The MINI evolves into its fourth generation and is bigger, more efficient and driver-focused than ever. Question is, will it be good enough to continue the success story?
Keith Adams drives the super-economical 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbodiesel Cooper D to see how the latest chapter shapes up.
Since its launch in 2001, more than 1.8 million MINIs have rolled out of the factory in Cowley – it’s been a proper Anglo-German success, made in England in an operation they nickname the MINI Triangle. The outgoing model ended up being developed throughout its life – almost constantly – and, even at the end, it was still a class-leading hatchback, dynamically at least. But now the counter has been reset, and the latest car, which is new from the ground up, has been set a very tough brief – to beat the old car in all areas.
Styling is a clear evolutionary effort – it’s a design policy that MINI set in stone with the arrival of the first new-era model in 2001, to reinvent and reboot the Mini-Cooper. The new car carries over the main visual identifiers, such as its floating roof, big, round headlamps and curvaceous flanks while, at the front, there’s the familiar elongated hexagonal grille (no longer split horizontally), which makes the car so obviously a MINI.
However, there has been some growth, much of which has been concentrated at the front – the overhang is longer more ungainly in profile and the grille juts out more than before. This is a side-effect of improved pedestrian impact regulations and, in truth, it’s not been that well disguised. But once used to the new look, and provided you can warm to its elongated conk, there’s no denying it’s a successful evolution, bringing the MINI bang up to date without scaring existing owners.
The enlargement hasn’t been such that the MINI is anything other than a small car in overall terms. It’s still comfortably shorter than what must be its principal rival, the Audi A1, and mainstream challengers, such as the – admittedly more commodious – Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo, which are more than 15cm longer. Importantly, MINI confirms that there’s more interior room for passengers and luggage – although we’d still count it as a two-plus-two-friends-who-don’t-mind-being-squeezed kind of car than a true four-seater.
The interior has also been overhauled, with what amounts to an all-new ground-up effort, even if it looks largely the same. We searched in vain for any carry-over parts, which for anyone unimpressed with the quality and design of the old MINI, can only be good news. The overall design remains very familiar, if more premium, but everything has been given a lick of polish, bringing it more in line with BMW’s thinking.
The centre-speedometer has gone and, where that once resided, there is now the largest (optional) infotainment screen in its market sector. The new heating and ventilation controls are much more conventional, and all the better for it, while the electric window controls have – like the Countryman – moved to the doors. The speedometer and tachometer are mounted on the steering column directly in the driver’s line of sight. You could say it’s all heading for orthodoxy, but there’s still some way to go, thankfully.
Practicality has been improved, although it’s still nothing to write home about, if space matters to you – the boot being the biggest upgrade with the move into its fourth generation. It needed to be. It’s now 30 per cent larger, and comes with 60:40 split, rather than 50:50 as before. There’s now a false floor, which means you can set the height to one of two positions – and you can stow it vertically to release the full 211 litres (backrests up). It’s still not big, and you can’t specify it with a spare wheel, which is an annoyance.
The biggest change for existing MINI owners will be the lower and more BMW-like driving position. This, combined with thicker A-pillars and less all-round visibility, might take the edge off driving the car confidently in town. We’re certainly disappointed by what feels to be the smaller glass area, as the view out was an old MINI strong point. The mirrors are bigger and more useful, while the new controls for the driving mode selector (Green, Mid and Sport) and improved iDrive-style interface in the centre console are all mastered in seconds.
We’re testing what promises to be the biggest selling MINI in the UK, the Cooper D. Like all the new MINIs, this one gets a brand new power unit – it’s a variation of the modular three- and four-cylinder range of petrols and diesels that are being built at the company’s Hams Hall factory in Birmingham. MINI calls it the TwinPower Turbo, which sounds delightfully retro, but don’t think for a minute that the 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine that powers the Cooper D is not truly cutting edge stuff.
With 116bhp and a thumping 193lb ft (which matches the 2.0-litre Cooper S), comparisons with the outgoing model are largely meaningless. The on-paper figures point to a very efficient little power unit that also performs very well indeed. The claimed 0-62mph time is 9.2 seconds, the combined fuel consumption figure is 80.7mpg (the first MINI to better 80mpg) and the 92g/km CO2 figure is astounding when performance figures are taken into account.
With that out of the way, the big question that we need answering is what it the new MINI like to drive? The first impression is of its astonishing refinement. At idle, there’s a little diesel chatter, but you’re only really aware of it when the window’s open or at a restart when the Stop/Start system is working. When it’s running along A-roads and motorways unless you’re really listening for it, you’ll not be able to tell it’s a diesel. But for those who like to have fun, it pulls very strongly from little more than 1000rpm in any gear and, if you hang on to the revs, it has an appealing, slightly off-beat sound that works for us, right up to the red line.
The gearchange is light and accurate, if not quite as good as before, but the steering is everything a MINI should be – light, accurate and quick, perhaps too quick for some. Turn-in is what we’d describe as savage but, like all quick set-ups, it’s fine once you’re acclimatised to it. Sensitive drivers may feel the power assistance’s artificiality at times, especially when in Sport mode, but on the whole, it’s a very nicely set-up rack.
Handling is predictably brilliant, with bags of lateral grip and nary a trace of understeer. When really pushing on, it’s faithful and you can really lean on it, although it can feel a little hyperactive under heavy, last-minute braking – and, if you’re a late-braker, you might find the ABS can be a little over-eager to cut in. That said, despite these minor gripes, the MINI does put in a masterful performance – all the more so, when you consider that it’s an economical diesel hatchback.
The driver can lean on it into corners pretty much as before, and the improved levels of refinement don’t take any of the fun element away from the driver. In Sport mode, the steering has more weight and it has a far more responsive throttle, and an automatic blip of the throttle as you change down but, in reality, in every day driving, Mid or Green modes (signalled by a gimmicky series of LEDs surrounding the centre screen) offer all you need. For traditionalists, the retention of a traditional handbrake will be good news.
However, while it’s great for play, the other good news is that the new MINI is also excellent on the motorway, astonishingly so. Improved refinement and stability all round make this an excellent long-distance car. Ride quality is also up a notch or three, with tyre and suspension noise markedly reduced. Combine this with the bigger, more supportive driver’s seat, and you’ll step out after a motorway run no more stressed than had you been driving a much larger car. To combine this long-distance refinement with fun handling in the corners really is quite an achievement.
As before, the MINI’s baseline price can be seriously bumped up by plundering the options list. You can specify a BMW-style 8.8-inch screen infotainment system and get it working with all manner of Apps via the MINI Connect and Connect XL systems. You can also add a head-up display (a first in sector), upgrade the stereo, specify auto-braking, auto parking, and variable damping, which reduces body roll in corners. These all come at a healthy cost, of course, and you need to ask yourself whether you’ll need all of it – especially considering the return on them at sale time.
Prices have risen across the board, with around a two per cent premium over the outgoing model, with £13,750 being the new entry point for an un-specced MINI One and the Cooper starting at £15,300. The old entry-level MINI First has been quietly dropped and, from launch, only the Cooper, Cooper D and Cooper S will be offered, with the One and One D following in the summer.
The good news is that the new MINI is a major improvement in all areas. Moan all you like about the way it looks, or the fact it’s 12cm longer than before, but the facts are undeniable – it’s more tightly screwed together, feels to have been made from higher quality materials and is both more refined, comfortable, economical and powerful than before. It’s not quite perfect but, importantly, it drives as a MINI should in tight spots, but with some of the old model’s rough edges ironed out – especially inside – and feels hugely well-engineered for the money.
It’s still a premium small car ideally suited for singles or couples without children – if you want practical, or inexpensive, you already know the MINI is not for you. Existing MINI owners will love it, though, and will find it a whole lot easier to live with – ultimately, that’s great news for Cowley, where the new car promises to be produced in ever greater numbers.