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How Canada’s first MINI Cooper SE owner made the switch to driving electric

Electric, explained: What it’s like to start driving a gas-free car

How Canada’s first MINI Cooper SE owner made the switch to driving electric

If you were asked to picture a typical electric vehicle (EV) owner, you probably wouldn’t think of James Watson. The 46-year-old from Stoney Creek, Ontario, isn’t a tech bro or an inner-city environmentalist. He’s a father of three and a long-time car enthusiast who runs an automotive studio and collects MINIs.

But to hear him tell it, the transition from wrench monkey to EV-owner was only natural. Seeking a reliable daily driver in 2016, he realised that EVs had begun to compete with traditional cars on price and took the plunge on a lease.

Four years and 100,000 kilometres later, he was hooked. So, he decided to combine his passions to test out Canada’s first MINI Cooper SE, the electric version of the company’s popular MINI three-door hatch.

Car enthusiast James Watson takes the MINI Cooper SE, the electric version of the company’s popular MINI three-door hatch, out for a spin.Brody White/The Globe and Mail

The power of electricity

“When you push the accelerator it’s like, ‘wow,’” Watson says. “I really didn’t expect the thrust that came out of it. I had this excited grin on my face. I’ve let dozens of people drive it and that’s what happens every time. Nobody comes back without a smile.”

This experience is quite common for first-time EV drivers. The electric car’s environmentally-friendly reputation belies serious power: because they don’t have to shift gears like their gas-powered counterparts, they can hit maximum torque from a standing start. And when that’s paired with a low centre of gravity (thanks to location of the battery) and go-kart like handling, as in the MINI, the effect is even sportier. Result: the first-timer grin.

“My wife actually didn’t like driving the car on Sport Mode, because she said it was too zippy,” Watson says. “So, I’ve had to show her how to turn on Green Mode, which is more about range than performance.”

“With the newer Level Three chargers, you can charge to full in 30 minutes.”

James Watson

What about range?

“The first question people ask is always, ‘What is the range?’” Watson says. “The second is, ‘what happens if you run out?’’

The MINI, which was designed as an urban runabout, has an advertised range of 183 kilometres. Those making the switch from a gas-powered vehicle should plan ahead, Watson advises, keeping in mind that the way you drive will have a big effect on how much power you use.

Partly, this is because electric cars actually recoup energy through a process known as regenerative braking: The moment you take your foot off the accelerator, the electric motor will use the kinetic energy of the car slowing down to recharge the battery. So, stop-start traffic is actually an advantage.

Winter temperatures also factor into range, because lithium-ion batteries are sensitive to the cold and climate control in extreme conditions can require extra energy. Preheating the car interior while it’s plugged in can mitigate the latter (cars like the MINI can do this via an app, and the engine doesn’t need to warm up like a gas-powered car).

Watson uses the example of a recent drive he took with his wife to Orangeville, Ontario, 177 kilometres away, to explain range calculations and charging on the go.

“I go into an app like Plugshare [an EV charging station map] and start researching,” he explains. “I see that there are a few charging stations on the way. People aren’t giving away electricity for free, so it costs about $15.

“I stopped on the way there and the way back,” Watson continues. “With the newer Level Three chargers, you can charge to full in 30 minutes. On the way back there was a grocery store next door, so I went in there and did my shopping, which actually took longer than the charge.”

One road trip, two stops to charge and one grocery shop later, Watson slid into his driveway with his battery one-third full.

Charging on

MINI Cooper SE chargerBrody White/The Globe and Mail

But what happens when you get home? Surely it isn’t as simple as plugging your car into a socket in the garage? The answer to that, Watson says, is yes and no.

Every electric vehicle comes with a Level One charger which plugs into a regular wall socket, but these can take almost a whole day to fully charge the battery. Most owners, Watson included, purchase a Level Two charger, which costs between $500 and $1,200, plugs into a 240-volt power source and can charge the car in a few hours.

“Basically, you are using a glorified extension cord to plug it into the wall; it looks like a garden hose in my driveway,” he says. “People say, ‘Doesn’t it take too long to fill your car?’ And I say, ‘Not really, I’m sleeping when it happens.”

In Watson’s mind, home charging is where electric vehicle ownership really comes into its own. He’s big on back-of-the-envelope calculations, and he’s done quite a few on the savings he’s achieved skirting the gas pump since going electric. His last leased EV saved him $12,500 over four years; his new MINI is well on its way to doing the same.

“People in Canada complain that we pay terrible electricity rates, and they’re right,” he says. “But electricity is still one-tenth the cost of gasoline for a given drive. With the MINI, I’m looking at about $2.50 each time I charge. I keep track: I’ve done 22,096 kilometres and I’ve spent a total of $200 in electricity.

“You can do the math on the equivalent cost for gas.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with MINI. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.