Let’s get something straight right off the top: When it comes to plug-in hybrid vehicles, the recently introduced 2018 Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4 is neither the most practical nor the most frugal choice available. You want all-out SUV practicality? Try the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, which for about the same price is substantially roomier (it’s a compact while the Mini is a subcompact) and has nearly twice the electric-only range. You want real frugality? Try the Toyota Prius Prime hatchback, which is priced more than $10,000 cheaper than the Countryman and delivers significantly better combined economy while giving up little in terms of usable interior volume.
On days you feel like throwing efficiency to the wind and having a little fun, the Countryman Cooper S E delivers with tossable, sure-footed handling, and a combined 221 hp and 284 lb-ft when the gas and electric motors work together.
If what you’re looking for, however, is the most fun-to-drive PHEV – one that combines the practicality of an all-wheel-drive SUV, and the handling and performance of a hot-hatch, and bundles them up with oodles of quirky Mini charm – then, provided you’re willing to accept a few compromises, the 2018 Mini Cooper S E Countryman fits the bill perfectly.
Lots of character, limited electric range
The Cooper S E All4 version of the Countryman was launched in mid-2017, a few months after the second-generation Countryman’s conventionally powered Cooper, Cooper S, and John Cooper Works variants. Sharing the same bodywork as its conventional siblings (bodywork that’s about 203 mm longer and 25 mm wider than the first-generation model), the Cooper S E Countryman All4 combines a three-cylinder, 134 hp twin-turbo gas engine up front (the same engine as in the base Cooper All4) driving the front wheels via a Steptronic six-speed automatic transmission, and an 87 hp electric motor in the back driving the rear wheels directly. Power for the electric motor comes from a 5.3 kWh net (7.6 kWh gross) lithium-ion battery, providing an official electric-only range of – wait for it – 19 km.
The bad news is that this certainly isn’t a whole lot of electric-only range, and in typical Canadian winter conditions you won’t even get that far. With the heater and seat heaters on to combat Vancouver’s rainy, three-degree winter weather, the most all-electric distance I ever managed was a meagre 13 km. My average, over several full charges, was 12 km.
That said, given that I live in the inner city this limited range was in fact adequate to run short grocery errands, pick up my daughter from art class, and on one occasion travel downtown (and back home) to catch a movie, all running on electricity alone. And for driving enthusiasts, the good news is that on days you feel like throwing efficiency to the wind and having a little fun, the Countryman Cooper S E delivers with tossable, sure-footed handling, and a combined 221 hp and 284 lb-ft when the gas and electric motors work together – enough to whisk you from 0 to 100 km/h in about 6.8 seconds.
An eDrive toggle at the base of the centre stack allows you to select how just how electric you want the ride to be. You can choose Max eDrive mode which maximizes the electric driving time (and allows electric-only speeds of up to 125 km/h), Auto eDrive mode which metes out electric and gas power as best fits the driving conditions (and can run electric-only up to 80 km/h), and Save Battery mode which preserves your battery power for later. The system defaults to Auto mode, which keeps you in all-electric mode provided there’s enough charge, but will kick in the engine if you prod too deeply into the throttle (therefore as the battery drains you’ll need to accelerate ever more gently to avoid crossing the gas-assist threshold, although there’s a helpful power gauge to the left of the speedometer that shows where the transition point is and how close you are to crossing it).
Without the power gauge you might never know the gas engine has started up, because the car’s sound-deadening is quite good and the transition between power modes is pretty much seamless. It’s not until you really floor it that you hear the gas engine, and then it’s a muted and reasonably pleasant-sounding drone. Certainly it’s nothing like the entertaining crackle and pop of the four-cylinder Countryman Cooper S, but it’s not bad for a three-cylinder powerplant, and with the electric motor assisting it means there’s always plenty of power and torque on tap. There are no paddle shifters, but there is a manual mode controlled via the gear lever. Augmenting the eDrive control toggle is Mini’s familiar drive mode controller, which tweaks the car’s throttle and transmission responses for maximum joy, maximum efficiency, or something in the Goldilocks middle. Slip the S E Countryman into Sport mode and it becomes a lively and engaging driving partner.
When it comes to slowing down, the S E Countryman uses braking regeneration to top up the battery, and while I found the brakes a bit grabby, they were certainly effective in terms of stopping power and regenerative efficiency. With such a small battery, a long hill can add a fair percentage of charge. It doesn’t take long to fully charge the car when plugged in, either: Just over three hours with the 240V Mini TurboCord, and just over seven hours using a regular 120V household outlet.
Better overall efficiency, less local emissions
With the electric motor typically doing all the work for the first few kilometres, fuel economy numbers become a little difficult to calculate. The officially rated combined gas/electric economy for the S E Countryman is 7.1 Le/100km (Le standing for “litres equivalent”), and over the 400 km prior to me picking it up the test car had been doing a little better than that, averaging 6.9 L/100 km according to the trip computer.
I didn’t do quite that well myself, partly because I had the car during a cold snap, and partly because I used it almost exclusively for city driving. Despite my best attempts to maximize my electric-only driving time, with winter tires on I used 8.7 L/100 km over the course of the week, plus a somewhat nebulous amount of electricity (I was often using free charging stations and not always charging from completely empty). For comparison purposes, the less powerful base Countryman Cooper, which uses the same gas engine, is rated at 10.3 / 7.9 L/100 km (city/hwy) for a combined average of 9.2 L/100 km (2.1 L/100 km more fuel consumption than the S E).
I did manage to cover 62 km of city driving on electricity alone, which at an average of 12 km per full charge works out to just over five full charges. With a net 5.3kW/h battery, that implies 26.5 kW/h of electricity, which at an average rate of 11 cents/kWh works out to $2.90 worth of electricity, most of which was provided free. Had I driven those 62 km using the gas engine, at 10.3 L/100 km I’d have expected to use 6.2 L of premium fuel (yep, the twin-turbo engine wants premium fuel). At $1.56/L locally for high-test, that would have cost me $9.67. So there’s certainly some savings to be had for city dwellers, but given the S E Countryman’s relatively high cost of entry and desire for premium fuel, the real value may be in knowing that you’re reducing the amount of tailpipe emissions spewed into your local neighbourhood.
Mini charm, inside and out
While the second-generation Countryman is noticeably bigger than its predecessor (my wife wanted to call it the Maxi), it has retained the quirky utilitarian charm that Minis are famous for, and overall it looks well-proportioned and rugged in a playful sort of way. The S E variant adds a few discreet badges and a charging port, but is otherwise essentially unchanged from its conventionally powered siblings. It’s one of the few hybrids I’ve driven that has enough driveway presence to elicit calls of “Nice car!” from my neighbours.
Inside, the extra size has been put to good use, with a significantly bigger back seat that comfortably accommodated my 6'2" son (there’s a bit more room in the nicely contoured front seats too, but you’d need a tape measure to know). Aiding rear seat comfort is a limited amount of fore/aft and recline adjustability. Cargo space has also been improved, although the S E borrows a bit of the extra space for lithium-ion battery. The rear seats offer 40/20/40-split folding capability to maximize cargo flexibility, but it can be a bit of a fiddle to locate and pull all the necessary release straps when folding all three sections.
The cabin has a well-crafted feel and uses premium materials throughout, including cloth-wrapped A-pillars, soft-skinned door uppers, and padded centre-stack sides. Stylistically it has an entertainingly steampunk feel to it, with a multitude of chunky toggle switches and all sorts of nice touches here and there. Ergonomics perhaps suffer a little for this stylistic effect, but not enough to be a real complaint – more than anything it’s just it takes a little longer to get used to where everything is than it does in most cars.
I was particularly taken by the test car’s striped piano-black dash trim, which lights up with a soft, coloured glow at night (a $250 Mini Yours custom option, and one I’d highly recommend). My test car also had a big panoramic roof, an extra-cost item that comes together with heated front seats in what Mini calls an Essentials Package. So yes, it really is essential, and at $1,450 it’ll need to be factored in when looking at the overall cost of the car.
Standard equipment in the S E Countryman All4 includes things like 18-inch allow wheels with run-flat tires, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, puddle lights, leatherette upholstery, dynamic cruise control, park distance control, and an unspecified infotainment system (neither the Mini website nor the brochure are entirely clear regarding the standard equipment load). There are all sorts of custom options available, including leather seating, so provided you’re willing to spend a bit of time figuring out exactly what you want, you should be able to get it (well, except blind-spot monitoring – that doesn’t appear to be available).
My test car came with a $1,400 Wired Navigation Package which is listed as including an upgraded 8.8-inch touchscreen (the standard one is 6.5-inch), on-board navigation, Mini Connected XL, wireless charging with extended Bluetooth, wired packaged, and Apple CarPlay. The audio system in the test car sounded great, and the navigation worked well, although some of the infotainment menus were a bit convoluted. I did appreciate being able to control the screen either via direct touch or via the console-mounted rotary controller.
At a starting price of $43,490, the Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4 isn’t an inexpensive proposition, and neither is all that spectacularly good on gas. What it does represent, however, is possibly the most entertaining mainstream plug-in hybrid option available. It can perform the all-important PHEV party trick of running local errands without burning fuel, and when the gas engine does start up it can provide driving joy far and above other hybrids, all while coddling the driver and passengers in unique and upscale Mini style.
For drivers looking for a more practical or economical option, vehicles like the Mitsubishi Outlander and Prius Prime represent more arguably sensible options, but for drivers who want to put a green foot forward without sacrificing driving pleasure, the Mini S E Countryman offers an intriguing alternative.
|Peak Horsepower||221 hp|
|Peak Torque||284 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||8.4/8.8/8.6 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb; 3.6 Le/100 km, 31.4 kWh/100 km|
|Cargo Space||450 / 1,275 L rear seats down|
|Model Tested||2018 Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4|
|Price as Tested||$50,675|
$4,950 – Essentials Package $1,450; Style Package $650; Mini Yours Interior illuminated trim $250; LED Lights Package $1,400; Wired Navigation Package $1,200