Just as BMW electrifies pretty much its entire line-up with the announcement of next year’s BMW 5-Series plug-in hybrid, MINI gets plugged in too, with a new plug-in hybrid.The series development process for the MINI plug-in hybrid car is almost complete. It features a combustion engine and an electric motor enabling pure electric propulsion for the first time in a MINI, since the MINI E trials between 2009-10. The company states this marks a new beginning for the firm and so we should expect more hybrids and possibly EVs soon.
During a test drive of the latest development car, Head of MINI brand management Sebastian Mackensen and Head of MINI series management Peter Wolf explain how it retains the classic go-kart feeling of a true MINI.
“With this model we want to convince MINI customers of the benefits of hybrid drive”, says Mackensen, “and impress everyone who already has hybrid driving experience with MINI’s unique go-kart driving feel.”
Contrary to most hybrids, the MINI plug-in hybrid won’t be aimed solely at efficiency but instead is aimed at driving fun. At first glance, there’s little to give the game away that the car is a plug-in hybrid at all – and that’s not only thanks to the camouflage foil used.
The charging socket for the high-voltage battery is discreetly integrated in the left side scuttle. Everything also looks familiar in the cockpit, although subtle differences mark the plug-in hybrid apart, for example the start/stop button in the centre of the dashboard glows yellow instead of red.
As usual, you simply press the button to start the car – this vehicle, however, remains silent as the hybrid model always starts in electric mode. The rpm counter in the instrument cluster on the steering column has been replaced with a power display. Keeping a close eye on this display is particularly worthwhile for the first few miles as it informs the driver about the electric motor’s power reserves before the combustion engine fires up. When exactly the combustion engine starts varies depending upon on the vehicle’s speed and the intensity with which the driver operates the accelerator pedal.
“After a short time, the driver gets a feel for this”, promises Wolf. And this new driving experience promises a lot of driving fun.
The hybrid MINI makes full use of the electric motor’s torque, which is available from near standstill allowing for catapult-like acceleration. Even after leaving the slower pace of the city this vehicle maintains its zero-tailpipe emissions at motorway speeds. The high-voltage battery, located under the rear seats, provides power for long-lasting electric driving but MINI aren’t stating its range just yet. AUTO eDRIVE standard mode permits speeds of up to 50 mph, whilst in MAX eDRIVE mode speeds of up to 78 mph are possible.
For Mackensen this is a question of character: “In a hybrid MINI model, driving electrically must also be an exhilarating experience. This means that entirely electric driving is not limited to speeds of 30 or 40 km/h, but to speeds well beyond city traffic pace.”
Testing the vehicle himself, Mackensen puts the car through its paces and demonstrates that you need to step on the accelerator pedal very firmly indeed to activate the second power source. Then things really start happening. With the combined output of both drives, the first MINI hybrid vehicle demonstrates unparalleled acceleration performance when compared with its combustion-only siblings.
However, MINI’s go-kart driving characteristics consist of more than just fast acceleration. Above all, this hybrid MINI has to prove how precisely it handles when taking bends on the most exciting twisty roads. This is where MINI’s plug-in hybrid concept plays its next trump card.
“As far as the chassis and suspension are concerned, nothing changes from the conventionally driven model variants”, says Wolf, “and the set-up benefits a lot from the hybrid concept”.
Thanks to the eDrive components, which are positioned very low down at the rear, the car’s centre of gravity is lowered and the weight is evenly balanced between the front and rear axle – ideal for achieving an even higher level of legendary MINI agility.
The Hybrid concept provides yet another benefit: the electric motor transmits its power to the rear wheels, the combustion engine to the front wheels. Since the intelligent energy management is linked to the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), traction and drive stability are optimised via the drive system. In the past, this setup has been criticised as offering a potentially difficult to predict RWD then FWD and AWD car depending on the driver’s demands on the powertrain. However, Wolf explains;
“As soon as there is any risk of drive slip, the second drive unit is activated to provide additional traction when starting off or ensuring a high level of steering precision when cornering.”
Intelligent energy management offers a further opportunity for both power sources to work together effectively. Driving on the motorway, Mackensen activates a third mode with the eDrive toggle switch: SAVE BATTERY. In this mode, the combustion engine powers the car whilst at the same time, the high voltage battery can retain charge at a constant level or indeed increase charge via a generator. Extended driving in SAVE BATTERY mode enables enough power generation for purely electric driving at a later time, although as has been stated on AutoVolt on numerous occasions, this effectively reduces fuel consumption and you’re far better off plugging into the grid instead.
We expect the new MINI plug-in hybrid to be the start of a new era for MINI, as it catches up with bigger brother BMW who’ve all but electrified their entire range. Pure electric variants may follow, but while BMW continues with its i3 city electric car, it’s unlikely we’ll see a MINI E anytime too soon. It’s unclear when the MINI plug-in hybrid will be released for sale, but we suspect at the start of 2017.