The new Mini Electric might feel far removed from Alec Issigonis’ inspired original Mini from 1959. Where the new model features a cutting-edge electrified drivetrain, plush cabin materials and reassuringly hefty build quality, the original was all about its genius interior packaging and agile, lightweight driving experience. It’s easy to forget, however, that both the original Mini and today’s Mini Electric exist thanks to the influence of surprisingly similar megatrends.

First a (very) brief history lesson. In 1956, Israel, France and the UK invaded Egypt in response to President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal – a critical shipping route from the Middle East to the West. Following much international condemnation, the invading forces retreated. This act would seriously impact the UK’s ability to import oil from Iraq, leading to petrol rationing in the late ’50s.

Like America in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis, the rationing of petrol led to a demand for more fuel efficient vehicles and, in 1959, gave birth to arguably the most iconic small British car ever made – the Morris Mini-Minor or, more commonly, the Mini. It was a sensational piece of engineering – the front-wheel-drive layout meant the majority of its cabin space could be used for passengers and luggage, giving it impressive practicality that belied its modest dimensions.

So where does 2020’s Mini Electric fit into this story? We might not be in the midst of an armed conflict with Egypt, but there are new forces pushing us to use less fuel – namely the threat of climate change and the ever-increasing cost of importing oil. This is why BMW has opted to fit the current F56-generation Mini with a battery-electric powertrain – it futureproofs the model as regulations against combustion-engined vehicles tighten, and clearly signals the company’s intention to make electric power a regular choice in the Mini lineup.

What is it?

On the surface, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a regular fuel-powered Mini. It has the same compact, three-door body shape with oversized head and brake-lights, the same well-made cabin and the same level of personalisation (more on that later). However, stare at it a little longer and the differences start to emerge – those odd, asymmetric four-spoke alloy wheels, the plastic cover over the front grille with its bold flash of yellow, and the similarly bright mirror caps all point to the fact this Mini is hiding something special.

Under the bonnet is… a grey plastic cover obscuring all the interesting mechanical components – Mini’s representatives gently insisted we didn’t try to remove it. However, lurking beneath the cover we were assured we would find a version of the 184hp electric motor previously employed in the BMW i3. With 199lb ft of torque available from a standstill and a single-speed transmission, the Mini Electric hits 62mph from rest in 7.3 seconds and a top speed of 93mph. BMW points to its 0-37mph time of 3.9 seconds – the same as a Mini Cooper S – as a more meaningful measure of its strong real-world acceleration.

The motor draws power from a T-shaped battery pack made up of 12 individual Li-ion prismatic modules. The pack fits under the centre console and rear seats and, unlike previous prototype electric Minis, hasn’t impacted on storage or passenger space. With a capacity of 32.6kWh, it claims a range between 124 and 144 miles on the WLTP test cycle. Connected to 11kW AC power, the car can be charged from flat to 80% in two and a half hours, dropping to just 35 minutes on a 50kW DC power source. BMW has also adjusted the Mini Electric’s suspension to account for the redistributed weight of the battery and motor.

To maintain the battery’s health in the long term, the Mini Electric’s pack is cooled and heated via liquid unlike the Nissan Leaf’s air-cooled unit. That liquid temperature control system is linked to the car’s HVAC system which can be set to pre-warm the cabin on cold mornings while keeping the battery pack in its ideal operating range. BMW has made it possible to replace just one module if it fails rather than the whole pack. This reduces the potential cost of battery repair from more than £4,000 to around £350 per battery module.

If you’ve seen the current Mini’s cabin before, you won’t find many surprises behind the wheel. In fact, the only real change is the addition of an oval-shaped digital dash screen replacing the fuel-powered Mini’s analog rev counter. This screen displays a state of charge gauge on one side, a power usage gauge on the other and a speedometer in the middle. An electronic handbrake is another new addition. Elsewhere, the cabin is unchanged and, while it won’t impress as a family car, there is just enough room in the hatchback for four adults to sit relatively comfortably with room for the weekly shop in the 211-litre boot.

Personalised in Britain

Like the rest of the range, the Mini Electric offers a wealth of personalisation options to make it your own. The squared four-spoke alloy wheels are unique to the Mini Electric but these can be substituted for the fuel-powered Mini’s wheels if you prefer. Additionally, the bright yellow exterior accents that mark the Electric model out are optional, meaning you can have all the benefits of the electric powertrain without having to shout about it.

At the car’s launch, David George, Mini’s UK Director acknowledged that price was often a barrier to entry for some potential electric vehicle customers, but highlighted the Mini Electric’s competitive pricing. In the UK, the Mini Electric will cost £24,400 after the £3,500 Government electric vehicle grant. More relevant, however, is the fact that the car can be had on finance for less than £300 per month with an initial deposit of roughly £4,000. That makes it slightly cheaper than the Nissan Leaf but a little more than a Renault Zoe.

It’ll hit the road in March 2020 and will initially launch in the UK and EU markets – BMW will monitor demand for the model before deciding whether to export it to other major markets such as China or the US. The version BMW showed us in Oxford was essentially production ready but the firm is taking the last few months to further refine the car’s software.

Crucially, the Mini Electric is built on the same line in Oxford as the combustion-engined model. The motor and inverter package are raised up into the body and use the same mounting points as the regular car’s combustion engine. The battery is also inserted from underneath and only requires a few additional mounting points to be welded into the chassis before fitment. David George points out that this means production can be flexible with supply of the new model adjusted to meet demand.

Why does it matter?

The Mini Electric is significant for a number of reasons. It offers a tempting blend of a high-tech zero-emissions powertrain wrapped in a desirable and familiar package. It also marks the completion of BMW’s endeavour to introduce an electric powertrain to its compact UKL chassis. While the company wouldn’t confirm it, it’s likely that versions of this powertrain will soon be offered on the UKL-based Mini Countryman, BMW X1 and recently launched 1 Series hatchback.

Industry analysts have criticised BMW for squandering its early lead in electric vehicles. After launching its groundbreaking i3 hatchback and i8 supercar, the company was expected to double down on its electric ambitions but, ultimately, moved too slowly, allowing rivals including Tesla, Daimler, VW and Hyundai to take the lead. Many cite this as the main reason that BMW’s CEO Harald Krüger announced his resignation earlier in July. The Mini Electric represents BMW’s effort to catch-up, prompting the question of whether this is too little, too late, or if it’s the electrified shot in the arm the company needs.

See also: BMW sparks up the Mini Electric