There’s been lots of MINI talk in these pages over the past couple of years. Maybe longer – but it seems that you, my wonderful readership, have lots to say one the subject of the latest generation of car to wear the badge. Some is good. Some is bad… but very little seems to be indifferent.
In the midst of all of this, we’ve been running this MINI First, and all I can tell you is that it’s quietly, effortlessly and economically building up the miles. No fuss. No histrionics. And certainly no sign of any troubles, whatsoever. But then, when I bought this car back in December 2011, the expectations from all those around me was that there should be absolutely no problems from a brand new car, who’s parent company symbolises premium manufacturer.
So, what is the MINI First? Available since 2009, the First has been the company’s entry level model – as the MINI One had obviously become too luxurious and expensive. It’s a model that I remember calling for when I used to write for Modern MINI magazine – a basic, stripped out model that could be bought for a headline price. And it has to be said that this was pretty much delivered with the First. Early models were powered by a 1.4-litre engine, but this was soon replaced by a detuned 1.6-litre (still putting out the same 75bhp). List price in December 2011 was £10,989 and basics such as metallic paint and air conditioning were on the options list.
But on the upside, you still ended up with a well-engineered car that was lacking equipment and had not been de-contented, a very important difference. The deal I haggled on was to throw in those two extras for free – which my MINI Dealer, Wollaston, gladly did.
What’s to report about the car, now we’ve been running it for 17 months and have racked up 17,000 miles? Very little really – it handles its 40-mile daily commute with ease and continues to average 45mpg. At 70mph it’s ticking along at 2100rpm and that is clearly a big factor in its reasonable economy.
There have been no faults at all and the car still feels as tightly screwed together as the day it left Cowley. I managed to blag a quick drive of it today and still find myself impressed with the super-direct steering, agile handling and chunky gearchange from its six-speed ‘box. The ride quality is a bit of a revelation, too, but that’s clearly down to it riding on 195/60x15s shod with Michelin Energy tyres – a much smaller size than people are used to these days.
Does it feel like a stripped out economy special model? Well, in reality, it’s not really one of those at all. Yes, it’s lacking luxury equipment, but all of the essentials are there, and I only really notice how simple out MINI is when jumping back into it after riding in someone else’s (inevitably better equipped) car. The other aspect that really delights about this car is its engine – yes, it’s a simple old 1.6-litre with a pretty low specific output, but it’s smooth and torquey and only really gets breathless above the UK legal limit. And it makes you realise just how much of a compromise in terms of refinement and power delivery even the best diesels are…
You’ll have no doubt noticed that we’ve not really succumbed to the customising bug. And rightly so. The core of this MINI’s appeal (and why I bought it) is its honesty and lack of pretention. So, there’s no black room, chrome bling, or oversized car-park unfriendly wheels to worry about. Much of the exterior brightwork you see on other MINIs is missing and, other than the grille surround and door trims, that’s your lot. Having said that, I have fitted a factory chrome exhaust tip (an eye watering £47) as the naked pipe sticking out from under the bumper looked like a Kwik-Fit special and upgraded to MY13-spec flat wiper arms and blades, which makes a huge difference in terms of performance.
And I ditched the bloody awful wheeltrims that came with it, resisting the temptation (so far) of buying alloy wheels – instead just fitting some simple centre caps.
So, there you have it. For all those doubters, you can buy a well-made, reliable and well-priced MINI. Forget the politics, try not to dwell on the past and rejoice in the fact that Britain’s cheapest (when I bought it) brand new car has turned out to be pretty good on all counts. It’s been fun so far and I’m now looking forward to seeing just how much they can improve it on the replacement model, due late this year. It’s going to have to be damned good to beat this one.