THE MINI Cooper is coming to the end of its life, and yet remains as popular as ever.
KEITH ADAMS takes a long, lingering look at the car that redefined the Mini for the 21st Century, and investigates whether it’s the driving machine its makers claim it to be by running it round the Nürburgring…
BACK in 2001, when we first saw the next-generation MINI, there were plenty of us who found it difficult to come to terms with what was little more than a BMW-sponsored re-interpretation of one of the world’s most iconic cars of the twentieth century. For many, it was too big, too contrived, not the car Alec Issigonis would have produced – and for those who were expecting another step in the evolution of small car motoring, the new car came as a disappointment.
Despite the scepticsm of die-hard (classic) Mini fans, and Issigonis devotees, the car buying public loved it. Within days of its launch, order books were full, and production was being ramped up to meet demand. MINI had a hit on its hands, as the 21st century’s first ‘it’ car came sprinting from the starting blocks…
But the problem with ‘it’ cars is that people often buy them because of what they look like rather than how good they are at doing the things they do. Take the Audi TT – previous to the MINI, it was Europe’s ‘it’ car – it wasn’t the most accomplished coupe out there when it was launched in 1998, but it was easily the most funky, and as a result massive sales success followed.
It was the same with the MINI, huge swathes of Europeans fell for its looks – those puppy-dog eyes and pert rear end meant lots of people fell in love at first sight. And just like the Audi TT, it became a huge international hit.
However, that was 2001.
After five years and 700,000’s worth of production at BMW Oxford (Cowley to the rest of us), familiarity must surely be breeding contempt, especially as the replacement is a matter of mere weeks away. You’d think so, but sales have shown little signs of slowing, and rock-solid residuals are the result of clever marketing and a strong product.
Just how strong we needed to find out – because although we’ve driven plenty of MINIs, we’ve never thoroughly examined the dynamic prowess of the replacement for the classic Mini; the car that wrote the book on front wheel drive chuckability. So, what better time to take stock of the MINI than at the eve of its replacement, and where better to test it than in the depths of the Eifel Mountains in Germany and the world’s greatest toll road, the fearsome Nürburgring.
Could the fresh-looking MINI stand up to such a stern test in the light of the talented new opposition that has appeared on the market since it was launched?
Performance and Economy
THERE are no two ways about it – if you’re looking for an out-and-out hot hatchback, the MINI Cooper will disappoint. In terms of all out performance, it is adequate, nothing more. But just like its illustrious Monte Carlo winning forebear, the bald figures fail to convey the full picture.
The power to weight ratio suggests we’re not really looking at a hot hatch – it’s little more than tepid. A 0-60mph time of 9.9 seconds and a top speed of 122mph would fail to trouble your average turbo diesel repmobile these days, let alone a Polo GTi – but don’t let that put you off, because the MINI Cooper’s outright pace (or lack of it) is not the defining characteristic of its performance.
Power delivery is clean and linear, and its 1.6-litre power unit does little to offend. It pulls steadily in any gear, and even in fifth, there’s enough overtaking power at motorway speeds. Perhaps that’s down to the rather low gearing in top (20mph/1000rpm), but at sane motorway speeds, that’s no chore because the engine remains impressively smooth.
In fact, as long as you don’t try and become intimate with the large tachometer’s redline, and drive it firmly rather than frantically, you’ll end up making more rapid progress than first imagined. That ability is tied in with the sophisticated suspension set-up – and the resultant excellent handling, but that’s another story…
In terms of economy, there’s a price for that low gearing to be paid at the pumps. In the speed-restricted UK, Belgium and France, the MINI delivered a perfectly acceptable, although not stunning, 34mpg, but once in Germany, and given its head, that dipped into the high-20s. Expect over 36mpg in normal day-to-day running.
Handling and Ride
OUR test Cooper was kitted out with the Sports suspension package, and initially this led to fears of a needlessly jarring ride – but our fears were very quickly unfounded. Because just like the standard set-up, the Sports package retains the supple damping and keen turn-in all MINIs are renowned for – it simply means less roll and smarter 16-inch alloy wheels.
On the UK’s all-too-often broken blacktop, the suspension is given a thorough work out, and although small, sharp irregularities are far from smothered, smooth and progressive damping means imperfections seldom translate into crashiness in the cabin. In fact, the benefits of the MINI’s ultra-stiff bodyshell shine through in the UK because there are few occasions where the ride deteriorates enough to cause comment.
Handling, on the other hand is absolutely exceptional – and much more Cowley than Munich. Like all MINIs, the Cooper feels extremely mature in long, sweeping bends, but when the action tightens up, lightning quick steering, eager turn-in and roll-free cornering result in a package that excels in any B-road blast.
In fact, it’s the sort of car that leads enthusiastic owners to seek out chicanes and roundabouts for all the fun they deliver…
Because the Cooper isn’t exactly well endowed with power, the helm is almost entirely uncorrupted by torquesteer. In fact in terms of its rivals, the electric power steering system in the MINI is almost flawless, delivering plenty of feel and confidence and allow the driver to place the MINI with millimetric accuracy. The only criticism we’d level at it was the whine you get from the pump at parking speeds.
The end result is of a car that positively encourages ducking and diving from the driver – and around town, you’ll be sparring with taxi drivers for the smallest gaps in the traffic.
As for its performance on the Nürburgring, all we can say is fantastic. We lined up on a grid of cars that contained M5s, Caymans, Skylines – and a white Thrifty Van Rental Transit – and we only got passed by a couple of cars. What the MINI Cooper has in spades on the ‘ring is stability and predictability. Although it’s a roller coaster ride, and we were rather hot entering some of the medium speed corners, the chassis and brakes never complained – and when unruliness tapped on our shoulder, it came from the rear end, and was fantastically controllable.
Just like the original car, the Cooper’s handling and ride easily transcends its envelope of performance.
It was obvious that the car’s development engineers spent a considerable amount of time hooning around the track in their Coopers. And we can’t blame them…
At the wheel
THE first things that strike you about the MINI’s interior are its airiness, superb forward visibility, and the nigh-on perfect driving position. In the modern context, these are the exception, rather than the norm – and the first two of those qualities lie in the upright A-posts, a link with the original car’s styling.
As for the driving position, the steering wheel falls nicely to hand, the pedals are perfectly positioned, and the gear is exactly where you need it. The feel-good factor isn’t just about how everthing seems to fit like a glove, but the tactile feedback you get from those major input devices. The steering, we know about (although the ridge in the wheel rim is a tad uncomfortable), but the pedals are also extremely feelsome. The gearbox is a joy too – change is light and snappy and extremely positive.
The interior is a styling tour de force also, but some of those neat styling touches can be a bit niggly to live with. The rear view mirror – an item not often mentioned in car tests – masks forward visibility in left hand corners, and the retro instruments don’t deliver their message clearly enough.
Still, it’s a car for drivers – and we admire that in a market sector all about compromises. MINI’s interior packaging is great up-front, but take a look over your shoulder at the rear seat and you’d be excused for thinking you’re in a 2+2. But as we said, this probably isn’t a problem for its intended buyers – you’ll still get a lot of shopping on that rear bench…
THE old Cliché that time waits for no man seems to have passed the MINI by. Amazingly, it’s as fresh now as the day it was launched in 2001, and we can see why buyers are still queueing up for the things. In most cases, the buying advice is don’t purchase a car at the end of its production run unless you’re getting a nice fat discount – in the MINI’s case, that’s not too likely to happen, and we suspect there’s going to be little disadvantage with plumping for the current car over its replacement.
However, the new car’s coming, and we’re hoping that some of the niggles that beset the current car will be sorted in the R56.
We suspect the major issue of poor interior packaging for rear passengers will remain unresolved, but as this is not seen as a priority with MINI’s core buyers it will hardly dampen sales. We would like to see more straight line grunt in the Cooper model and a mild update of the interior, though. The current state of play in the hot hatch market means that buyers are expecting increasing amounts of power – and cheap horses at that. Simply advising people to go for the Supercharged (or Turbocharged in the case of the new car) Cooper S is not an adequate argument in today’s climate.
Despite its lack of nags, we think the MINI Cooper is a wonderfully balanced little thing, and found it a wonderful introduction to the delights of the Nürburgring. It proved once and for all that you don’t need masses of power to have a great time on the track, and most importantly, there’s real strength in depth as a driver’s car. And on that basis, the Cooper passed this sternest of tests with flying colours.
The MINI’s driver focused attitude perfectly demonstrates that some things in life should never be compromised on.
Here’s to the next MINI – we’re expecting more of the same…
|Scores out of ten|
Thanks to MINI (UK) for the loan of the press car.