Car reviews - Mini - Hatch - range
All the joyful chuckability of the original, enduring charm, sweet new engines
Room for improvement
Run-flat tyres on Cooper S, repair kit on Cooper, stability control an option on both
23 Feb 2007
By CHRIS HARRIS
CAN you spot the differences?
Mini’s new Mini would make a good subject for bored readers contemplating the puzzles in the back of a magazine.
The new car looks so much like the old one that the PowerPoint presentation had to overlay original images with line sketches of the new one so the changes could become obvious.
This is despite the new Mini sharing not one panel with the outgoing original, from the floating roofline to the new wheel-arches.
Whether this is a good or bad thing it’s hard to say. At the launch of the original in 2002 the question of what Mini would do when update time came around was, at the very least, intriguing.
But a new Mini it is, and the decision is going to be in the hands of the buyers to determine its value as an aspirational replacement for those ready to step out of their old, R50 model.
For those not particularly interested, the new R56 Mini is going to be a non-event. You could watch one drive by and not be aware it was the latest model.
Those who care will see a lot, and are sure to like what they see as well.
The changes to the outside are tiny, but they are all there for a reason: the little bustle running beneath the rear window is part of a safety upgrade that has made the car longer, while the raised shoulder line, uplifted grille, re-set headlights and bolder wheel-arches are there to make for a more macho Mini.
But it’s inside that Mini lovers will revel in the changes.
Here, amid a newfound sense of quality, there’s a no question the R56 is related to the original, but it’s all done so much better, from the low quite easy-to-use seat adjustment to the noticeable improvements in fit and finish.
At the launch program in southern Tasmania, we drove an automatic Cooper and a manual-transmission Cooper S to give us as wide a representation as possible of the new car and its new gearboxes and transmission choices.
But the new interior, with its further dramatisation of Mini styling cues such as the central dial now housing the speedo and the cute little pod mounted on the steering column and containing the tachometer, shows little evidence of the rear kneeroom increase promised by the maker.
It might be easier to get into the back via the ergonomic release mounted atop the front seat, but you’re unlikely to experiencing much – if any – shin room.
At least the 50/50-split folding rear backrest opens into a slightly deeper boot. Only slightly deeper.
But there’s the chunky and grippy steering wheel, nice, newly-shaped and laterally supportive seats and plenty of front seat legroom. In terms of cabin width the Mini is as chummy as ever, but it’s not overly squeezy, even for two decent-size adults.
The central speedo is ludicrously big, but you excuse that in a car fashioned to be larger-than-life, overtly cheeky, although the Cooper’s is preferable because it’s conventional and easier to read than that of the "S", which uses a different display with a tricky slot around the circumference that contains just a bit of needle to tell you how fast you’re going. Fortunately there’s a digital readout built into the full-speed-dead-ahead tacho.
Minis are now fired up by a little button sited next to the slot that takes the ignition fob and there’s an array of controls littered around the interior from above the centre rear-view mirror to low on the centre console, where you’ll find the switches for the power windows. Above the windscreen a similar array of buttons controls the interior lights and optional sunroof.
All very friendly, with a vast range of options including materials and colours that ensure you’ll rarely see two Minis that are even remotely alike.
So the R56 Mini scores quite well inside. Nothing tangible in terms of space, but a big lift in presentation and perceived quality – and options, which include satellite-navigation, an in-dash CD changer and an even bigger sunroof.
And what about the all-important dynamics?
We’ve learned Mini has scrapped the old 1.6-litre normally-aspirated and supercharged engines and replaced them with a BMW-PSA-developed all-alloy four of exactly the same capacity but losing the supercharger in favour of a turbo and adopting a version of BMW’s Variocam valve control system.
The new engines are built at BMW’s UK Hams plant, the same spot BMW builds its four-cylinder engines and just down the road from the assembly plant in Oxford.
Both produce a little more power (88kW compared to 85kW) and torque (160Nm compared to 149Nm) in the Cooper and 128kW compared with 125kW and 240Nm (rising to 260Nm on overboost) compared with 220Nm in the Cooper S. The engines are a BMW design in which the French PSA operation helped in the sourcing of components.
As we only drove the new six-speed Aisin auto version of the Cooper, judgement will have to be reserved on how good it actually is, but there’s a suspicion it’s way better than the original normally-aspirated engine.
The six-speed auto does a pretty good job of extracting the most out of it, and does a good job in sequential mode, but there’s always compromises when you mate a small engine with an auto and there was the presence of some hunting in auto mode and the transmission’s wilful nature in deciding for itself when and where it will kick down, even in manual mode.
But the engine sings a willing song, feels very eager and is maybe not as needful of revs as the old, somewhat lacklustre 1.6. Other testers thought it was so good they branded it preferable over the vastly more powerful S engine.
Running on optional 16-inch wheels, the Cooper auto felt every bit as lovable and chuckable as the R50, with astounding traction and super-sharp steering responses from the new electrically-assisted system. In fact, we’d venture to say electric steering doesn’t come any better than in the new Mini when it comes to weighting, response and general feel.
The manual Cooper S, itself running on optional 17-inch wheels, dispelled any fears of turbocharging removing the instant punch and alluring whine of the supercharger.
With its maximum torque coming in a just 1700rpm, the twin-scroll turbocharged engine picks up the Mini’s relatively light body and takes you on a trip you’ll never want to forget.
The Cooper S, unlike some of its competitors, is the full package. Surging power, excellent steering and truly tenacious grip form a backdrop for an engine that sounds wonderfully growly and begs to be used.
It’s a punchy engine, but the suspension geometry is such that torque steer, while not disguised completely, never really impinges on the experience. One deftly moves the longish-travel but precise and fluid gearshift through the six ratios and twirls the thick-rimmed wheel as the scenery flashes past.
There are not many things you’d mark as negative about the new Mini, apart from the surprise listing of dynamic stability control as an option on both models, and the lack of a spare wheel. The S uses run-flat tyres, while the Cooper makes do with a repair kit.
Apart from the practical compromises run-flats bring, there’s also a deterioration in the Cooper S ride, particularly on concrete joining strips and hard-edged bumps, that give the base Cooper an edge in ride quality.
At this stage, we’d still say the new Cooper S would be the natural choice, but won’t make a final judgement until we’ve driven the manual Cooper. That’s something we’d never, ever have said about then previous car.
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