As thankless tasks go, reinventing the runaway success story that is the Mini is right up there. Some 2.4 million have been sold since the brand relaunched back in 2001 and such is the productivity of the Plant Oxford facility that 20 per cent of all new cars built in the UK today wear a Mini badge.
Yikes! What happened to cheeky good looks?!
It's been a huge money spinner and nobody wants to kill that winning formula. So visually it looks like a new Mini. Or in other words, like a mild evolution of the previous two new Minis.
The straight bonnet line and extended front overhang - essentials for new pedestrian safety legislation - have robbed the car of some dinkiness and the oversized headlamps and rear light clusters are beginning to look like a pastiche of the Frank Stephenson 'cute but cool' design. There is further fussiness around the face of the Cooper S where chromed air intakes do battle with the grille and the round fogs. Overall though, the distinctive 'floating roof' and four-square stance still work well. And it is still utterly unmistakable.
Inside the cabin, quality of materials has definitely improved. The styling and design are, again, immediately recognisable from the new original, but the plastics and switchgear are now more satisfyingly tactile. Ergonomically there have been improvements, with the speedo finally in the centre of the instrument cluster and the window switches on the windows where everybody else puts them.
Blame those careless pedestrians for looks
The car has grown by 98mm (the largest chunk of that, 58mm, is for that front overhang extension). There is a 12mm more headroom and 19mm rear legroom and the boot has been expanded by a useful 51 litres to 211 litres. There is an adjustable boot floor and 60/40 split and fold rear seats giving flexibility and a theoretical maximum load capacity of over 700 litres.
There were two variants on offer here, the most interesting being the petrol powered Cooper S. Tech spec headlines: 192hp, sub seven seconds to 62mph, close to 150mph... this is a rapid little machine. The new 2.0-litre turbo engine is an instant hit - brawny and smooth.
Motorway cruising is surprisingly refined, the engine quiet, wind and tyre noise well suppressed and general vibration kept to a minimum. The car feels long-legged and happy to lope along in top. This test car has the class-best 8.8-inch screen mated to an intuitive and effective iDrive type interface. It also boasts the new Head-Up Display that projects not onto the screen (the rake angle is wrong apparently) but onto a little flip up visor. It works very well, too, especially for nav info and the like.
Enough pictures of the front end already
Breaking out form the flat lands we climb into the mountains of Mallorca on roads that Froome and Wiggins use for winter training ... and most of their mates seem to be out on them today.
But lycra-clad obstacles aside, they are a brilliant blend of rough and smooth, fast and technical, sweeping and serpentine. Perfect hot hatch fodder. Toggling the drive settings to Sport, the car feels eager to crack on It also displays a picture of a go kart and the little car imagining it is a rocket on the screen, along with the phrase: 'maximum go kart feel'. Maximum marketing overload more like...
Steering weight is excellent and the helm is very accurate. There isn't a vast amount of feel or textured detail but there's about enough feedback to keep you informed of what the tyres are doing.
2.0 turbo gutsy; surely lots of tuning 'headroom' too
Most of the time they are digging in very hard: front end grip is strong and although it will fade into mild push eventually it never really washes out. A quick feather of the throttle tightens the nose back in while a more pronounced lift helps the car tuck into tighter switchbacks.
It isn't massively playful and never lairy but there is enough movement to make the car fluid and adjustable in an entertaining way. For my money the Fiesta ST is still the daddy for driving fun in this class.
The brakes are very good, progressive and never felt like fading, while the torquey delivery of the engine (peak torque at just 1,250rpm) allows discreet and rapid progress but is keen to spin up and hold on to some revs as well (max power from 4,700 all the way to 6,000rpm). It sounds good too, with a touch of bass, a nice little bit of wastegate flutter and some lovely fruity pops on the overrun.
Familiar themes; quirks ironed out though
The gearbox - six speed manuals on all the test models but new autos will be available - is light, snicky and rapid, suiting the car's personality well. When you go for a downshift, it has a 'rev match' function which blips the throttle for you. For those that like to heel and toe it is a bit unnerving at first but once you learn to let it have its way, it's very effective. If you don't heel and toe... well, now everybody will think that you do brilliantly!
The ride is firm as you would expect of a decently hot hatch, but while it jiggles a bit it's not crashy and there is enough compliance to cope with most lumps, bumps and potholes. The Mini still feels compact and easy to place on these roads, too - it might have beefed up, but it is still about six inches shorter than rivals such as the Fiesta, Polo and A1.
Still a hoot to chuck about; job jobbed
As well as the S we also drove the Cooper D. This is set to be a big seller in the new range. With 116hp and 199lb ft of torque it is brisk enough to be fun but (about nine seconds to 60, 127mph) its economy figure are remarkable. Mini is claiming over 80mpg on the combined cycle! Stir in a CO2 figure of just 92g/km and you can see why they believe it will appeal to company car buyers as well as private customers.
Huffing and puffing
The engine is strong and smooth for the most part. It doesn't sound great at the top of the rev band but as its best work is done by 3,500rpm, there isn't much point in heading there. It is superbly refined on the motorway and unintrusive for most driving tasks. It pulls well from little over tickover and delivers its peak torque at just 1,750rpm.
Extended nose most obvious in profile view
On 17-inch alloys the ride was a little firm but there seemed, subjectively, more malleability on the 16-inchers. That applied to the handling, too, with the car happier to tweak its line and allow the rear of the car to come into play to negate understeer and allow a quick dab. Without the outright performance stealing the show as it does in the S, the Cooper D highlights how well sorted the Mini chassis is and how capable across the board.
The Cooper S typically makes up a little over 15 per cent of sales while Cooper and Cooper D models attract almost 50 per cent between them. Mini hopes that the chunkier styling and the fact that the numbers will make the Mini and attractive company car prospect will widen the appeal to more male buyers.
Back by popular demand
The Pepper and Chili packs are likely to prove as popular as ever (90 per cent of buyers choose one or the other) while the excellent TLC service pack is also a no-brainer (98 per cent take up). The options list is extensive and expensive with lots of new tech like the 8.8-inch screen, adaptive damping, head-up dispay and the like making it all too easy to hike up the base prices. Our test S listed at over £25k with the extras...
Does what the new Mini does, just more so
So we have a more refined Mini. A more spacious Mini. A Mini which has an interior now with the depth and quality to support the funky styling. This is still a great little car. It still has personality alongside its ability. It's still a fun and funky hatch at heart. But, like all of us, it has had to grow up. Face responsibilities. It's added a bit of complication... a bit of quality and sophistication too. And while there might be times when we all hanker after those simpler, carefree days of youth, there will also be plenty when we appreciate the added maturity.
MINI COOPER S
Engine: 2.0-litre petrol, turbocharged
Transmssion: six speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 192@4,700-6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 206@1,250-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 6.8 sec
Top speed: 146mph
Price: £18,650 OTR, £25,350 as tested