The Mini is 55 years old, being first produced in 1959. 55 years is the same amount of time as the longest serving UK prisoner, serial killer John Straffen, had served when he died in 2007. However, this Mini initially slayed its competition, was killed off in 2000 and then was reborn into a not-quite-so-mini Mini in 2001 under BMW’s ownership where it has continued to be popular, although arguably less iconic.
Our test ‘not-quite-so-mini’ Mini is a Cooper hatchback in the kind of royal blue that shows dirt almost as well as black. It’s a 3-door hatch with cornering prowess like a rabbit being pursued by a fox. This is because if the Mini was any lighter it would need ballast. At just over a tonne it’s not a car you’re going to be towing anything with (although I have seen older Minis towing caravans), but you can go for a thoroughly enjoyable jaunt around the countryside and lap up all manner of twisting tarmac heaven. Or you can traverse the urban streets where every parking space fits the Mini like an oversized boot seeing as it’s a diminutive 3.82m long. If you want a city car you’ll probably want the automatic gearbox, not the manual. More about this in 99 words.
The interior has been refined in this version and you can start it up using the big red switch on the dashboard. The large circular central dash area which used to be the speedo now has a large screen for your multimedia and parking sensor displays. This is controlled by a set of buttons and a joystick down near the handbrake. The speedo is now where it should be, behind the steering wheel. There are lots of other funky elements such as the speaker integration into the doors.
But there’s a problem with the interior design in the Mini: the armrest gets in the way of the gearstick when changing gear. Even if you push the armrest down, it’s still in the way, and if you flip it back it’s even worse. This was enough to make me not enjoy driving it. It could be rectified so simply: put a hydraulic handbrake in rather than the old lever, and drop the armrest 2 inches. Also, this would free up a bit more space to store things.
If you go back and look at those old Minis from Mark I to Mark VII you’ll see that there’s not a huge amount of change in the exterior design (particularly in the later versions). The same can be said for the most recent of Minis in its base form (i.e. not the cabriolet, coupe or Paceman). This new mini has a lower air inlet, revised wheel arches, a roof spoiler, side scuttles and bigger chrome-surrounded rear lights which (according to the brochure) are “a joy to watch by those following the Mini”. A quick search on the internet (for the purposes of this article) didn’t bring up a specific medical condition whereby people are fixated by or obsessed with red lights but I now know that if I have a chakra on the base of my spine, it’s red.
The Mini Cooper hatchback is competing with the Suzuki Swift Sport, which I dropped off before picking the Mini up. The Mini is a respectable $36,200 (OK, not that cheap, but not bad for something that’s an image statement), but the Swift Sport trounces it for price, being almost nine grand cheaper. Mini has the edge in fuel economy though, with 4.7l/100km extra-urban (combined fuel consumption). At 80kph on the flat stretch of motorway towards Te Atatu it was registering 3.7l/100km, which is pretty good, no doubt helped by the slippery 0.28 Cd (coefficient of drag). The 6-speed manual gets slightly better fuel economy than the automatic, but given the lack of elbow room I would take the automatic any day.
The 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder turbo engine will do 100kph in just under 8 seconds and the small size and capacity keeps it light and nimble up front. Steering response is very direct – better than the Swift Sport. The boot, at 211 litres capacity, is a litre bigger than the Swift although it seems much bigger for some reason. You can purchase an optional roof box which will carry up to 60kg.
It would be easy with the Mini for it to descend into Mr Bean territory and become a caricature of itself, but it hasn’t. If you look at other small cars they are either cute and playful, or bland and boring, or sporty and serious. But the Mini manages to achieve what I think is the perfect balance. It’s definitely not boring. It can be quite serious – turn up to a meeting in one and there’s nothing wrong with it, and it’s also the kind of fun that makes you want to take a road trip (…but keeping it light on the luggage side of things). Its success is the result of killer design.
- Manages to be funky and fun as well as sensible and business-like. How does it do it!?
- In trying so hard to have cool and funky design Mini forgot about one important thing: where does your elbow go when you change gear
- Rear seats are token unless you are a very short driver.
Words and photos: Darren Cottingham