Four years into its life, the third gen Mini has been upgraded, with best changes being reserved for the versions that make most sense.
SOME irony, surely, that while local media were experiencing the mid-life facelifted Mini, the makers of the car trading so heavily on its Britishness were inking a deal further diminishing a birthright threatened by the United Kingdom’s desire to be … well, more English.
And yet, there you go. It’s now a done deal that next year’s first wholly battery-driven Mini, a city-centric three-door coming here next year displayed over the weekend at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, will not only be built in Oxford, England, but also in China.
Such a turn-up reminds these are interesting times for Mini and BMW, which assumed ownership in 1994. The posterior pain that Brexit presents all carmaking operations in the UK has put Munich in a real bind.
Basically, the brand has expressed concern that, if a full divorce from the EU occurs, there’s real chance that construction of the car that in original form was the epitome of Swinging Sixties’ Blighty and one of the UK’s last truly successful world-beaters will completely curtail there.
Already some Minis are already not as British as you might imagine. The Mini Countryman — which accounts for a third of the brand’s sales internationally and has snared 41 percent of NZ sales year to date — and Mini convertible are born in … erm … Born, the Netherlands.
However, the most direct descendant of the original BMC car, the hatch, has always been British-built. And Oxford accounted for about 60 percent of the 378,486 Mini's produced last year.
Nonetheless, BMW, whose UK investment is vast (it makes engines at Hams Hall in North Warwickshire, Rolls-Royce in Goodwood and has a pressings plant in Swindon) has been concerned enough by Brexit to already recently expand that Dutch assembly site. Having a second export base for Mini outside of Britain would mitigate any damage caused by a possible hard exit from the European Union's single market.
BMW is not yet at a point of firm determination about what to do. Nonetheless, the July 11 announcement about Mini EV being made in China is hardly a positive signal; until then, the car’s only announced sourcing point has been Oxford. BMW assures Plan A will continue, which means the Mini EVs coming to NZ next year will have been born in a factory that, since opening 17 years ago, has delivered more than three million cars and serviced 110 exports markets.
All in all, it’s an interesting scenario, one our hosts at the local market launch were keen to steer well clear of. They simply say they watching this situation with interest.
There’s plenty to keep them occupied, of course, since a certain Mr Trump is also causing headaches for the parent with talk of European brands being taxed. This in apparent ignorance of BMW, through prioritising global SAV production in South Carolina, holding comfortable status as America’s biggest car exporter.
Meantime, back here we can focus ob some local market direction changes for Mini.
The complete withdrawal of diesel, the relegation to special status of manual transmissions, the introduction of a new drivetrain for the three-door and five-door hatchbacks (plus the convertible) and across the board implementation of the 4G smarts that already provide in BMW cars are all concurrent with introduction of the mid-life update.
It’s still playing at being the most British of cars out here in the farthest-flung colony. Aficionados of the brand will doubtless be delighted that there are even more personalisation options, including Union Jack-embossed tail-lights (a trade-off, perhaps, for it surprisingly having lost the option of a fully flag-motifed roof panel) for the versions don’t have this as standard.
Price hikes? Well, Minis are not exactly cheap. Announcement that the Cooper goes from $35,550 to $35,990, the Cooper S from $43,700 to $44,500 and the JCW from $54,400 to $54,900 is a bit misleading, insofar that this is in respect to the manual editions that simply aren’t favoured here. The auto option adds $3000; go five-door and it’s another $1500. And then come the options. So MANY options. Getting carried away can become incredibly expensive.
On our drive, just the Cooper S seemed closest to standard. The Cooper 1.5 three-door carried $5k worth of extras. Also along were a Countryman and a Clubman, both also in embellished form. Thus list prices of $61,890 and $69,200 were lifted by almost $8k and $2k respectively. Some might say that’s a lot of money that could better spent elsewhere.
Still, one thing about Minis. They’re expensive, but at least don’t look or feel cheap. All the more, perhaps, because the design team is always finessing even the smallest things.
For instance, the new LED daytime running lights finally form complete circles in the front clusters. Oh yes, and cars now wear the new, flatter, 2D corporate 'MINI' logo. Alloy wheels designs alter of course and three new metallic body colours are brought into force. Solaris Orange and Emerald Grey brought on our drive, Emerald Blue yet to be seen.
The snazzy interiors maintain a central display, with the speedometer and rev counter now situated ahead of the driver, and also sport a new three-spoke multifunction steering wheel. The graphics for the (optional) head-up display have been sharpened and the MINI Driving Modes selector, previously a rotary collar thing at the base of the gear lever, is now on a toggle switch.
When you click into 'Sport' mode, it no longer projects a naff image of a MINI with thought bubbles of rockets and go-karts rising from it. Instead, the digital MINI adopts bonnet stripes, door mirror caps and a roof in white.
The most significant new feature is the standard 6.5-inch colour touchscreen with built-in navigation and a reversing camera across the Cooper, Cooper S, and JCW hatch variants.
These also have Mini Connected, allowing the use of wireless Apple CarPlay, and providing real time traffic information, news, weather and an intelligent e-call system which will make an automatic emergency call to the BMW Group should there be an airbag deployment.
Why not dial 111 direct? Because the message is imparted as a map reference, which is acceptable to emergency services in many First World countries … except here, where we prefer an archaic method of an operator answering then asking which emergency service is required. A question the car, of course, cannot answer.
So, because of this, the car makes an international call to the Philippines, where BMW has a call centre, where a staffer then forwards information to our own emergency services. Daft? That’s not the first word that comes to mind.
Anyway, to the driving, in this instance an Auckland to Taupo and return overnight run, coming back via Paeroa, two up per car. Starting out in the Countryman then slipping progressively into the five-door Cooper, Clubman JCW and three-door Cooper S reinforced yet again the following.
First, the bigger the platform, wheelbase and engine, the more appealing the car for long open-road excursions; having a suspension also set up to serve its SUV standing also makes the Countryman best for big trips, regardless of how well it acquits off-seal. You can understand why it is the second-most popular Mini model here, with the biggest rural buyer imprint. It’s comfortable, roomy enough for family use and relaxed at open road pace.
At the other end of the scale stands the Clubman, a real Marmite car beaten only by the Paceman as the most questionable modern era Mini.
Not that much dimensionally smaller than a Countryman, but far less sensibly executed for space, it is less comfortable, certainly not as commodious and pretty pointless for load-carrying: The quirky split boot door design also annoys by blocking any useful view from the rear-view mirror.
Any confusion about what this car is supposed to achieve, and who it exactly appeals to, is amplified by its JCW treatment. With 171kW and 350Nm, the engine has plenty of spirit, yet in reality the car doesn't feel all that quick. There's a solid initial surge when you floor the throttle pedal, yet it doesn't really reward you for wringing it out.
The eight-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox, a new installation, is quite quick on upshifts, but could do with an improvement to the down-change function in terms of rev-matching, especially in the Sport setting. The latter sharpens the throttle response and gives the steering a bit more weight, while simultaneously increasing the exhaust noise – so there are some very audible pops from the exhaust on upshifts and on the overrun – and stiffening the dampers, which makes the car impossibly uncomfortable and too busy on ill-formed roads.
The hatches remind that the original starting point for the BMW range is still a great place to stop. Though hardly totally adept all-rounders – you’d have to be making a movie to want to use a three-door Cooper for a balls-out North to South drive due to the comfort challenges – these are nonetheless the most honest variants, not least if you are out to make historical connection with the image, the style and the driving experience you got from driving your Nan’s original Mini (even though the five-door’s stretched look is not a strong point).
The five-door’s 141kW and 280Nm 2.0-litre engine has lots of power available even from a light touch of the accelerator, making it smooth to drive around town. Given the opportunity, it can sprint from 0-100kmh in 6.8 seconds which is plenty quick enough to be a lot of fun.
However, I enjoyed even more the vivacious 100kW/220Nm 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine, also used by the platform-sharing BMW 2-Series Active Tourer in place of the old PSA-sourced 1.2. While torque rises by 10Nm to 190Nm and there’s no power lift whatsoever over the old engine, the new mill’s enhanced willingness to rev is a real joy and you’ll enjoy the cheeky tri-pot soundtrack that emerges while you’re giving it snot.
With either powerplant, too, the seven-speed twin-clutch automatic – in place of a six-speed orthodox auto - is also a pleasing accomplice, interaction with the small engine being particularly decent. It’s snappy, but in an impressively smooth manner when hand-motivated, while when left to its own devices changes, even at higher speeds, are all but imperceptible.
There’s good efficiency to be found, too, with the Cooper returning as little as 5.3 litres per 100km, while the Cooper S sips at least 5.5L/100km.
You don’t have to be driving quickly to enjoy the hatches, but despite being on more modest rubber than the sports editions, they don’t seem to mind it. The three-door particularly still has a jaunty ride but the trade-off for this is a very involving driving experience thanks to very little body roll and quick, precise steering.
This really isn’t news to Kiwi Mini fans, as the hatch is the shape we prefer most of all. The three- and five-doors accounted for more than 46 percent of Mini volume last year. The Countryman came next with 41 percent (one in 10 being the PHEV edition), while the Clubman grabbed a 10 percent slice. Lest popular was the Convertible, with just three percent.