The latest MINI sticks to a tried and tested routine. It's just become bigger and better. Andy Enright takes an early look.
Ten Second Review
Bigger, better equipped, more efficient and with a punchier range of engines, the latest MINI moves the game on. The styling is much as before with only subtle differences being apparent to MINI anoraks but the cumulative effect of all those changes is that this is now a far better car than its predecessor.
For a car that's been so successful, the modernday MINI seems to have nevertheless disgruntled quite a few people. "Look at the size of it," snort its detractors. "That's no Mini. It's a front-wheel drive BMW in disguise," they scoff. They might well have a point and if you're to embrace and enjoy the latest MINI, it's best you think of it as a car completely different to the original, merely cribbing some of its design cues. That's because the latest third generation modern era MINI has grown. It now measures 3821mm in length and it's 1727mm wide which will have some up in arms, but let's keep a sense of proportion. It's still shorter than a 1990s Ford Fiesta, a vehicle hardly recognised as a leviathan amongst cars.
The key themes in developing this latest car have been to retain the look while improving quality, refinement and efficiency. Some smart technology has crept in which is sure to be popular. Although it looks much the same, be under no illusions: this latest model is a massively improved vehicle.
So what's changed in the chassis and engine department? Everything, basically. The chassis is BMW's clever UKL1 platform which will also underpin a number of front-wheel drive BMW models. The engines comprise five powerplants to begin with, starting with the 102bhp 1.2-litre petrol unit fitted to the entry-level MINI One. Next up is the first of the diesels, a 95bhp 1.5-litre unit fitted to the MINI One D. If you really want your MINI to have a bit of zip though, you'll need to start your search for one at Cooper level, where a 1.5-litre petrol unit offers an eager 136bhp, gets you to 62mph in 7.9s and arguably represents the sweet spot in the range. As before, there's also a Cooper diesel option, this time the 1.5-litre diesel with 116bhp, scuttling you to 62mph in just 9.2 seconds. Then there's the Cooper S, with a 2.0-litre petrol engine putting out a useful 192bhp, a lot of poke for something so small, with 62mph just 6.8s away.
MINI customers also get to choose between three different six-speed transmissions. There's a manual 'box with a clever trick, being able to throttle blip on downshifts to mimic the action of a pro heel-and-toe downshift. We've seen this tech before in the Nissan 370Z and it smoothes your entry into a corner. There are also two automatic gearboxes on offer, a conventional auto and an optional sports auto which enables even shorter shift times, features rev matching on downward shifts and can be operated in manual mode using shift paddles behind the steering wheel. The suspension of the latest MINI has been extensively revised, both in design and in materials used, with much of it built from aluminium to save weight. There's also Variable Damper Control. Available as an option, it offers drivers a choice of two distinct set-ups, a more comfort-oriented response or a focused, sporty feel.
Design and Build
The styling doesn't look all that different and you might feel a bit short-changed at this latest car's lack of head turning ability. It's only when you park it next to one of the last 'R56' generation cars that you can see how the styling direction has evolved. Yes, it is a bit bigger, measuring 98mm longer, 44mm wider and 7mm taller than its predecessor. The wheelbase has been extended by 28mm, while the track width has been enlarged at the front by 42mm and at the rear by 34mm. So the longer, wider and only a little bit taller proportions give it a squatter, more purposeful look, helped by the more tapered glasshouse. LED headlights are offered as an option for both main and dipped beam and they're surrounded by an LED daylight driving ring. Roof rails are available for the MINI hatch for the first time.
As you might expect given the more generous cut of its cloth, the MINI hatch is a good deal more spacious inside. There's a lot more shoulder space across the back and bigger footwells. The front seats have been given a wider adjustment range and the base has been lengthened by 23mm for additional comfort and support. Access to the rear is easier and the rear bench seat splits 60:40. Boot volume has been increased by more than 30 per cent to 211-litres. There's also more interior stowage space, with additional cupholders and storage cubbies. The big centrally mounted circular speedometer has been ditched in favour of a more sophisticated multi function display, with a more conventional speedo flanked with a crescent-moon rev counter in the main instrument binnacle.
Market and Model
Prices have risen by around two per cent across the board, which isn't bad for a bigger and better equipped car. That means for Hatch models, you'll pay just under £14,000 for a MINI One, with a premium of around £1,200 if you want the diesel version. For a Cooper Hatch you'll pay just over £15,000, with the same kind of premium for the pokey Cooper SD diesel.At the top of the range, you'll need to allow a budget of nearly £19,000 for the Cooper S Hatch, once you've allowed for a few well chosen extras. Still, that doesn't seem too much of an exorbitant sum for such a quick and capable car. Equipment levels have risen sharply, with features such as keyless go, ISOFIX child seat fixings front and rear and Bluetooth. The MINI hatch buying proposition has always been about tailoring the car to your personal tastes, so you might well indulge in body stripes, a John Cooper Works spoiler, contrasting mirrors and those LED headlights. You can also choose from technology such as a head-up display, a MINI Navigation System, MINI Connect telematics and traffic sign recognition.
The MINI Touch Controller allows you to write individual letters that the system then recognises when you're trying to input a sat nav destination for instance. We've seen similar tech on Audis in the past and it works extremely well. You can also upgrade the four-line TFT central display to a rather more special 8.8-inch colour screen. Other options include two-zone automatic air-conditioning, heated front seats, a panoramic glass roof, a visibility package including windscreen heating, rain sensors, automatic light control, a Harman Kardon hi-fi speaker system and a sports leather steering wheel. You can also spend your money on Park Distance Control, electrically heated and folding exterior mirrors, and an automatic anti-dazzle function for the interior and exterior mirrors. As you can see, the base retail price is just an opening gambit.
Cost of Ownership
Manufacturers can't launch a car these days without trumpeting on about lighter weight, lower emissions and better economy - and so it proves with the latest MINI. As you might well expect, the Cooper D gets the best figures, managing over 80mpg on the combined cycle with CO2 emissions as low as 92g/km. The Cooper registers 62.8mpg economy. The punchy Cooper S is fitted with a bigger engine but even here, economy has crept up from 49.0mpg to 49.6mpg. It's also worth noting that the automatic gearboxes don't impose a huge penalty in efficiency as they did on the last model.
A further new innovation lies with the MINI Driving Modes, another optional extra. Using a rotary switch at the base of the gearstick or selector lever, drivers can swap from the default MID mode to either SPORT or GREEN. The three choices offer a set-up which is either performance-oriented, comfort-biased or geared towards fuel efficiency. The latter includes a coasting mode when the driver removes their foot from the accelerator pedal. MINI Driving Modes also influence the ambient lighting, shift characteristics of the automatic transmission and the Variable Damper Control - if that extra cost option is selected.
So what's happened to the MINI hatch? It's become bigger and better finished, the engines are peppier and more efficient plus there are a great many more high-tech options to select from. That said, despite changing so much under the skin, it feels very much a case of as you were, MINI perhaps a little cautious of alienating either existing owners or potential new customers with something radical.
Don't let that make you think we're underwhelmed by the MINI. It's still a great hatch and the latest changes give it some legs to continue the success story, with exciting introductions planned on the near horizon. The prices look very reasonable at the moment, but to get the best from this car, you'll probably want to throw a few of those high-end options at it, so budget accordingly and take that into account when you're calculating your cost of ownership numbers. The MINI might have grown up but it doesn't look as if it's lost its sense of fun.