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First drive: the brand new Mini

Looks like the Mini's had another facelift...

Look again. It's entirely new, almost to the last nut and bolt. Yes, it's a close facsimile of the last one, but that's just how Mini rolls. Well it works for the Porsche 911.

OK, since it's rude to stare, can you tell me how to recognise it?

The new Mini has got a bit porky - the sides have bloated, a fact not disguised by new creases above the wheels. And the nose, once pert and snub, now balloons into a much longer overhang. Still, despite the extra bigness (mostly for crash safety), the weight line has been held.

So what, apart from growth, is new?

Most notably a new engine family, three and four-cylinders, petrol and diesel, all related, all turbos. For the Cooper, it's a 1.5-litre triple. For the Cooper S, a 2.0 four.

Next up, all-new components in the suspension and steering. The rear suspension is better packaged, for a notably deeper boot.

All this is bolted to a body that's different on top and beneath - so different that they had to build an entire new bodyshop at Oxford to weld it together.

And does it all work? Does it feel transformed?

If you're listening hard, the Cooper starts with a characteristic three-cylinder beat, but to be honest it's more obvious from outside the car than within. Head off and most of the sensations are Mini staples. The well-oiled controls; the low-set, straight-ahead driving position; the shallow, upright windscreen and pillars. The ride remains taut rather than soft, and it has the normal Mini bobbing frequency. The steering seems to have the normal Mini quickness.

Er, has BMW got too many engineers? What was the point of changing everything?

Because as you gather speed, all this car's moves are more polished than of old. The suspension has more travel, so when you hit bumps it y'know, copes with them. Suspension, as in suspension. Whereas the old car's undercarriage crashed and banged and too often jolted into its bump-stops. And there's less tyre roar on coarse tarmac now. The steering compensates for cambers and torque. It all feels more grown up.

I don't want a Mini to feel grown up. It's supposed to scoot about, frisky and intimate and connected.

Don't worry. Show it a corner and the Cooper comes alive. The front end is super-agile. The steering is sharp but notably progressive and you feel exactly what's going on. There's barely any understeer. And if you lift-off, the tail is surprisingly mobile, but easy to collect. The new-found suspension suppleness doesn't make it soggy, it just means it doesn't get distraught when the corner is lumpy. Any car that reacts so quickly but so predictably, and gives you so many options, and connects you so intimately to its moves, cannot fail to be a bundle of laughs.

Are three cylinders and 1.5 litres enough for those antics?

Come on, 134bhp isn't too shabby. It'll crack 62mph in under eight seconds. And the engine has a feisty and quick-witted mid-range. The sound turns to an encouraging babble as you work it harder. Only thing is, it revs sweetly but hits the limiter too soon, which is set barely beyond 6000rpm. I wanted it to sing higher.

Well if the Cooper is so good, surely the Cooper S must be sensational.

Hmmm. Well it certainly doesn't hang about. The 0-62mph for the S is 6.8 seconds. Its 189bhp four-cylinder engine is nice enough, but not outstanding among other 2.0 turbos. And, maybe because of the extra nose weight, it just doesn't feel so well-wired as you turn into a sharp corner. The suspension is firmer, but on the roads where I tried it, that just meant it was biffed about more - there was no dividend in agility. This despite the fact this car was specced with the optional adaptive dampers. There's slightly more understeer and less steering feel too. So I'm not sure the S is extra cash well spent, unless you need to do a lot of main-road overtaking.

Not surprised the fancy dampers are optional. Is the Mini still a box-ticker's delight?

Absolute configurator heaven. Never mind the Mini's usual permutations of colours, roof paint, stripes and stickers, mirror caps, wheels, interior trims and dash garnishes. But also this time around, a heap of optional technologies are fresh to the Mini or even fresh to the small-car segment.

The range of navigation options and connected apps is like what you could order on a 7-series, albeit skinned with Mini's graphics and self-consciously jokey vocabulary. A driver assistance pack bestows active cruise control and pedestrian recognition with active braking, plus speed-limit sign recognition. Full-LED headlamps are also on the menu, recognisable as they're ringed by upside-down horseshoe daytime lights. You can also get a head-up display, a screen that hinges up from the dash-top like Peugeot has used for several years now, but in this case it's rather low in your line of sight so defeats its own object.

Anything else new about the design indoors?

As per outside, you wouldn't take it for anything other than a Mini. But the speedo has moved from that low-mounted central dinner-plate to a resting place above the steering column, where you can actually read it. The seats are new and rather excellent. The quality is a step on too. Not at Audi levels of touch-and-feel, but the cheaper bits of plastic are disguised by their interesting design.

I'd call it too cutsey and mannered in there.

Your view is perfectly legitimate. But most people think it's a welcome change from car-design norms.

Back to where we started. My point stands: meet the new Mini, same as the old Mini.

Sure, in character, things haven't changed. There's measurable progress. It's efficient - for the petrol Cooper, 105g/km. Plus it's more refined and better-riding and safer and has a bigger boot. OK, that's all rational stuff that Top Gear is reputed not to give a stuff about. Yet they did that while preserving the stuff we do care for. It's more lively, it sounds more interesting and the handling's more fun and visceral.
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