OFTEN WHEN PEOPLE find out what I do they ask me to riff on one car or another. What do you think about the…? It’s usually an ambush. Chances are the asker has already bought the car and is seeking validation. I’ve learned to stay positive until they reveal themselves.
As in: “Whaddya think about that new Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4 PHEV?” Me: “Oh yeah! My family just took one on a 500-mile road trip. Great style, charisma for days, super refined, like a BMW X2 but with personality. Free maintenance too.” Owner, proudly: “I just bought one!” Me: “Really? How wonderful!”
That goes better than the other way, as in: “Countryman PHEV? What a waste of automotive space! What a compliance queen! A plug-in hybrid with 12 miles of EV range? Hey, 2008 is calling and it wants its batteries back! Amiright? So, tell me, friend, what do you drive?”
The whole idea of a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is to save fuel/money/carbon emissions by displacing gas-driven miles in the owner’s daily driving. Example: the Chevy Volt, with a rated 53 miles of EV range.
‘ Mini remains a brand committed to the idea of design as delight. All but the battery works like a champ. ’
But the rationale turns irrational when the vehicle’s range is actually less than owners’ average driving distance. In that case the efficiency runs the other way. The PHEV version of Mini’s Countryman compact sport-utility weighs 277 pounds more than the Countryman S; costs another $5,500 more; and is barely any quicker (6.8 vs. 7.0 seconds, officially) or more efficient. On top of that, the Countryman S All4 returns an EPA average of 26 mpg, compared to the PHEV’s 27 mpg when it’s running in gas-only mode—which, as I say, it almost always is.
2019 Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4 PHEV
Base Price: $36,900
Price, as Tested: $45,750
Powertrain: Plug-in gas-electric powertrain, 1.5-liter direct-injection turbocharged inline three-cylinder engine; six-speed automatic transmission; rear-mounted AC synchronous motor and open rear differential for hybrid AWD; 7.6 kWh lithium-ion battery pack
Net Power/Torque: 221 hp/284 lb-ft at 1,350 rpm
Length/Width/Height/Wheelbase: 169.8/71.7/61.3/105.1 inches
Vehicle Weight: 3,948 pounds
0-60 mph: 6.8 seconds
Recharge Time: 3.25 hours (240v)
Max Cargo Capacity: 47.4 cubic feet
The only thing more marginal than the Mini’s EV range is its overall range. With a 9.5-gallon fuel tank the PHEV can go about 250 miles before it has to stop and take a drink. A shot glass of your finest premium, bartender.
Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Mini. My party-talk includes a long disquisition on Sir Alec Issigonis and the enduring awesomeness of the original Mini Cooper (1959), a car whose packaging (front-transverse engine, front drive) set the template for generations of cheap, fuel-efficient cars. I’m also prepared to say nice things about Frank Stephenson, the lead designer of the reborn BMW Mini Cooper (2002), whose work epitomized the first wave of retromodern car design.
The Countryman is Mini’s biggest model: 169.8 inches long on a 105.1-inch wheelbase, sharing mechanical undies with corporate cousins BMW X1 and X2. And yet it’s eidetically Mini thanks to its footstool stance (71.4 inches wide by 61.3 tall).
Mini’s base engine across the line is the turbocharged 1.5-liter, 134-hp three-cylinder, which can be had with a rare six-speed manual. Upstairs you’ll find a choice of two hardworking 2.0-liter turbo fours (189 hp in the S, 228 hp in the John Cooper Works package). All-wheel drive, which Mini calls All4, is optional across the line. If Santa is reading, I aspire to the JCW convertible with the six-speed manual. That’s my jam.
In the PHEV model, the corporate three-cylinder engine drives the front wheels while a rear-mounted, 87-hp AC motor drives the rears, for on-demand, digitally balanced all-wheel drive. There are three drive modes—Auto, Max and Save Battery—which seems like needless complication since the EV range is, as I said, 12 miles.
The living is good in a Mini. It remains the premium brand most committed to design as delight, style as substance: the steampunk-like paddle switches, the madcap circle design theme, from door handles to touch screen navigation, all limned in brightwork bezels, like emergent, interdimensional bubbles.
The driving is effervescent too. With 284 lb-ft of total system torque at 1,350 rpm, and hybrid AWD putting it down, the PHEV’s holeshot is more than respectable. The e-assisted steering is light-effort, quick and responsive, giving the car nice manners at initial turn-in, if not a lot of cornering bite. The PHEV’s extra mass makes itself felt in steady-state cornering and braking—the car feels a little wider and longer than you’d expect of a Mini.
Everything that’s wrong with the Countryman PHEV—the compromised vehicle weight, range, handling, braking, and cargo capacity—can be traced to its insufficiently energy-dense 7.6-kWh lithium battery pack. Actually, everything but the battery works like a champ.
Now why does the PHEV, Mini’s flagship in cost and equipment, have a lame battery? Don’t ask.