Such a bright spark
ITH the internal combustion engine allegedly heading for the scrapheap it seems that virtually every week a big motor manufacturer announces plans to build electric or hybrid cars.
As increasingly tough emissions standards and bad publicity for fossil fuels play out with buyers, the new buzzword with motor manufacturers is ‘‘electrification’.’
Volkswagen has just announced it will build electric versions of every model in its range by 2030 while Mercedes’ parent Daimler has vowed a similar move with its own cars by 2022.
Mitsubishi has achieved amazing sales with its Outlander PHEV plug-in so it’s no surprise that BMW-owned MINI is leaping on the bandwagon with its first plug-in hybrid SUV – the impressive Countryman S E ALL4.
And the new MINI ensures potential buyers sit up and take notice by making the electric range useable in the real world without compromising practicality.
For those who want zero-emissions motoring in the urban jungle – and MINI says nine out of 10 of its customers drive a maximum of 40 miles a day – the Countryman is undeniably appealing as the efficient lithium-ion battery powers the rear wheels.
But don’t think this is simply a city slicker as the addition of a refined 1.5litre three-cylinder 87bhp petrol turbo engine propelling the front wheels gives it a decent range and plenty of power for the open road.
It is fun to drive and, while the S badging is slightly misleading, there is still hot hatch performance.
The combined power units boast 224bhp which, with the help of a slick six-speed automatic transmission, sends the Countryman to 62mph from a standing start in a scintillating 6.8 seconds.
The handling is excellent and there are decent levels of grip allowing corners to be taken with confidence thanks to the intelligent all-wheel drive.
There is a choice of three drive modes – Auto eDrive, Max eDrive and Save Battery.
Auto allows purely electric driving up to a speed of 50mph. The petrol engine then automatically kicks in, as it does if you are accelerating quickly or when the battery charge falls below seven per cent.
The Max setting provides for purely electric driving up to 78mph with a range of 26 miles, while Save Battery does what it says on the tin, making the car reliant on the petrol engine.
For the vast majority of the time Auto mode is the choice unless you want to save the electric power for a city congestion zone where zero emissions come in handy.
The battery lives under the rear seats and can be charged via a household mains electricity socket in a shade over three hours or by a bespoke wall charger unit in two and half hours.
The UK is still in the slow lane when it comes to developing charging infrastructure, but the number of sites offering power points for electric vehicles are increasing with most motorway service stations I’ve visited recently offering this facility.
Overall emissions of just 49g/km leave the Countryman in the lowest company car tax bracket while its £31,585 price-tag removes it from the clutches of the £310 road tax surcharge for motors costing more than £40,000.
Running costs are further contained with a claimed fuel economy figure of 134mpg when driven under stringent conditions which equates to a still excellent 60mpg-plus in the real world.
There is no cost cutting in the cabin though as soft-touch materials, top quality fit and finish, MINI’s usual toggle switches and the dinner plate central screen are all included.
Plenty of kit is thrown in as well with the Countryman getting sat nav, dualzone air conditioning, DAB radio and Bluetooth, plus cruise control and alloy wheels.
The Countryman is the largest MINI in the range but the battery takes up a bit of space so the 405-litre boot is 45 litres smaller than in the standard car. It opens up to 1,275 litres when the rear seats are folded while space in the back for two adults remains excellent.
The iconic MINI spell is cast through a unique exterior which has been enticing buyers since before Michael Caine planned the Italian Job. The addition of electric power looks set to make it even more desirable in the modern era.
TEST DRIVE MINI COUNTRYMAN
Model: MINI Countryman Cooper S E ALL4 Price: £31,585 Mechanical: 224bhp, 1,499cc, 3cyl petrol engine and electric motor driving four wheels via 6-speed automatic gearbox Max speed: 123mph 0-62mph: 6.8 seconds Combined mpg: 134.4 Insurance group: 26 CO2 emissions: 49g/km BiK rating: 9% Warranty: 3yrs/100,000 miles