As the owner of a 2006 MINI Cooper (R50), I embrace the idea of an electric Cooper S. I even attended its product launch at BMW’s Spartanburg, South Carolina production and development center last year with much enthusiasm, only to be let down by its 177-km advertised range.
One year later, and after many months of COVID-19-related delays, I’m finally behind the wheel of this thing. While it’s true that range is disappointing, the MINI Cooper SE makes up for it by its charming looks, impeccable build quality and downright driver engagement. Because yes, this EV is just as, if not more enjoyable to throw into a corner than a gasoline-powered Cooper S.
Since I had this thing parked next to my old Cooper for a week, I couldn’t help but wonder just which one of these MINIs is the most cost-effective. Yes, I know that the Cooper SE burns no fuel at all. So it wins, right? Not exactly.
While it’s important to put our environment of at the top of our priorities when shopping for a new automobile, at the end of the day, Canadian consumers will flock towards the most cost-effective transaction. I therefore ask the following question: from a financial standpoint, are you better off committing to a brand-new electric car like this Cooper SE? Or can a cheap, second-hand alternative, powered by a low-carbon footprint ICE engine, still be wise choice?
To find out, I put these two MINIs to the test.
Where It All Restarted
There’s a reason why I bought an R50 MINI Cooper and not the R53 Cooper S, because the R50 marks the first car to have relaunched the entire MINI brand under the BMW administration.
Designed by none other than Frank Stephenson, the first-generation MINI Cooper was an instant commercial success thanks to an adorable retro-inspired design, actual real-life functionality as well as spirited handling and performance. While the hotted-up Cooper S made do with a 160-horsepower supercharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder, my car is powered by a naturally aspirated version of that same unit, which happened to have been co-developed by BMW and Chrysler, and built in Brazil.
Power was rated at a very conservative 114 horsepower and 110 lb-ft of torque, but the 1,065 kg curb weight meant the little Cooper was a lot quicker than its specifications suggested, with a claimed 0-100 km/h time of nine seconds flat. Cars came fitted with either a five-speed manual transmission, which is what my car has, or a continuously variable automatic (CVT).
In 2005, the Cooper got a midcycle update, as well as a slew of mechanical upgrades to address reliability concerns. The most notable change was a Getrag-sourced manual gearbox, which proved not only more solid than the old Rover unit, but also much more engaging to operate. As it sits, my car has 116,000 km. It has never been winter-driven. Except for regular maintenance, it has thus far proven surprisingly reliable.
An Inevitable Evolution
While MINI currently stands as one the last remaining car brands to prioritize driver engagement, it needs to face the inevitable reality of electrification. In order to blend MINI’s charming attributes with the EV revolution, the MINI Cooper SE rides on the same UKL1 architecture as a gasoline MINI Cooper S, but utilizes the BMW i3’s electric propulsion system.
But unlike an i3, which has its electric motor nestled on the rear axle, the Cooper SE makes do with a more conventional front engine, front-wheel drive setup. The 28.9-kWh T-shaped battery is located in a rear midship configuration, giving the SE an impressive 58/42-weight distribution, a trait never before seen in a front-wheel drive car.
But there’s more innovative technology. The MINI Cooper SE was thought out to be as lightweight as possible, with a 12-module battery that was developed to be super compact and light. The result is an EV that may only offer 177 km of EPA certified range, but also a hot hatch that’ll sprint from 0-100 km in six seconds flat and hit the quarter mile in only 14.8 seconds. The MINI Cooper SE is therefore the second quickest EV in its price bracket after a Tesla Model 3 SR+.
Which is More Efficient?
Of course, the fact that the 2020 MINI Cooper SE runs on no petrol at all makes it the obvious emissions winner of this test But how much does it cost to run during an average year? Let’s break things down in comparison with my old MINI.
Starting price for a Cooper SE Classic is $39,990 and tops out at $37,990 for the Premier + model you see here. That’s before applicable rebates. Here in Quebec, the Cooper SE is eligible to up to $13,000 in total incentives. If one were to stick with the base model, which, I believe remains the best bargain, the final transaction price would be of roughly $30,000, provincial and federal taxes included.
Running costs will however drop considerably due to its electric propulsion system. If you happen to live in an area where electricity is cheap and renewable, like Quebec or British Columbia, you’ll end up with relatively low running costs. In Quebec, charging an EV from your home costs a little more than $2.00 per charge. Quebec’s public charging infrastructure network costs $1.00 per hour for level 2 (240 V) chargers, and $11,78 per hour for level 3 (400 V) installations. On average, Quebec EV owners don’t spend much more than $40 a month charging their car.
In other words, at the end of the first year of ownership, a MINI Cooper SE driven in Quebec comes out to just over $32,000 in running costs, that’s assuming no out-of-warranty repair bills were added. Give yourself an additional $2,000 for maintenance, give or take.
On the other hand, my 2006 MINI Cooper cost me $4,700. On average, well-kept, low mileage Gen-1 Coopers will vary between $5,000 and $9,000. Of course, being a second-hand German automobile means spontaneous repair bills can suddenly creep up on you. Consider a $2,000 yearly budget buffer for repair bills.
With gasoline currently hanging around the $1.10 litre mark in Canada, fueling up the Cooper’s 50-litre tank equates to roughly $55.00. And with a frugal combined fuel economy rating of 7L/100 km, a full tank of gasoline can last you a good two weeks if your commute is mostly urban. On average, my MINI gas bills equate to roughly $3,000 a year. In other words, at the end of its first year of ownership, even the most expensive first-generation Cooper on sale will have cost you less than $15,000, or half the price of that electric MINI.
Considering that most new car owners finance or lease their vehicle, it can take up to three years before the running costs of an EV become more affordable than the ones of a second-hand automobile powered by an internal combustion engine. While yes, it’s true that once on the road, the old MINI will be emitting emissions versus the Cooper SE’s null, but the fact that you’ll be reusing an existing automobile eliminates the need for energy dense EV manufacturing.
Driving a full electric MINI Cooper, or any electric vehicle, is obviously the smarter choice in the long run, but for consumers who still can’t afford the high price tag of an EV, a second-hand, low displacement gasoline-powered automobile can be a fantastic eco-friendly solution that’ll also be a good fit for your wallet. Plus, choosing a MINI over another brand means your daily commute will never be boring, no matter the energy source it’s running on.
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.