Big things, little packages: first impressions with the new Mini Hatch
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Who would’ve picked that a pair of humble new tail-lights could be so layered with meaning?
We are, of course, talking about the most noticeable difference to the otherwise almost unchanged exterior of the revitalised 2018 Mini Hatch range — the “Union Jack” tail-lights.
The history of Mini is quintessentially English; as much a part of their cultural nexus as crumpets, crooked teeth, and the Queen. So naturally BMW’s purchase of the marque at the turn of the millennium (and the subsequent new “German” Mini that followed) drew ire from the brand’s purist, tweed-coated faithful.
The addition of patriotic Union Jacks, stamped into the LED tail-lights, is probably just a lick of lemon juice into an already salty wound.
Never mind that it’s still proudly made in England, of course.
It goes without saying that this midlife refresh across the Mini Hatch range is relatively minimal. Beyond the tail-lights (which are optional on Cooper models but standard on Cooper S models and above), the exterior sports new “two-dimensional” Mini badging, gloss-black garnishing, revised headlights, and a handful of new colours, including the Emerald Grey and Solaris Orange displayed on the 2018 Cooper 5-door and Cooper S 3-door at Mini’s New Zealand launch.
Pricing has also been marginally increased, with Cooper three-door RRPs growing by $350 to $35,900, while the Cooper S and still-to-come JCW are up by $800 and $400 — making them $44,500 and $54,900 (before you visit the options list).
And, as you’d expect, most of the new Mini’s key changes are ones you cannot see.
On a horribly cold and wet pair of days, we hopped into both new hatches (plus an all-wheel drive Countryman S and Clubman JCW) and trekked to Taupō and back travelling on some of the Waikato’s best drivers’ roads.
The extended five-door Cooper is still an odd-looking thing to my eyes, but it comes bearing much improved practicality over the more traditional three-door.
Inside, it gave us a first glimpse at Mini’s new 6.5-inch touch screen, now standard across the range. It looks the part, wedged into the hatchback’s funky retro-chic dashboard and it’s simple to use, but it’s the toys that impress.
On top of standard satnav and reverse camera, for 2018 Mini has given each of its cars Mini Connected as an option. It’s a system that makes use of a 4G sim card to give drivers access to all sorts of additional features. Live traffic updates, news, weather, and an e-call system that will alert emergency surfaces if you have a significant prang, are all included.
Thankfully for us, the latter wasn’t required over our two days.
The Cooper is powered by a turbocharged petrol three-popper that makes 100kW and 220Nm from its 1.5-litre capacity. It produces a familiar, homely warble, while also being capable of hurling the Cooper along the road at enough knots to be entertaining on the right piece of road.
And it’s now helped by Mini’s new transmission; an optional seven-speed dual-clutch unit.
Although there was nothing particularly wrong with the old six-speed automatic it replaces (nor the six-speed manual that the Mini comes with as standard), this new transmission produces a sharper driving experience. In urban driving it’s smooth — operating unassumingly in the background — whereas under stress it is rapid and predictable. Those who want it will need to be willing to fork out an extra $3000 for the privilege.
It comes connected to a new shifter. Big, rectangular and coated in finger-print attracting piano black, it’s yet another entry in the “my shifter is more needlessly complicated than your shifter” automotive Olympics — although admittedly it’s an intuitive thing to use.
The same DCT was also in the Cooper S tester, but this time it was mated to the more potent 141kW, 280Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder engine that we know and love from the outgoing model. In today’s vicious hot-hatch game those might sound like rookie numbers, and if we want to delve into the “Top Trumps” world of 0-100km/h times and top speed, it’s hard to argue that they’re not.
However, the Mini Cooper S has never been a numbers car.
Plugged into its sportiest setting, the S is as much of a canyon-carving terrier as anything else on the market. Though it’s turbocharged, its engine still sings happily to a sweet redline of 6500rpm; while the “handles like a go-kart” cliché continues to hold true thanks to a kerb weight of just over a ton, wheels positioned at each corner and a finely honed MacPherson strut and multi-link suspension system.
Some might point out that the Cooper S produces a less refined ride than the Cooper with more tyre roar and choppier ride quality. And they’d be right, too, but these are all things that help feed information to the driver.
It’s still an old-school driving experience through and through. And judging by the lack of changes to the Cooper S, Mini has embraced it.
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