Head of Mini brand Sebastian Mackensen, left, and head of series management Peter Wolf check out the Countryman E development mule.

Munich, Germany - What you are looking at is not only the first plug-in hybrid Mini; under the camouflage it's also the next-generation Countryman, both of which are expected to be released in 2017.

The new Countryman E has BMW's by-now-familiar 1.5-litre turbopetrol three, delivering 100kW and 220Nm to the front wheels via a six-speed auto transmission - but with an electric motor rated for 15kW and a hard-working 150Nm, also under the bonnet but driving the rear wheels, acting as a seamless starter for the combustion engine, a generator for the batteries and a serious kick in the butt when you put foot firmly on the loud pedal.

This near-production development mule doesn't even look like a hybrid, and that's not only because of the anti-spy-shot camo paint job. The charging socket for the high-voltage battery pack is tucked away in the left side scuttle and the dashboard looks almost identical to that of a conventional Mini - except that there's a power display in place of the usual rev-counter.

And when you push the start-stop button in the middle of the dashboard, nothing happens; the car always defaults to electric drive on start-up. That gives you up to 80km of zero-emission driving, depending on how enthusiastic you are with the aforementioned loud pedal, before the petrol engine kicks in to help.

In the default Auto eDrive mode, top speed is limited to 80km/h, while Max eDrive will take you up you 125km/h - albeit not for very long, we fear.

Combined efforts

Put your foot down hard, however, and you get the combined outputs of both drives, which BMW says is hotter on initial acceleration than the four-cylinder turbopetrol Cooper models.

And with the weight of the batteries balancing the drivetrain under the bonnet, weight distribution is well-nigh perfect, and the centre of gravity is lower than on a conventional Mini. More than that, the power controller for the electric motor is also hooked into the dynamic stability control set-up, sending more or less torque to the rear wheels as required to prevent under or oversteer. BMW says you won't even feel it working; the car will just stick to its line through corners like an Italian motorcycle.

There's also a third driving mode: Save Battery. That uses straight petrol power to drive the car while charging the battery, so that you can drive the last few kilometres back into the city and home on pure electric power, and then plug it in to the mains overnight to recharge.

Motoring.co.za

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