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The Charging Point

Your one-stop destination for electric and hybrid cars

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Tackling South America in Mini's Latest Plug-in Hybrid

There is a general consensus among many motorists that electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles are somehow less able than their internal combustion engine counterparts.

But Tesla blew much of the competition out of the water with the gut-busting acceleration of its P100D, while Jaguar recently proved that its I-Pace was perfectly at home climbing rocky Portuguese mountainsides and traversing the odd stream.

To prove a point of its own, Mini recently embarked on an epic adventure that would start in Texas and end in Ushaia, Argentina, to prove the hardiness of its Cooper S E Countryman All4 PHEV.

Over 10,000 miles, 12 countries and numerous border crossings would be just the beginning of the story for these mighty Minis, as a distinct lack of charging infrastructure and some of the roughest roads known to man would prove even more challenging hurdles.

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Cartagena to Medellin

As fans of the hit Netflix TV show Narco, we were fully aware of the dangers that Colombia once posed, but that didn't prevent the inquisitive side of us from agreeing to pilot the Countryman PHEV from the north of the country to the border crossing in the south.

Our leg would see us begin in the tourist-friendly city of Cartagena, traverse Medellin, Cali and Pasto, before making the border crossing over to Quito and into Ecuador.

The cars had already undergone some seriously punishing terrain, from the arid and dusty landscapes of Texas and Mexico, to the sweltering humidity and lunatic drivers of Honduras.

But so far, these largely stock machines (apart from winter tyres, roof racks and some trick headlights) have required little more than topping up with fuel and the occasional jet wash.

Hotels and stop-over points in the USA and the north of Mexico generally featured charging points that allowed the team to plug the vehicles in and make the most of the 26-mile all-electric range but these soon dried up the further south they travelled.

However, drivers of the previous legs had been impressed by the way in which the kinetic recovery system was able to charge the batteries on the many descents, freeing up electricity to use later at lower speeds around town.

But our hack from Cartagena to Medellin would provide little time to explore the technical highlights of the Countryman PHEV, as shipping issues at the Panama Canal had hugely impacted the schedule.

Instead, we would endure a 400-mile blast south towards Medellin, which would take around 14 hours thanks to the painfully slow roads and traffic.

After leaving Cartagena at 3pm and with three drivers rotating shifts behind the wheel (a fellow journalist and a member of the Mini support crew occupied the other seats), we finally pulled into the Intercontinental Hotel, Medellin, at around 5am the following day.

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Cruising to Cali

After rising early the following morning and rubbing just a couple of hours sleep from our eyes, we would make the long and arduous journey to Cali, former home of the second most famous drugs cartels in all of the Colombia.

But the country has largely moved on from those dark days and the huge cities are now bustling with student life, restaurants, bars and high-rise hotels that accommodate tourists from all over the world.

It's just a shame that the roads connecting these major hubs are little more than dirt tracks in places, with landslides, major engineering works, livestock and fallen jungle vegetation often forcing hour-long queues every few miles.

The small fleet of Countryman PHEVs are equipped with fuel cans on the roof, as some of the later stretches in South America are so vast there simply aren't enough petrol stations to cope with the mileage.

But here, in the undulating hills of Colombia there's little call for them, as the hybrid system cleverly tops up the on-board battery packs that assist the 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder petrol engine, offering additional torque to climb up the hills and then recharging the system on the coast back down.

Official fuel economy is pegged at a staggering 134.5mpg, but we reckon it's more like 50mpg when driven carefully. More if you practice the fine arts of 'hyper-miling' to get the most out of the system.

This is helped by the addition of a 'Save' mode, which means it's possible to preserve juice in the batteries for later in the journey, although we were happy allowing the car to make those sorts of decisions and seamlessly flip from engine to hybrid to electric power.

Another late arrival into Cali would only give us time to get a good night's sleep in before another hard day of driving but this Mini feels refined, quiet, comfortable and leaves occupants in surprisingly good shape at the end of a long drive.

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Pasto and the crossing to Ecuador

Thankfully, the roads improve as we pick our way further south towards Pasto, a small border town that acts as a popular stopover before heading into Ecuador.

With a 4G Wi-Fi dongle fitted to the car, it's possible to stream all manner of music and podcasts to the Mini's excellent touchscreen infotainment system and many hours are spent arguing over what will play over the sound system.

But staring out of the window is entertaining enough, as this part of the country is exceptionally beautiful, with picturesque churches built in to deep valleys, snow-capped mountains and staggering elevation changes making the drive arguably the most engaging it has been yet.

The Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4 PHEV isn't exactly a performance machine but it retains the sharp handling and direct steering characteristics the brand is now famed for, while the addition of electric motors means acceleration is strong.

However, being overly aggressive with the throttle does see the battery reserves deplete quickly, while the overall fuel economy levels drop considerably, especially as we are hauling a lot of kit and cargo.

The border crossing into Ecuador is predictably toilsome, with various stamps and passport checks required from numerous windows and officials.

In a miraculous move, our car is the first to be given the all clear to cross, so we speed ahead without the remainder of the convoy to enjoy the last of the daylight and take in some of Ecuador's breath-taking mountain scenery.

After a few confused exchanges with police patrol (they don't see many hybrid Minis down this way) we make it to beautiful city of Quito, which immediately feels more relaxed and forward thinking than some of the cities visited in Colombia.

Cycling is hugely popular, a new Metro system is underway and we discover there's even a public charging point in the centre of town, but the information turns out to be unreliable, as it was promptly removed thanks to a lack of use.

If anything, the trip has highlighted the fact that we are blazing a trail here in the UK and Europe with our burgeoning electric charging network, while all of the Minis involved have been faultless, despite the gruelling route.

In fact, all three Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4 models eventually made it to Ushuaia, collectively covering an impressive 34,556 miles, without a single technical hiccup.

So, if anyone tries to argue that hybrid vehicles are somehow less reliable than their internal combustion engine counterparts, you can tell them the tale of the three hardy Minis that dared to traverse the Pan-American Highway... and then some.

 

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