The third-generation Mini Cooper, driven in the UK for the first time.
We were very impressed by this grown-up, more upmarket Mini when we drove it earlier this year, and our first meeting on home soil demonstrates that the appeal of the Cooper hasn't dwindled.
This is a very stylish car, and although the steady growth in size of Mini models over the years won't please all, there's enough of the retro design still in place to suit most tastes.
The three-cylinder turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol variant driven here is one of three engines to feature in the Mini range at launch, the other two being a 94bhp 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel in the Cooper D and a larger 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol with 189bhp in the Cooper S variant.
Step inside the cabin of the Cooper and you'll be instantly familiar with much of its layout, though there's been a big effort to lift the overall fit and finish. Toggle switches feature low on the centre console, while the Mini's large central infotainment display also remains. The speedometer, fuel gauge and rev counter have now moved behind the steering wheel - a good choice in our opinion - while the multi-function wheel itself also sports a new design.
There's ample space inside the new Mini, but the back seats are best left for shorter passengers and short journeys. Up front and the Mini's seats are comfortable and supportive. Our Cooper test car came with standard equipment including a stop-start system, a DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and USB audio plug-ins.
The standard model costs £15,300, but a substantial upgrade via Mini's Media and Chilli packs - which add luxuries like satellite navigation, a sports steering wheel and sports seats - plus the fitting of 17-inch alloy wheels to replace the normal 15-inch items meant the cost of our test car leapt to £24,210.
The good news is that for the extra money this Mini felt reassuringly premium inside. There are plenty of soft-touch furnishings at work and some of the infotainment services, for example the string of LED lights around the cabin – which change colour and function depending on how you drive - give the Mini a really distinct and individual feel.
What is it like?
Surprisingly sporty, so much so that you forget you're in a three-cylinder, petrol-powered car.
The engine sounds a little loud on start-up but it soon settles down into a pleasing hum and sounds quite sporty, especially at high revs. There's an excellent spread of torque on offer and the engine will happily pull all the way up to around 6000rpm.
Our test car was fitted with a six-speed automatic transmission – a £1270 option – rather than the six-speed manual that comes as standard on all Cooper models. It really lets the car down because it's slow to respond and there's no steering-wheel mounted paddles for quick and easy shifts. So to switch gear manually you have to push the gearlever back for up, and up for down.
We had the chance to sample the new Mini on a variety of road routes including twisting country lanes, motorways and urban environments. It's more than capable in each, but really excels on country A-roads. Here the enjoyment of driving a Mini arrives in leaps and bounds, and drivers will no doubt actively seek to set up the car to their own liking.
That's possible thanks to three variable driving modes that are offered in the Cooper. Sport mode increases the throttle response and firms up the steering, while an Eco mode means gear changes come lower down in the rev range to decrease fuel consumption. Normal or 'Mid' mode is the decent all-round choice.
The Cooper delivers the sort of playful handling we've come to expect from the smaller Mini models but there's also a new sense of maturity. Bumps and road imperfections are now tackled with ease, and the car has a sense of composure that's been lacking from previous generations. It's a comfortable and, if you need it to be, a quiet and economical experience to drive.
Should I buy one?
It's hard not to fall for the simple, impish charms of this latest Mini Cooper. While its styling may still be an odd collection of different shapes the overall package has vastly improved for this third generation.
Our advice, though, to get the best out of this excellent car would be to steer clear of the automatic transmission tested here and instead opt for the standard six-speed manual gearbox. You'll not only save £1270 but you'll end up with a better car as a result.