Mini more refined but keeps the faith
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UK motoring writer Andrew English finds major change to the all-new Mini at its international launch
For the third-generation of BMW's Mini, we should actually go to 1969 for the launch of the Mark III version of the original Mini, where some of the whimsy of the original car had worn off.
Bigger doors with hidden hinges and wind-up windows lacked charm and the hinged rear number plate and tiny lamp on the end of the wand-like indicator stalk had gone AWOL.
I expected a similar reversion to bland for the new BMW Mini Mark III; dialled-back specification, a cost-saving cabin, more weight and bulk along with thigh-deep marketing waffle.
Maybe the launch venue was a hint at the new model.
From my house, the Mini plant in Oxford is a round trip of about 210km. Instead the car was launched in Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.
It's certainly a bigger car, mounted on its all-new high-strength steel bodyshell. It's almost 10cm longer, just under 5cm wider and a smidge higher than its predecessor, although it's also lighter (at 1.14 tonnes the Cooper is 10kg lighter than the outgoing model) and more aerodynamic, with a lower centre of gravity.
The wheelbase is a tad longer and as a result, the cabin gains much needed shoulder, head and leg room, particularly in the rear seats. There's more room in the boot, too, but at 211 litres, it's still tiny.
The interior feels stronger and better put together, with nicer materials. There's an iDrive rotary controller, optional driver assistance functions including camera-based collision avoidance braking and self parking, and a host of communications apps including Twitter, Facebook and an emergency call function. It feels a bit cluttered up front, however, and the move of the speedometer into a cheap feeling binnacle in front of the driver leaves the big central soup-plate display looking forlorn and filled with satnav, audio graphics and gimcrack LEDs.
The chassis is all new. Still MacPherson strut front and rear multi-link Z-arm, it's lighter, with hollow anti-roll bars and aluminium replacing some steel. There's an optional variable damping system for the first time and the electronic steering gets speed-related assistance.
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Under the bonnet is a choice of five engines; two 1.5-litre diesels, the petrol units are two three-cylinder turbo units, a 1.2-litre in the Mini One and a1.5-litre in the Mini Cooper. The Cooper S has a four cylinder 2-litre.
The transmissions are new as well, with a six-speed manual and an optional six-speed automatic on all except the One D.
Superficially this isn't far from Dave Saddington's original new Mini design. However, get up close and the features look out of scale, almost like Mini redesigned by Japanese anime caricaturists. The front's a bit of a mess, with oversized headlamps and a trout-pout grille thrust on to a wave-form bonnet and wings. There's just too much going on.
At the press conference, it was repeatedly stressed the go-kart handling and authenticity, originality and character of the new car, although in my experience the sum of longer wheelbase plus wider track usually equals quite the obverse of "go-kart".
So it proved with the Cooper S model which, despite its refined extra power, presented an overly tied down approach to the road, inert steering feel and a sanitised ride quality. The engine is efficient and smooth, but characterless. There's a debate between character and competence going on here, but the S falls on the wrong side of it.
The standard Cooper recovers the reputation in spades. Get it started and this is a refined and quiet engine. Smooth, too, with a balance shaft reducing the inherent rocking motion of an in-line three. Not that it lacks grunt, the red line's at 6900rpm, but even from 2000rpm it pulls like an eager colt. Perhaps not noisy enough for a Cooper - John C wouldn't have recognised the peace and quiet - but that's a minor gripe.
It's also more comfortable than its predecessor, even on optional 17in wheels (2in larger diameter than standard), and the ride is supple and more nuanced than that of the Cooper S. And while the responses are not as manic and darty as the original BMW Mini, and the nose is all the better for having less weight in it.
It turns in well, with little body roll and it's more forgiving of lifting off the throttle mid-corner. Where the old Cooper might have been in the air, the new model is calmer, more planted and easier to drive. There isn't a lot of steering feedback, though and the brakes could do with a little more initial bite.
"I was made in England," goes the excruciating new Mini song, although at times you feel BMW has a flippant, almost disrespectful attitude to the Union Jack and the legacy of generations of workers who built Morris cars at Cowley. Yet it has kept the faith with Mini and produced a British success story.
This Mark III Mini is more grown up with perhaps slightly less charm, but it's still a highly desirable car.