One of the best brand launches ever was of the new Mini back in September 2000 at the fancy Paris Motor Show. That situation was so potentially delicate and could have fallen flat on its pudgy cute face. But BMW Group nailed it and, to date, over 2.5 million Minis have been delivered to an ecstatically hip clientele, with the United States leading the crowd.
That first generation was a mega-hit, while the 2006-2012 second generation carried on the momentum but didn’t really advance the brand apart from volumes gained through multiplying models. This current outgoing generation has turned kitsch in its interior design through overdesign and overuse of cheap-feeling plastics. The range of models has also arguably been over-extended, and the John Cooper Works performance sub-brand has been squeezed for all the juice in it.
Does this third-generation Mini take me back to days of rallying against all odds and winning on the icy mountains of Monte Carlo? Will it set me loose like a daredevil driver in "The Italian Job?" Or will it push me away because I don’t want to be A-listed as a nouveau hipster dressing like a tormented vagabond artiste even though I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth in manicured suburbia? Pressing questions for a brand at a crossroads.
I went to the Puerto Rico party at Mini's invitation to drive the new Cooper — codenamed F56 in the tested two-door hatch layout, because we all know codes are cool — and it seems Mini has reeled the car back to its dynamic roots. But it’s done this by advancing the little thing to the point where many available tech bits on a BMW 7 Series are in some form available to a Mini buyer.
All significant dimensions on the Mini have grown, the overall length particularly gaining 3.9 inches, width 1.7 inches, and the wheelbase just 1.1 inches, mainly for safety and aerodynamics. Add the new more compact multi-link rear suspension structure, too, and room for dogs and/or craft-beer brewing supplies in back increases by nearly 2.0 cubic feet.
One would think that with advancements like electric power steering (standard), new adaptive suspension ($500 option), run-flat tires, and the latest six-speed automatic transmission ($1,250 option), that the Mini is literally losing touch with that tradition of go-kart style feedback that made it's rep in the day. Fabulously enough, however, the tech is so good nowadays that any fears of numbness can be put aside.
My Volcanic Orange two-door Cooper S with turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder came on optional 17-inch darkened wheels and switched gears via the optional automatic. I was entrusted with this stronger 189-hp setup for part of the day through the stunning and humid Puerto Rican jungle and rainforest. The rest of the day was with a 134-hp dark blue Cooper trim powered by the new three-cylinder turbocharged 1.5-liter motor and using the updated six-speed manual shifter. Both trims go farther in making the Cooper and Cooper S distinctly separate characters.
I have to admit that I was hoping for the manual transmission in the 2.0-liter Cooper S, and would have preferred the fuel-efficient automatic to be mated to the fuel-efficient three-cylinder. So be it, I took off in the Cooper S and quickly found this updated automatic is really a good unit with much nimbler shifting than before. The variable rate electronic steering system – first seen on the BMW i3 – has come a long way with good precision and some analogue-like feedback. This new setup rates 28 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, a 27 percent improvement according to Mini.
Spare a moment for a few impressions on the new 1.5-liter three-cylinder; I really enjoyed this humbler Cooper trim. The 134 horses and impressive 162 pound-feet of torque can take the 2,605-pound Cooper with manual tranny to 60 mph from a stop in just 7.4 seconds. While the automatic gearbox adds 70 pounds, it can do this acceleration in one tenth of a second less.
This smaller capacity engine is essentially a 3.0-liter BMW in-line six-cylinder sliced in half; the same three-cylinder used in the BMW i8. The sound is smooth and baritone, and I noticed in particular that both second and third gears can go on for days without a shift. Here’s hoping that Americans don’t feel like they’re getting gypped by paying $20,745 for a three-pot. Maybe the mileage per gallon of 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway with the automatic will convince the fence-sitters.
Jumping into the Cooper S ($24,395 base) was then like coming home to that familiar four-cylinder Mini groove. The 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque do the 60-mph dance in 6.5 seconds with the manual and one tenth quicker with the auto. On the scrappy Puerto Rican roads, the S was right at home dashing between big lumps, shoulder ruts, and occasional deep potholes. The optional adaptive suspension needs to have a little more differentiation between the two modes, but it is generally fine work.
The Mini Drive Modes toggle switch at the base of the shift-lever island — Mid, Sport, or Green — is standard on all Mini Cooper trims and it recalibrates throttle response, shift timings of the automatic, steering resistance, and the suspension feel of the adaptive setup. This goes farther than the previous little Sport button in maturing the Cooper Minis up to a BMW-like level of sophistication.
Inside the cabin is where the differences from the previous generation hit you. I noticed that even on the tougher sections of road that much less noise and vibration makes its way to the steering wheel, even on the optional large 17-inch wheels and run-flat tires. There were no cars with the new option of 18-inch wheels and tires available to test, but I’d be very curious.
The plastics used throughout the cabin are decidedly higher grade in their touch quality, a welcome shift from the thin-feeling hardness of the outgoing model line. The seats are another step up, sturdy and supportive. The key now gets inserted nowhere but maybe in your pocket or cupholder, and there is a new red flashing jetfighter-type Start/Stop switch at bottom center of the center stack. Meantime, the chrome-y window switches that I could never get used to have been mercifully moved to the armrests of the doors.
While the anti-kitsch purge was mostly successful, the new LED multi-color outer ring on the center dash proves it was not a total victory. Clearly, BMW Group feels that youthful people with disposable income need some disco feature on their Mini, but this idea should have been killed in the prototype stage. Not because it is necessarily distracting, but because it is unnecessarily tacky.
The more grownup Gen 3 Mini all in all is off to a good start and deliveries in the United States begin in March. Next come the new Mini Convertible, Clubman, and all-new five-door hatch in 2015, then eventually the 220-hp John Cooper Works edition shown at this past Detroit auto show. After a pause at the crossroads, Mini has found the right road ahead.
Mini provided travel, meals and accommodations for this review