Car reviews - Mini - Hatch - Cooper
Acute connectedness with the driver, appealing, cheeky style, never-boring interior
Room for improvement
Awkward seat adjustment, tiny back seat and boot, no spare wheel
15 Jun 2007
By CHRIS HARRIS
MOVING to the second generation of what is unashamedly a retro car presents interesting problems for a car-maker.
While BMW’s Mini might fit a different category to, say, Volkswagen’s Beetle, or Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, there is a vital, nostalgic aspect about such a car that is absolutely central to its appeal.
Mazda has done an excellent job keeping up the momentum with its MX-5, which has almost unbelievably been around since late 1989 but has been significantly updated in the intervening years without losing its essential DNA.
The Mini fits in much the same category. As a more viable subject for a 21st century recreation, the Mini can at least claim a conceptual connection to the original that is entirely lacking in the VW or Chrysler.
At the launch of the recreated Mini in 2002, it was suggested this is what the car might have been had the line been allowed to develop undisturbed over the years.
Bearing in mind that the original Issigonis Mini was all about packaging and the new one certainly is not, that proposition is arguable, but there’s no doubt the current Mini managed to capture the original’s delightful driveability.
So now we have a new new Mini, coded R56 where the last model was known as the R50, that looks so much like the 2002 car that only a purist would be likely to notice any difference.
But there are big differences, not the least of which is the claim it is a total BMW creation, with implications reaching into things like detail finish and design – and the normally aspirated and forced induction four-cylinder engines.
The latest Mini might have virtually invisible yet far-reaching body changes, but the 1.6-litre four-cylinder engines buzzing away up front are an all-new, BMW-PSA development – and, in the Cooper S, supercharging has given way to turbocharging.
Initial reactions to this knowledge were often negative – the supercharger’s whine was seen as a sort of recreation of the original Mini sound – but reality seems to be proving otherwise as the new Cooper S shows no appreciable turbo lag and is quicker over the ground than its conservatively stated specifications suggest. And it sounds pretty good too.
Maybe the bigger surprise is how good the new, base Cooper version is.
Once again the bare data doesn’t promise much, but the reality is that the R56 is an altogether more engaging, rorty experience than the previous model, which was a little disappointing in terms of the on-road performance delivered.
Like the Cooper S, power has gone up by only 5kW, from 83 to 88kW, while torque has taken a slightly larger incremental jump from 150 to 160Nm.
But with the adoption of BMW Valvetronic technology including not just the timing of the outlet valves, but also the duration and lift of the inlet valves, the long-stroke 1.6-litre, all-alloy engine presents more useable power across the rpm range as well as significant improvements in fuel economy and exhaust emissions.
The company says the new Cooper uses as much as 16 per cent less fuel and claims a 139g/km tail-pipe emission figure.
The new engines have also been swung about-face in the Mini’s gaping engine bay, with the exhaust manifold now to the front.
Bearing in mind the claimed advances for the Cooper, it’s fitting that our first new-Mini test is actually that. Apart from the optioning of Aisin’s six-speed automatic, the Cooper gave us a good chance to substantiate the claims made – although in some ways they were disguised by a heavy optioning programme that gave the test car larger, 17-inch wheels, DSC stability control (optional even in the Cooper S), leather upholstery, glass sunroof, bi-Xenon lights and more.
Individualising the Mini is a big part of the car’s charm and is evident in the claim you’re hardly ever to see two cars that are alike.
Although there was some initial disappointment the test car was an auto, the new six-speed transmission proved better to live with than most.
The Cooper is still defined by an eager, let’s-go engine sound (if not the deep thrum of the original) and pin-sharp responses improved even further by the newly-adopted electric power steering.
The Aisin transmission works very well in the Cooper, maybe one of the best small-car combinations available, and doesn’t seem to impinge greatly on delivered performance or fuel economy.
The Cooper will cover an alarmingly large distance with its diminutive 40-litre fuel tank even if it didn’t return anything like the 5.8L/100km official average. But close to 500km on a tank is quite achievable providing it’s not strictly urban travelling.
The company doesn’t want to tell you how fast the auto Cooper accelerates, but the quoted 9.1 seconds to 100km/h for the manual is a little uninspiring and the Aisin version is undoubtedly even slower. The surprising thing is it doesn’t feel it, and it’s only when the box shifts down on the highway when climbing an even moderate gradient that you realise it’s only a 1.6-litre after all, BMW technology or not.
The Mini’s steering remains an absolute delight, with the perfect-size, perfectly-thick leather-rimmed wheel and the quick 2.2 turns required to go from lock to lock. The only disappointment was a disproportionately large 10.7-metre turning circle that has you eyeing an approaching kerb as you attempt a turn in a narrow street.
But out on the road there is an instantaneous feel unique to this car that reminds you it was never intended as a practical shopping basket, but as a two-plus-two sports sedan. The grin factor looms large, even with automatic transmission.
Inside the R56 Mini, there are tangible improvements in the way it all comes together.
More BMW in style, the Mini is nevertheless entirely distinctive with its outrageous instrument panel and rows of tiny toggle switches on the windscreen header rail and low down on the centre console.
But it still gets a little tight when trying to set the backrest adjustment, or the lumbar support. There is still very little room in the back seat even if it’s possible to make a short journey with four reasonable-size adults aboard.
The boot is bigger but with just 160 litres it requires very careful packing. This is despite the fact there is no spare wheel to be factored in – just a repair kit in the Cooper.
But, as you proceed along the road, feeling most bumps thanks to the optional wheels but not being unduly disturbed by them, you realise that all the Mini Cooper wants to do is put a smile on your face, to make driving an enjoyable, rather than a draining experience.
Early reservations about the effectiveness of even a transmission as good as the Aisin six-speed didn’t raise any cause for alarm and, even though some would never consider anything other than the new six-speed manual, it’s easy to see why others would prefer the automatic.
The driver has the choice of using the steering wheel paddles or the floor shifter for a bit of manual over-riding, but remember that in the end it’s always the transmission that will decide what’s best. Unlike the rare sequential autos that won’t do so, the Mini will still kick down a gear if it wants to, even in manual mode.
So, while the new Cooper is a tangible advance over the old in terms of its essential sporty eagerness, if you want real punch, you’ll need to step up to the Cooper S which, even if it’s not a WRX-beater, is noticeably faster than before.
The bottom line?
Every bit as lovable as before, but better put together and offering a slightly sharper edge that makes it even more fun to drive, the Mini remains among the most alluring of small cars.
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