ROMANIA: Let’s be honest, the driver and co-driver were super keyed up and extremely excited when they got into their electric MINI Cooper SE (combined fuel consumption: 0.0 l/100 km; combined electricity consumption: 16.8 – 14.8 kWh/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 0 g/km) in Căpățânenii Ungureni, an idyllic little village.
The three-door car emits a characteristically synthetic murmur to signal the readiness of its systems and the invisible T-shaped rechargeable battery located in the floor of the car permits a range of “250 kilometres” according to the charge level indicator. Eccentric English automobile maniac Jeremy Clarkson called the Transfăgărăşan “the best road in the world” when he drove a super car through a 1,400 metres change in altitude, climbing through steep gradients of 8.6 percent.
Does the MINI have the guts and range to conquer this mountain road that winds through the Transylvanian Alps for 90 kilometres? - Actually, electric cars and high-altitude mountains are a perfect fit. The road-holding of the MINI Cooper SE combines with an almost ideal weight distribution of 54:46, and its low centre of gravity thanks to the underfloor rechargeable batteries transforms the battle of the curves on innumerable spectacular hairpin bends into a veritable pleasure garden.
Furthermore, the electric motor provides great traction by applying its 135 kW/184 hp directly to the road through the front wheels thanks to the automatic transmission and model-specific torque of 270 Nm. This is already obvious immediately after the first few curves. The road unfolds second by second, becoming wilder and ever more dramatic. The car hurtles over viaducts and through tunnels, hurries past waterfalls and jagged scree-covered slopes.
After the first 30 kilometres of road with scenic panoramas and thrilling dynamic driving, it’s time for a break. Not for the MINI but for the crew! Time for a detour from the smooth road surface into a quaint mountain village. This is where the tracks become typically Eastern European and virtually impassable for some cars designed in Western Europe. Not so the MINI: in spite of the battery units, the car is only 145 kilograms heavier than a MINI Cooper S, thanks to the significantly lower weight of an electric motor by comparison with a gas power plant.
Are the cows along the side of the road impressed? This is an area where horse-drawn carts are still common and superannuated tractors make fast cornering into a slalom artform. Such a performance is indeed a rarity in this region – and the four-legged spectators seemingly stare after the MINI with an inquiring curiosity.
In one hairpin bend, the MINI Cooper SE passes a flock of sheep within stroking distance. The engine purrs so quietly that you can hear the “baas” of the woolly sheep. There are plenty of parking spaces in the lot by the barrage wall of the Vidraru Dam, and the scenery presents an invitation to chill out. Out comes the picnic basket from the trunk. It’s just as spacious as its gas relatives with capacity of between 235 and 731 litres (when the back seats are folded down).
The stop produces some memorable photos capturing the mountain panorama with mist rising up. The Transfăgărăşan is called the “road in the clouds.”
Shortly before the top of the pass at an altitude of 2,042 metres, the outside thermometer of the MINI Cooper SE shows a temperature of just a few degrees above zero. Caution for ice: the actuator-operated wheel-slip limiter reliably prevents the front of the car from swerving if the drive wheels start spinning.
Inside the poorly lit Bâlea Tunnel, it’s gloomier than Dracula’s coffin but the daylight LED headlamps light the way though dark thoughts! After crossing over the pass, spectacular downhill slopes mean that recuperation is so robust that the battery is almost fully charged by the time they reach the valley. Clearly, most of the electricity used for the ascents are restored on the descent. The driver is able to decide the rate of recuperation through braking by toggling a button in overrun mode – an innovative feature from MINI.
When the MINI reaches the romantic city of Sibiu, formerly Hermannstadt, it’s time to turn back after more than 90 kilometres of challenging journey up hill and down dale.
*The first all-electric MINI, with 177-km range, is now available in Canada, starting at $39,900 plus taxes - minus government incentives.