What is it?
The 2014 Mini Cooper, and one of the most anticipated cars of the year so far.
This is the first time Mini has let anyone outside of the company try the new three-door hatchback on public roads, and it’s a chance we’ve been waiting for since the wraps first came off the third-generation model in November.
Certainly, from the snug confines of the optional sport seats, it is hard to argue that the new Cooper is anything but a huge step forward. From behind its classy multi-function steering wheel – itself part of a significant rethink of the interior – the driving experience is welcomingly familiar. But there is also a newfound maturity and sense of quality that makes the car even more pleasant to be in and a good deal more rewarding to drive.
The turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol unit is one of four all-new, in-house-developed forced-induction three and four-cylinder engines that will find their way into the new Mini. It is an absolute belter, serving up the sort of performance and user-friendliness its relatively conservative power output fails to convey on paper. As fitted here, it produces 134bhp at 4500rpm and 162lb ft at just 1250rpm. The launch range also includes a 94bhp 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel plus a 189bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine in the Cooper S, the latter being the only unit at launch to increase in capacity.
What is it like?
The new three-pot in the Cooper is a little vocal at start-up, with a deep thrum from the engine and a distant pulsing of the exhaust as you thumb the starter, now among the toggle switches mounted low down on the centre console. However, these qualities are quickly replaced by a more satisfying cacophony as you tip in the revs.
It is a terrifically responsive engine, offering lively pull from little more than 1000rpm all the way to its 6400rpm cut-out. There is a fleeting moment of lag just above idle, but the flexibility and vivacity that follows makes the peaky nature of the four-cylinder engine it replaces seem incredibly old fashioned. The new engine is also delightfully entertaining and boasts a quite extraordinary operating range, giving the Cooper solid acceleration allied to a wonderfully relaxed nature when pulling taller gears.
It is mated to a new standard six-speed manual gearbox, which boasts shorter travel and more positive feel than the unit it replaces. A further development is the inclusion of automatic rev matching for smoother downshifting
At 1085kg, the new Cooper has shed 10kg over the old model. This gives an improved power-to-weight ratio that is reflected in an improved 0-62mph time, which drops from 9.1sec to 7.9sec with the six-speed manual gearbox, or an even sharper 7.8sec with the automatic transmission. However, despite the additional performance, combined fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are improved by 17 per cent at a claimed 62.8mpg and 105g/km.
A further upside to the new engine is a tangible improvement in refinement, providing the Cooper with a quieter and more relaxed nature throughout the rev range. Combined with improved aerodynamic and rolling acoustics, this helps provide it with more endearing qualities for long-distance driving.
While its appearance might suggest otherwise, the new Mini has been developed from the ground up. It sits on a new high-strength steel platform, called UKL, that will not only have a huge impact on the future Mini line-up. Additionally, the Mini receives wider tracks than before along with a new MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, in a move aimed at sharpening responses while providing added ride comfort and greater refinement.
Despite the clear familiarity in the styling, it is quite a striking car when seen out in the open. The upright cabin and squat stance give it the sort of presence not apparent in any other small car. Yet there is a clear step between old and new despite the common proportions. All the traditional design elements are present: the hexagonal grille, round headlights, clamshell bonnet, upright windscreen, floating roof and continuous band of chrome at the base of the glasshouse.
The unadorned body sides also survive, but they now boast tauter surfacing. There is also a new sense of precision to the features lines, added muscularity within the wheel arches and the headlights and tail-lights also carry new LED graphics.
But the new Mini is not without controversy. The nose is an odd mishmash of shapes, shut lines and horizontal elements, and the rear lights, while retaining the same basic shape as those on the outgoing Mini, are comically oversized. Due to increasingly severe crash test regulations, it has also grown quite appreciably. At 3821mm in length, 1727mm in width and 1415mm in height, it is 98mm longer, 44mm wider and 7mm taller than before. The wheelbase is 28mm longer than that of the old Mini, at 2495mm.
The interior retains the same retro styling theme as before, but it has been greatly improved with new materials and expensive new options. Larger doors help ease entry, although the seats are now mounted slightly lower. There’s greater adjustment to the steering wheel and both front seats, adding to the comfort of those seated up front.
Mini makes a big noise about the overall lift in fit and finish, but it is the ergonomic enhancements that make the cabin a success. Little things, such as the relocation of the main instruments from the centre dial to directly in front of the steering wheel, make the new Mini more intuitive to operate, although it continues to lack for oddment space and the seat adjustment mechanism is incredibly fiddly. However, the increase in dimensions provides added interior space. There’s also a larger 211-litre boot.
For the first time, the new Mini also comes with the option of electronically controlled damping that offers the choice between Sport, Mid and Green modes. As with the outgoing model, the driver can also sharpen the steering and throttle response via an optional Driver Experience function.
Even after a day on Puerto Rican roads, it is clear the Cooper is more delicately balanced, much more smoother riding and even more entertaining to drive.
It retains the engaging nimbleness and liveliness of its predecessor around town, but from the very first mile you are aware of greater pliancy and absorption within the suspension, giving a more cossetted feel along with an ability to settle more quickly when faced with nasty transverse bumps. Best of all, though, it has lost none of its high-speed handling prowess.
In fact, it has been further enhanced, with the new suspension providing a distinctly calmer feel, while the revised geometry at the rear gives a more secure feel through corners, both under load and on a trailing throttle. Grip levels are very impressive, too, allowing you to carry a good deal of momentum into bends without understeer or engaging the stability control system. And with a lower centre of gravity and new hollow anti-roll bars both front and rear, the new Cooper possesses outstanding body control. The steering, meanwhile, is an improvement on the old arrangement, imparting lighter yet more communicative feel along with less kickback and a greater eagerness to self-centre.
Should I buy one?
So can this third-generation Mini rise above its predecessors and, like them, become a true driver’s favourite? In Cooper form, the answer is unequivocal. It has upped the stakes in terms of performance and handling but brings with it a broader appeal thanks to its improved ride quality and everyday usability. It is a now more rounded car than ever before as well as a real entertainer – whether tooling around town or out on the open road.