Driven: new Mini is still nimble

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IOL mot pic feb28 Cooper S

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There are new three-cylinder turbo engines for Mini One and Cooper, while the Cooper S, seen here, gets a new two-litre turbopetrol four.

It’s getting harder to say “Mini” with a straight face. Each new generation of the German-built, British-inspired car has increased in size to further dwarf the original Alec Issigonis creation. The latest Mini, the third incarnation since the brand was revived by BMW in 2001, has grown again with an increase in length, height, width and wheelbase.

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The car’s grown large enough for its makers to offer it with an optional parking assistant that automatically steers it into a parallel bay, with the driver having only to operate the throttle and brake. Imagine needing that with the original Mini, which was as easy to park as a golf cart ...

The added size has made this hatchback a more practical people-conveyance, with rear seats that are still fairly tight but now more comfortably swallow a pair of six-foot adults, while the boot has swelled to 211 litres (51 litres extra). Nevertheless, as grown-up as it may be, Munich’s latest creation stays true to the driver-enjoyment recipe that has always characterised the Mini badge.

SIGNIFICANT CHANGES

Visually there’s not much change but under the familiar cute-as-a-button wrapping the Mini’s undergone some significant engine and chassis changes, along with improved space and upgraded infotainment systems.

IOL mot pic feb28 Cooper rear

Ride and comfort have been improved but Mini chuckablity remains.

There are new three-cylinder turbo engines for Mini One and Cooper, while the current alpha male of the Mini pack, the Cooper S, gets a bigger bite in the form of a new two-litre turbo petrol engine from cousin BMW. The added cubic capacity has raised outputs to a feisty 141kW and 280Nm (300Nm with overboost) for the Cooper S compared to the old 1.6 turbo’s 135kW and 260Nm, and Valvetronic valve timing with double Vanos camshaft control optimises power delivery across the rev range.

This output translates to a claimed 6.8 second 0-100km/h sprint for the Cooper S manual and 6.7 seconds for the auto, with top speeds pegged at 235km/h (manual) and 233km/h (auto).

ADDED BENEFIT

The lesser two petrol Mini derivatives also get new engines, both three-cylinder turbos. With respective outputs of 75kW and 100kW, both the 1.2-litre entry-level Mini One and the 1.5-litre Mini Cooper outpower their normally-aspirated predecessors, with the added benefit that very little of their muscle will be lost at altitude. Transmission choices are six-speed manual or auto, and standard safety features include antilock braking and stability control.

Together with their improved get-up-and-go the new engines are also less thirsty, and claimed consumption figures are rated as follows: Mini One (4.6 litres per 100km), Mini Cooper (4.7 litres) and Cooper S (5.7 litres). There are diesel-engined Minis with even thriftier consumption, but as before these oil-burners won’t be coming to South Africa.

DUE IN SA IN MAY

IOL mot pic feb28 Mini Interior

Speedometer and odometer have moved from the dash to the steering column. The round dashboard display, framed by a mood ring, now houses the satnav, if fitted, and audio controls.

The third-generation Mini will be launched in South Africa in May, with Cooper and Cooper S versions priced at about R279 000 and R342 000 respectively (this may change depending on the exchange rate) and the Mini One to follow some time later.

Externally the new Mini is most recognisable by its arched indicators in the lower section of the round headlamps. All versions have daytime running lights, while the new Mini offers the option of LED headlamps for the first time.

The exterior updates may be subtle but there are more extensive interior updates that improve functionality while retaining the Mini’s typical styling charm. The huge plate-sized speedo in the centre of the dash has given way to a multi-information display for the aircon, communication and infotainment, operated by a controller in the centre console. Circling this display is an LED ‘mood’ ring that changes colour according to which function’s active and also to the way the car’s being driven.

ERGONOMIC IMPROVEMENT

The speedometer and rev counter - now a more regular size - have moved to the steering column, while a welcome ergonomic improvement is that the window switches have been moved from the dash to the doors, where they’re easier to locate. There’s a real premium feel to the cabin, especially the soft-touch dashoard, and a vast array of colour and material choices to customise the car.

New high-tech in the Mini includes an optional head-up display for the first time, allowing drivers (provided they’re not wearing polarised sunglasses) to have a line-of-sight view of navigation, speed, and other information projected on the windscreen.

Another new feature is a Driving Mode which varies the responses of the throttle, steering and (if fitted) adaptive damping between comfort, sports and green settings. Active cruise control, which automatically maintains a safe following distance, is also on offer in a Mini for the first time.

MINI CONNECTED

A system called Mini Connected offers extensive smartphone integration in the car, allowing not only music streaming and hands-free telephony but also internet-based services such as Twitter, Facebook, and a calendar that syncs your appointments.

Larger and larnier as it is, driving enjoyment is still at the heart of the Mini appeal, as it’s always been.

A drive through Puerto Rico’s narrow and twisty roads at the car’s international media launch last week revealed the car to have a slightly softer ride than before, without the extreme jitteriness that characterised its predecessors. The suspension’s been extensively revised and the wheelbase lengthened to achieve a less bone-jarring effect, but without affecting the Mini’s characteristic quick-turning nature.

It still takes corners with Pacman-like agility and typically quick steering.

For an even better ride-vs-handling setup, the Mini comes with optional Dynamic Damper Control, enabling drivers to choose between more comfort-oriented or sportier suspension settings.

I drove both the Cooper and Cooper S at the media launch, and was particularly impressed with the performance of the new 1.5 turbo. The Cooper S is predictably fast-paced and will get boy-racers panting, but the standard Cooper is no longer the compromised performer it was. It has a brisk turn of speed along with great refinement, underlaid by a charismatic three-cylinder thrum.

It may be harder to think of this car as being a mini, dimensionally speaking, but BMW’s Mk III version has upsized without losing its trademark fleet-footedness. It just does it with a little more finesse.

Star Motoring

Follow me on Twitter: @DenisDroppa


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