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Car reviews - Mini - Hatch - Cooper

Our Opinion

We like
Cheerful persona, strong chassis, build quality, fun
Room for improvement
Underwhelming engine, limited interior space, plastics

1 Jul 2002

IT'S not hard to like the Mini Cooper, in fact it's bloody easy to love it. It's pretty cute to look at, people smile and wave as you drive by and it's fun to drive.

But there's logical and practical reasons to be attracted to the Cooper as well. It is solidly engineered and built, has an imposing safety pedigree and ... it's fun to drive (oh, we already mentioned that didn't we).

There's been a wall of hype surrounding the reborn brick since BMW first issued pictures of the car in 1997. There's been motor show reveals, international launches, local launches and so on - all spanning the years up until the car actually went on sale here back in March.

Not surprisingly, there's been strong initial interest and sales demand, and it appears the car could go on to become a consistent performer, unlike another retro car of recent times - Volkswagen's New Beetle.

But where the Beetle is a Golf with a different bodyshell slung over the top at the cost of practicality and ergonomic commonsense, the new Mini is an original product.

Developed during BMW's dismally unsuccessful (in financial terms) ownership of Rover, the Mini is the German company's sole remaining British possession, as Land Rover has gone to Ford and MG Rover has gone independent.

Yes there are BMW elements in the Mini, but the fact is this is the company's first front-wheel drive car and it is pretty hard to argue it is anything other than bespoke.

Underpinning it all is a new platform with a long 2467mm wheelbase, to which is mounted a MacPherson strut front suspension and an adaptation of BMW's sophisticated Z-arm rear axle multi-link suspension.

The engine is a 1.6-litre, single overhead camshaft, 16-valve unit co-developed with Chrysler and built in Brazil. It produces 85kW at 6000rpm and 149Nm at 4500rpm. You might think it a funny choice when BMW has so many good four-cylinder engines in its stable, but there are political and packaging issues that apparently prompted this decision.

Draped over it all is a body that BMW claims is two to three times stronger than its small hatchback rivals, while it has more quietly admitted that it outdoes the current 3 Series as well.

Inside there's a distinctive four-seat cabin with additional protection provided by no less than six airbags - front and side for the front seat passengers and head bags all-round - accompanied by BMW's usual bevy of electronic aids like ABS, EBD and CBC, which all tune and adjust braking behaviour depending on what torture is being inflicted on the brake pedal.

The electronics continue with a drive-by-wire throttle and electro-hydraulic power steering. There's also trickery in the transmission department. While a newly developed five-speed manual gearbox is the standard choice and what we tested, the self-shifting option is a continuously variable transmission (CVT) which has six steps pre-programmed for its Steptronic semi-manual mode.

And as we have already suggested, the whole lot knits together pretty darn well.

The best bit is undoubtedly the chassis. For a small hatchback, which is what this is when you pare back the marketing hype, it is a surprisingly supple riding jigger, much of that undoubtedly due to the quality suspension underpinning it. Only really big bumps, particularly on turn-in to a corner, can unsettle it. But it quickly sorts itself back into shape.

And the "think and go" direct steering is almost as impressive. With just 2.5 turns lock to lock, it is ready to respond almost as quickly as you are, helping make this a fun car on a twisting highway and easily manoeuvrable in town.

Perhaps the steering is a tad heavy for suburban twirling and the electro-hydraulic function seems to have knocked the edge off feel out on the open road, but it is still well above the average.

The same applies to the brakes, which are discs all-round and impressive in their feel and power.

And so to the drivetrain. The engine is a bit of a downer because it just does not sparkle like the chassis does.

It is earnest enough but the vital statistics of power and torque just do not seem imposing enough to get the 1050kg Cooper really flying. There's a bit of an asthmatic wheeze as you bury the throttle and climb up through the rev range - and you do spend plenty of time above 4000rpm searching for oomph.

But the good side of the story here is the manual gearbox, which has neat and precise short-throw shifting and is mated to a clutch action that is just as decisive. On the open road you'll spend plenty of time slotting through the gearbox and we are happy to say it is a more than pleasant experience.

The Mini story does not so much fall apart as compress inside. It's tight in there! BMW says the new Mini is a true four-seater, but we have to disagree. Four adults in this car for any length of time is a torture test for those in the rear, and that's in addition to the pain of actually trying to get in and out. Headroom is the only vital measure that could be called adequate.

Best to treat this car as a two-seater, drop the split-fold rear seats down and liberate yourself some luggage space, because there is not much in the standard boot area.

So cramped is it that BMW could not even find space for a spare tyre - although you can option a space saver. If the standard 15-inch tyre goes flat, you'll have to haul the sealant and compressor out of the boot (BMW calls this its mobility system) and pump it, or you can upgrade to 16 or 17-inch rubber with run-flat capability.

The presentation of the interior is a love it or hate it scenario. There are circles and ovals galore, some of which we like and some of which we don't.

The best bits are those toggle switches for power window functions and the like the worst the cheap metal-look plastics that emitted squeaks and rattles on our test car whenever we encountered rough roads. The front seats seemed a bit flimsy too, with a lack of side bolstering.

Being a BMW, if you do not like something you can always option up. Paint, trim, seats, safety equipment, luxury items, performance bits and bobs - they are all there on the options list.

It would not be fair to suggest the Cooper is spartan in standard trim but considering the dollar ask, it is not lavish either. The staples are there - air-conditioning, CD audio system, power windows and mirrors, alloy wheels and leather touches including the thick-rimmed steering wheel - but no more.

And if you want real urge you'll need to shell out for the stove-hot Cooper S.

However, something that does come standard in all Minis is solidity. Even transferring from another European small car into this, there is an appreciable step up in quality. It speaks volumes for the work that has gone underneath the cheeky skin.

And then you drive it and you really appreciate how well executed the modern day Mini is. Oh, and did we tell you how much fun it is?

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