Car reviews - Mini - Hatch - range
Steering, handling balance, delightful engines, less abrasive ride than before, improved ergonomics, price cuts
Room for improvement
Some dash rattles, bigger dimensions make it less ‘mini’ than ever, extra-cost reversing camera
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5 Jan 2015
BMW’s third crack at the iconic Mini hatch has arrived.
The looks haven’t changed much, though the revised lighting and the slightly bulbous bonnet — a victim of passenger safety regulations — gives the game away.
It is bigger too, this F56 Mini, at 98mm longer 44mm wider and 7mm taller. This yields more room in the front and rear, though the long-legged can still feel hemmed-in by the snug design. Boot space grows 51 litres to 211L too, room for a couple of travel bags.
But under the skin, the changes are wholesale. Mini’s new front-drive platform, dubbed UKL, will also support BMW’s controversial 2 Series Active Tourer. There’s also more high-tensile steel here, reducing weight. The unsprung Cooper manual is 1085kg.
As ever, the Mini feels light on its ‘feet’, dancing through sinuous roads with aplomb. In this new version, the electric steering is much quicker than before, reducing required inputs, while the new chassis offers plenty of mid-corner composure.
Mid-corner, this is one front-drive car with heaps of throttle adjustability, while a dab of the brakes encourages the pert nose to dig in and swing the rear around. The squat proportions play their part here too, with the result being one of the tidiest and most engaging small-cars out there.
We wouldn’t say the steering offers much in the way of feel and feedback, though the Cooper S’s adjustable driving modes include a Sport function that adds extra weight while firming the ride, throttle response and even toning down the air-conditioning.
One notable area of improvement across both cars we drove, the base 100kW/220Nm Cooper and the 141kW/280Nm Cooper S hottie, was the ride composure. The old Mini, especially on larger 17-inch-plus wheels, would rattle the fillings clean out of your head on any B-road.
This new version is much more composed, most notably on the base car’s 15-inch alloy wheels. There’s still some road noise over the rough stuff, but this car in either guise irons out the corrugations much better than before.
We didn’t get a chance to play with either the run-flat tyre versions, or use the optional active dampers. But our experience with these very systems on BMW models bodes fairly well. We’ll withhold judgement until we get a Cooper S through the GoAuto garage soon.
The stiffer bodyshell does wonders for the cabin ambience. The old Mini, with its harsh ride, suffered an an unacceptable number of dash and door rattles.
The improved trim in this car still has the odd squeak — more than, say, a VW Polo — but it is less annoying than before.
In many ways, the big ticket items are the powertrains. The headline act is the new three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbo-petrol in the Cooper. With 100kW between 4500 and 6000rpm and 220Nm between 1250 and 4000rpm, it’s a beefy little unit.
Like all three-pots, it has a disarming off-kilter thrum, but any balancing issues are kept at bay, with no noticeable buzz or vibrations creeping through.
It loves a rev, but more important is its ability to deliver its power in a linear fashion without hesitation from low engine speeds.
It’s character is also more ‘Mini’ than the old PSA engine, a small but meaningful addition we feel.
We spent more time in the re-worked six-speed automatic version, which feels more intuitive than before, and matched to a more flexible engine, faster to kick down when called upon. The manual mode is perfectly slick, though you have to pay extra for paddles (and they’re only on the Cooper S).
The six-speed manual is a slick affair, with a lighter feel and shorter (though not always precise) throw. We spent some track time in a Cooper S, and botched the odd change from third to second. There is a dead space under the reverse gate, which is easy to find in haste.
We loved the throttle modulator, which matches engine revs to best suit a gear change. This means the engine lets out a nice little rev when you shift down a cog, giving you some race driver cred without needing the ability.
We have zero complaints about the cracking little 1998cc (2.0-litre) turbo engine, either. It punches out 141kW between 4700 and 6000rpm and 280Nm between 1250 and 4750rpm, and this fat torque band gives it a muscularity that belies its capacity.
The Sport mode brings out a daft personality flaw though. Mini insists on programming the little exhausts (mounted in the middle of the rather sexy rear apron) to let out fake-sounding and muted crackles and pops that like someone frantically tapping on the cargo cover.
We should point out, there were no Cooper D diesels available, so stay alert for reports from our first drive of that car a few months down the track.
The cabin is familiar Mini with a large circular interface dominating.
Thankfully though, Mini has moved the instruments in front of the driver rather than on the fascia. Moving the window switches to the doors also frees up clutter from the fascia.
It also has the world’s coolest starter button, a little red lever mounted near the gearstick that reminds me of a fighter plane.
As ever, the options list is as long as you arm — you could easily spend $50,000-plus on a Cooper S, though Mini says the average buyer spends about $5000 — and while this is fine, we found the $470 asking price for the reversing camera a bit galling.
In all, our brief time at the wheel of the new Mini showed us BMW has retained all that made the old car great — razor steering, chic looks and customisable appeal — and addressed issues with the engines, ride and to some extent cabin quality.
All this for a price cut of between $3000 and $5000. Not bad at all.
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