We’ve come to Puerto Rico to drive the latest incarnation of BMW’s Mini, the third since the iconic small car was reinvented in 2001. In the 13 intervening years, more than 2m Minis have exited the Oxford plant, built on the site of the old Morris Cowley factory. But what appears at first glance to be nothing more than a midlife tickle of the three-door Mini hatch, is in fact an entirely new car.
New platform, new engines, new tech. But the same old appeal, the same character. That was a key goal, and one that was going to be tough to achieve in the face of a bigger footprint and demands for greater refinement.
Compared with the outgoing Mini, this one has grown 98mm in length, but, to the disappointment of anyone who’ll ever sit in the back, only 28mm in wheelbase. The remainder has been eaten up meeting pedestrian safety standards and providing a much-needed 30% improvement in luggage space.
You still need the flexibility of overcooked pasta to get in the back (the position of the seat catch doesn’t help; the forthcoming five-door may have the answer), but a big increase in shoulder room does make the new car feel more spacious.
Not that you’ll notice at first, because you’ll be too busy prodding and poking a cabin whose material quality has jumped ten-fold compared with its predecessors’. Nowhere more is this felt than in the centre stack, previously home to a hideously sub-Dacia collection of brittle plastics, but now as pleasing as that in any 3-series.
Once you’ve finished admiring the craftsmanship, a second thought dawns. It’s all recognisably Mini in here, but it’s gone a bit sensible too. The window switches are now located on the door panel rather than the console, and the iconic central speedo has moved permanently to a pod behind the steering wheel.
The big circular hole it vacates is still there, and now home to a BMW-style infotainment screen that’s so clearly the wrong shape and cries out to be touched, but is actually operated, like the old one, by an iDrive-type controller between the seats. I hear that touch-screen tech may soon be on the way.
The Mini team say this shift is a response to customer feedback, particularly from the US. They didn’t like the old starter button being hidden behind the steering wheel, for instance, so now it’s a much cooler looking toggle located in the centre console. To complement it, every Mini in the range has keyless go as standard.
That may change when more affordable entry-level models arrive, taking the place of the current Mini One and First, and probably augmented by a full Monopoly Board’s worth of London-themed special editions. But when the first cars land in dealers this spring, the range will be limited to just three versions: £15,300 Cooper, £16,450 Cooper Diesel, and £18,650 Cooper S.
It’s tempting to head straight for the big lad, which takes a peculiarly un-zeitgeisty path, swapping last year’s 1.6-litre turbo petrol for a new 2.0 turbo four. Power climbs from 181bhp to 189bhp and torque leaps from 177lb ft to 206lb ft, even reaching 221lb ft when the overboost function is in full flight. We’re sticking with the far slower, but far more intriguing Cooper for reasons we’ll come to in a minute.
The oversized lamps front and rear, and their giant chrome surrounds make it easier to differentiate this Mini from its predecessor than it was in 2007, and there’s one huge differentiator under the bonnet. Or not so huge, because should you lift the clamshell bonnet and remove the stylised insulation pad, you’re faced with a shoebox of an engine.
It’s a 1.5-litre triple, and, like the platform, will go on to power the first BMW-badged front-driver currently being readied in Munich. More exotically, it is also very closely related to the 1.5-litre three augmenting a huge battery pack in BMW’s i8 hybrid supercar. Best moderate your enthusiasm just a little though, because the Cooper’s 134bhp is somewhat less hirsute than the 228bhp in the i8.
Still, that’s 16bhp more than the last, naturally aspirated, Cooper made, and anyway, it’s the torque that’s the real story. Where the old Cooper produced just 118lb ft and needed to be abused, the new Cooper makes a solid 162lb ft from only 1250rpm, transforming not only the performance, but its character too.
Toggle the starter switch and the little engine erupts with just the right amount of burble. Triples usually sound cool, but they’re not always the most refined of engines. This one channels just the right amount of Quattro-ness to make it interesting, but not so much that the car illiterate would even notice it was anything other than a conventional in-line four.
Grab the shifter, now mercifully redesigned so it doesn’t feel like the top half has fallen off, push forward for the first of the six available ratios and the Mini scoots away on a wave of torque. Performance is now firmly in lower-rung hot-hatch territory for the first time on a non-S Cooper. Sixty-two appears on the new speedo in 7.9sec, a massive 1.1sec quicker than before, but it’s the in-gear shove you notice the most, that easily accessed big-car surge that makes climbing hills and overtaking easier.
So it’s a much more usable engine than before, and hugely more frugal too. The old Cooper was one of the least profligate petrol cars on sale, recording 52mpg on the combined cycle, but the new car can better 60, which is so good that as a private buyer you’d have to question the wisdom of shelling out another £1150 for the 80mpg Cooper D, which also derives its 113bhp from a new 1.5-litre triple.
But don’t uncork that champagne just yet: to make those numbers work, BMW has saddled the Cooper with a decidedly unsporting set of ratios that don’t let the little triple show what it can really do. Second gear runs to 70mph and third to over 100mph, meaning that not only is in-gear go compromised, but the big gap hurts through-the-gears pace too. This is a great little engine, but it never feels quite as energetic as it could.
Speaking to a senior Munich-based engineer, I ask if we might expect a hotter Cooper (the first since 2002’s Cooper Works) to join the range, bridging the gap between this car and the S. He doesn’t deny it.
That being said, you can still get up to serious mischief in the Cooper. Flick the controller at the base of the gearstick to Sport and the throttle response improves markedly, while simultaneously adding a little heft to the steering.
Throw a few curves at the new chassis and it’s clear that for all its newfound refinement, the Mini hasn’t lost any of its ability to entertain. The steering is quick, responsive and points the nose with unfailing accuracy, although the weightier Sport mode adds an unwelcome viscosity away from centre.
Though other small cars have made strides when it comes to agility, the Mini remains the entertainment benchmark, still boasting that trademark agility.
Standard Coopers still come on 15-inch tyres, but ours had the optional 17s, as will many UK cars. Though Mini’s claim to have invented the ability to personalise your car is plainly a fib (it conveniently forgets the ’64 Mustang), few cars are as configurable as this.
And it’s not just paint and trim we’re talking about. To fit with the new premium feel, there are premium options too: adaptive cruise control, LED headlights, and a reversing camera.
Of them all, the adaptive dampers are likely the most worthwhile, particularly if you’re planning to run big rubber. Clever work by Mini’s engineers means you don’t hear much thumping as you pass over bumps, but, as with every Mini, you certainly feel them.
Hitching a ride back to the airport in a Countryman however, revealed just how much better the new car is. While the Countryman assaults you with painful levels of road noise and a jarring ride, the latest Mini feels mostly composed and always quiet, and the cabin quality is on another plane.
Other Mini variants, including the Countryman, will benefit from the new drivetrains and architecture in time, though judging from the way senior engineers talked about the less than successful Mini Roadster and Coupes in the outgoing line-up, they might not pass this way again.
Although much is made of the Mini’s Britishness, this is a car conceived and engineered in Germany. Anglo-German relationships have had their ups and downs, but the Mini has been an absolute triumph, and with this latest generation, the results have only improved.
There are things we’d change, certainly, the Cooper’s gearing, and maybe a little more rear-seat room. But contrary to earlier reports, the new Mini looks great, feels twice as expensive as before and is as fun to drive as ever.