat Cinquecento)

True to EV form, there’s adequate retardation during throttle lift-off as the brake regen gets going, which makes it perfect for one-pedal driving.

The i3s’ skinny 20-inch tyres (175/55 fronts, 195/50 rears) means there’s a quick and incisive response to steering inputs, but can feel nervous when you’re pressing hard. Three-point turns, as well as parking it in the CBD’s notoriously tight carparks, are a doddle, thanks to its size, manoeuvrability and visibility.

Couple its electrifying performance to compact proportions and agile dynamics and the pint-sized package is capable of cutting a devastating swathe through rush-hour traffic.

E’s & Whizz - Honda e

This cheeky cherub is the coolest thing we’ve seen from Honda in recent times. Through an accidental (or deliberate) quirk in nomenclature, the ‘Honda e’ is the direct opposite to Streetfighter’s sumo-sized ‘E Honda’, but proves to be as capable of delivering the big hits.

The little Honda has all the charming, neo-retro styling cues going for it that recall the very first Civic, but the e is no dinosaur even if it is a fabulous throwback to Honda’s small, city-car legacy.

The brand has injected plenty of fresh and fun tech seamlessly into the e’s operation (feed the fishes through the ‘aquarium’ screensaver!) and you’ll quickly discover how much of a heavyweight performer it can be the moment you slide into the perfectly padded driver’s seat.

The hidden door handles give the e a clean, minimalist silhouette, with digital wing mirrors adding to its streamlined aesthetics. It’s no toy-car though, as the subtly flared wheel arches hint at the big can of whoop-a$$ the e is capable of unleashing.

In operation, the Honda’s Side Camera Mirror System works perfectly, because the left and right screens – that project what’s seen by each of the wing ‘cameras’ – are ergonomically positioned at eye-level for quick and easy viewing.

There’s a delightful, lounge-like feel to the cabin, with the occupants facing an expansive widescreen landscape array of five lush, full-coloured screens (as they would the telly) that spans the width of the car and is nicely integrated into the fascia. Classy.

While the extreme left and right six-inch screens serve wing mirror duties, the driver faces an 8.8-inch TFT for key vehicle information, with the dual 12.3-inch LCD touchscreens providing access to the e’s infotainment, as well as its suite of apps/services.

Like the i3s, the e’s cabin is an exercise in minimalist chic, with tasteful application of a warm wood trim and melange-style sofa fabric. All the aesthetic elements create a welcoming interior that perfectly complements the cleanly styled exterior. If you need more light, the skyroof helps create an even airier ambience.

Our borrowed car is of the higher ‘Advance’ spec, which amongst other things, gives the performance a bump to 154hp (from the base 136hp), with the same 315Nm torque.

With the trio, we never bothered feathering the throttle, because the point was to have fun razzing around and not worry about the range or busting speed limits. Moreover, it’s always interesting to see what the worst-case range scenario is versus WLTP.

In mixed (but heavy-footed most of the time) driving, the e will manage 170+km on a full-charge. Seems scanty compared to the 300+/400+km range of most new EVs, but what it lacks in range it more than makes up for in personality, which is what this feature is about.

The beauty of any EV is the instantaneous hit of torque that arrives the moment you’re on the ‘go’ pedal and that’s exactly how all EVs should be driven (up to the speed limit, of course).

Compared to the i3s, the e feels more planted on the (fast) move, especially if you’re tackling a series of corners and quick direction changes.

‘Sport’ mode imparts more urge to the already brisk proceedings and it counts for something special with the Honda, because the 50:50 weight distribution and low centre of gravity mean it’s an invigorating and engaging drive when the going gets fast!

Like the (also) rear-driven i3s, the e can be hustled satisfyingly quickly down your favourite series of small CBD roads to work up an appetite before arriving at your fave food centre.

Ini MINI - MINI Cooper SE

It was only a few months ago that we drove the Cooper SE for our 2020 Cars of the Year awards, and it returns again with a shout and a bang in facelift form.

(Click HERE to read about the pre-LCI Cooper SE in our 2020 COTY)

If you missed it, a major part of the facelift is the trendy ‘goatee’ around the front grille, which is particularly apparent on our white car. It’s the only front-drive of the trio, but don’t knock it, because it remains true to MINI’s Cooper S dynamic credentials.

If you’re used to current MINIs, the Cooper SE’s cabin is a familiar one, even for the facelift model. There’s more of the funky MINI flair, as well as green accents and the requisite digital elements in keeping with its electric heart.

Like the pre-facelift, the new car features the cool ‘three-pin-plug’ alloys, as well as little ‘E’ emblems on the charging cover and rump to go with the ‘S’ badges.

Hand-over-heart, we’d take a Cooper SE over the regular S model. The SE’s immediate rush of the electric power-plant instills a similar sense of frenetic urgency as the S, especially when it comes to attacking corners.

With its tightly sorted chassis, the SE isn’t just brisk in the regular electric-car sense, but can be driven with the ‘feels’... just as you’d enjoy in the rest of the MINIs.

Compared to the i3s’ and e’s bespoke platforms, the SE wears the instantly recognisable MINI 3dr shape that is perfect for MINI’s passionate fans. Due to the iconic brand’s unique appeal, its fans will buy one because it is MINI first, EV second.

At the end of the day, the cars were sent home with some reluctance.  Despite covering the author’s higher-than-usual daily mileage for the shoot, there was at least 70km left on the range. Theoretically, we could get away with charging them every five days…

Until the border opens up and there’s access to Malaysia and further, the sub-200hp/200km of these pint-sized and perky tykes is perfect for safely brisk use in Singapore’s built-up confines.

The chirpy trio is always up for some fast and furious action around town and easily runs rings around lumbering crossovers. They may be small in size, but to us, they’re big heroes at heart...

PHOTOS Zotiq Visuals

BMW i3 120Ah
Battery 42.2kWh, Li-Ion, 120Ah
Electric Motor 184hp, 270Nm
Transmission Single-stage auto
Electric Range 270-285km
0-100km/h 6.9secs
0-60km/h 3.7secs
Top Speed 160km/h
LxBxH 4006x1791x1590mm
Wheelbase: 2570mm
Kerbweight (DIN) 1290kg
Efficiency 14.6-14.0kWh/100km

Honda e ‘Advance’
Battery 35.5kWh, Li-Ion
Electric Motor 154hp, 315Nm
Electric Range 220km
0-100km/h 8.3secs
Top Speed 145km/h
LxBxH 3895x1750x1512mm
Wheelbase 2530mm
Kerbweight (DIN) 1527kg
Efficiency 17.2kWh/100km

MINI Cooper SE (MINI Electric) 
Battery 32.6kWh, Li-Ion, 94Ah
Electric Motor 184hp, 270Nm
Electric Range 235-270km
0-100km/h 7.3secs
Top Speed 150km/h
LxBxH 3845x1727x1432mm
Wheelbase 2495mm
Kerbweight (DIN) 1365kg
Efficiency 16.8-14.8kWh/100km

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