As MINI celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, the BMW-owned brand is preparing for its biggest shake-up since the second-generation Mini was first introduced in 2000. An all-electric MINI, the first full production battery electric model in the brand's history since 1959, is on the way. We'll see it in full, and find out its technical specs, in June, while production starts this November. The first customer cars should start landing here in March 2020, or thereabouts.
There's a significant Irish connection to the development of the MINI E, as the electric model will be known. Dundalk native James Redmond's official job title is 'Product Integration MINI BEV Engine Compartment', which means he's in charge of not only making sure that all of the electrical gubbins will fit in where once there was a petrol or diesel engine, but also that all of the required production processes will fit into MINI's factory in Cowley, just outside Oxford in England.
"Back in September 2016 we started working on this, and we started with a virtual evaluation. So the engineers for the cooling system, the 12-volt system, the electric motor, the management system and the high-voltage system," James told CompleteCar.ie. "All of these parts get decided upon and optimised, and then you integrate them into the car in a virtual system. And then the arguing starts. You're looking for clashes and how you assemble it, and you evaluate every single nut and bolt before it's ready. Design is still ongoing at that point. You're giving constant feedback, and sometimes we might go back to design and say, 'you need to change this here, here, and here' and they'll tell you 'lads, we already have a total redesign ready to go.' So it's live. You work through production trees, into which parts and components are populated, and you work out where everything needs to go and how everything needs to fit in, and you keep optimising on down. But it's all virtual up to that point, it's only when you're happy with all of that, that you start building the first prototype cars. And as good as you'll ever be at putting all this together, and you think you've covered every angle, there will always be something that needs some tiny tweaks."
What makes the MINI E almost unique for now is that it's going to be built on the same production line as a diesel or petrol variant, so slotting in the new rigs needed to, for instance, install the electric motor and its associated parts into the engine bay, is tricky. "We spent a lot of time working that out" said John. "And you always find things that need to be changed. You might need a specific bit of equipment for a task, and think you've found a space for it, but when you work it all out you find that, no, a person has to be standing in that space at that point in the build process, so it's back to the drawing board."
Not that there are many people in MINI factory. Thanks to a recent £750 million investment (approx. €870 million), much of the initial work is done by a horde of robots, who take flat-stamped panels that arrive by truck from MINI's pressing plant in Swindon and which, 28 hours later, are turned into finished MINIs rolling off the production line and onto an waiting train for export. The site is an old one - some of the buildings, including the main assembly hall, date back to 1926 and were once used by both Morris Motors (latterly British Leyland and Rover Group) and Pressed Steel Fisher. At its peak, the Cowley plant employed 28,000 people. Now, MINI needs just 4,500 to turn out 220,000 cars a year, across three daily shifts, at a speed of roughly one car passing through a build station every minute.
Into this mechanical maelstrom, the new MINI E will be flung in November, but what do we know about the car as yet? Not a huge amount - MINI and BMW are being tight-lipped about the car's likely performance figures, but here's what we do know...
It uses the same chassis and body as the regular MINI hatchback and will be available in only three-door form at first. There are no exotic lightweight materials (unlike BMW's carbon-fibre i3) so, given that the unadorned steel bodyshell weighs 450kg before trimming, and we know that the battery pack by itself weighs 250kg, this is going to be a chunky MINI. It won't look all that different to a regular model either - aside from a blanked-off grille and some other small styling tweaks, such as distinctive, asymmetric, aerodynamic alloy wheels. MINI has decided that the E should be different enough to stand out, but not so OTT as to appear 'weird.'
How far will it go on a charge? Well, the battery pack is likely to match the i3's 42kWh capacity, but the MINI will be heavier and less aerodynamically efficient, so you're probably looking at around 200-250km in real-world conditions. MINI insiders admit it's just a first toe in the electric car pool, and not a dramatic game-changer for the brand. Not yet, anyway.
We do also know that it will be brisk to drive. "It really shifts though; it feels like a John Cooper Works to drive. My daily car is an E46 M3 3.2-litre at the moment, and the MINI BEV does not disappoint when it comes to acceleration. And it has such good handling too" said Redmond. "The experience is different. With a petrol, you're used to planting your foot and watching the needles climb, and then we got hooked on diesels and turbodiesels, and then you had turbo lag. And maybe with the old 535d we got past turbo lag, and the car would go like a mad thing. And now, with BEV, you've got turbo power with no turbo. As quick as you're putting your foot to the floor, the speed is coming up. It's instant torque."
Asked whether he thinks BMW can hold its own in the electric car sphere against 'disruptors' such as Tesla, Rivian and even Dyson, Redmond has no doubts: "Everything BMW's done to date, we don't jump straight at it, but we do deliver. We do things in the right time, and it's about quality - we don't force feed the market with sub-quality products. And it has to be right for the market, people have to pull the car from you, and I think the timing is right now.
"If you start up as a new car company now you have the advantage that all your factories are going to be electric from the floor up. If, like us, you're already a maker of petrols and diesels, then you have to retrofit and refit, which requires investment. But BMW has been through a lot down the years, and we've made everything from cars to bikes to aeroplanes, so it'll all happen if the customer wants it to happen. If people want electric cars, we'll build them."