Mini Cooper: A Big Little Car

By IAfrica
In South Africa
Aug 21st, 2014
0 Comments
199 Views

Of all the modern cars drawing their inspiration from classic originals, none have been as successful as the Mini.

Under the stewardship of BMW, the quintessentially British minicar has been resurrected as a modern, trendy hatchback, while retaining at least some of the charisma and quirkiness that distinguished the pioneering Sir Alec Issigonis design from its contemporaries.

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Compared to that, first Mini, the modern iteration is almost gargantuan. It’s lost the impossibly efficient packaging that allowed four adults to squeeze into Sir Alec’s tiny box on wheels. In fact, this latest Mini is the largest yet, even though it remains a subcompact in the modern context.

At a glance, it doesn’t look dramatically different to its predecessor. It’s still chunky and cheeky, with the wheels planted at each corner, while the big headlights and hex grille create the impression of a slightly petulant face. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll find that a lot has changed.

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The proportions of the Mini still convince, but the Gen 3 car is longer, wider and (slightly) taller, while the wheelbase and track have also increased. The latter two measurements are significant, as they promise more interior space.

Despite the increase in dimensions, the broad strokes of the design remain characteristically Mini, while the details have been cleverly embellished and reinterpreted to deliver a fresh take on an existing, successful formula. Everything that seems familiar – the grille, the big, staring headlights, the chrome-framed tail light clusters – is actually completely new.

The same can be said of an interior, although here, the improvements are substantial. The interior space is a lot more generous, especially at the rear, and upgraded comfort levels are the most important differences.

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There are still only two doors (a four-door Mini hatch will debut shortly, probably to the chagrin of traditionalists), and getting in and out of the back remains challenging. But once ensconced, there is a lot more legroom, and the space feels less claustrophobic than previously.

Up front, the pod-like instruments remain, but are more logically arranged, and easier to read. However, all those toggle switches remain an ergonomic nightmare, making you feel like a pilot without a checklist, at least until you become familiar with where everything is.

Standard specification, in terms of both comfort and safety, remains at the premium end of the spectrum, which means you get most of the must-have kit: air-con, central locking, decent sound with USB and Bluetooth, remote central locking, multiple airbags, ABS brakes, and stability control. Of course, the list of options is almost infinite – but with price tags to match. Bespoke comes at a price.

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Echoing Mini’s youthful positioning, its connectivity features are comprehensive, allowing smartphone-based apps to be integrated with the car’s systems, and thus providing accessing to a host of services, from e-mail and SMS to in-car Internet radio and dedicated Mini apps.

For all the Mark 3 Mini’s apparent familiarity, the technical bits are completely new, and significantly so, since some elements preview BMW’s decision to embrace front-wheel drive for its more compact move – a move that will have traditionalists choking in their Weissbier.

The engine powering the Cooper is a 1,5-litre turbocharged petrol unit, but unusually, it only has three cylinders, which accounts for its pleasantly gruff sound. Think of those single-cylinder ‘thumper’ off-road motorcycles of the 1970s, multiply the sound by three, and you get the general idea.

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Not that there’s any thumping here in refinement terms: the engine is eager from the word go, with a lovely, torquey shove that gets things moving with a engaging alacrity. Throttle response is swift and incisive, ensuring that even this baseline Mini can count swift reactions among its many talents.

Maximum power is 100kW, linked to a 220Nm torque peak, but those stats need to be qualified by the associated engine speeds: the torque curve is near-vertical from idle onwards, and peaks at just 1,250 rpm, from where it’s sustained all the way to 4,300 rpm.

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The power curve apexes at 4,400 rpm, ensuring that most of the engine’s verve is on offer without having to try too hard. The gearbox is a six-speed manual with a nice set of ratios that manage to exploit the engine’s eagerness to best effect, while still recognising the need to limit revs in cruising mode.

This same engine, and the platform that goes with it, is also at the heart of BMW’s first front-wheel drive car, the 2-Series Active Tourer, due here in the not too distant future.

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No surprises then that the Cooper feels more frisky than expected, thanks in part to the low-down shove of that characterful engine. It will dash from zero to 100km/h in under eight seconds, and has a top speed potential of 210km/h.

Even more important are the handling characteristics, though: more so than the Mk 2, this Cooper has that famous go-kart character, thanks to fast steering and quick turn-in. The result? A grin-inducing driving experience, even at slow speeds around town.

And that’s the thing: you don’t have to push the Mini to a million miles an hour to enjoy it. Its frisky enthusiasm is accessible in spaces as tight and restrictive as the neighbourhood shopping centre’s parking lot, or as wide-open as a curvy country road.

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While owners of real performance machines – think M-cars in the BMW context, Audis with RS badges, or those Mercedes-Benz AMG muscle machines – find themselves champing at the bit in the daily commute, the Mini makes zipping from gap to gap seem like good, clean fun.

The steering is crisp and precise (but still a little numb in this baseline application), and the Mini corners with a flat, planted assurance that is convincingly kart-like. Before you know it, your heart is pumping, the adrenaline levels are at saturation point, and you just can’t get rid of that stupid grin …

And that’s the real charm of the Mini. It’s a car that’s fun to drive, even in a sea of sensibility, and that doesn’t need to be driven outside the envelope of acceptability to be enjoyed to the max. Suddenly, a trip to the local mall sounds like an outing, rather than a chore.

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The new Mini – and the Cooper, in particular – is special, not because of its engineering, its performance, its handling or its advanced connectivity features. It’s special because it has heritage, personality and charisma – traits often lacking in modern motor cars.

The Cooper isn’t as fast as the S, let alone the JCW, but in many ways, it represents the purer, more honest expression of the Mini ethos. And that means it’s a cracking car to drive, too! DM

Mini Cooper

Engine

In-line three-cylinder, 1,499cc, turbocharged

Gearbox

Six-speed manual

Power

100kW @ 4,400rpm

Torque

220Nm @ 1,250rpm

0-100 km/h

7.9sec

Top speed

210km/h

Fuel consumption

4.6 litres/100 km (combined cycle)

CO2emissions

107g/km

Retail price

R287,500


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