New Mini - same, same but different

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Photos: Mini

Nothing changes for the Mini but everything is new, writes Richard Bosselman.

That's just how it goes for this car; basically, making a new Mini not look like an old one while maintaining the classic Mini look is as impossible as it sounds.

The key underlying change sees the Mini elevated to become a full member of parent company BMW's family, sharing a platform and engines with other Munich models. This delivers a longer nose that accounts for the latest Mini being 10cm longer than the outgoing model, and a little wider and taller too.

Yet this is a tale of evolution.

If you found it challenging to distinguish the first (2001 to 2006) and second (then to now) generation hatches, then picking the latest generation three-door from its equivalent forebear will be no less vexing.

Look closely and you will see that the proportions are more bulbous and the front and rear lights larger. But the easiest method to distinguish old from new is to forget about the exteriors and instead cross-reference the interiors and engines.

The latest car steps up for interior design and room (though it's still very compact in the back) and for mechanical zoom. The turbocharged engines - two petrols, a three-cylinder 1.5 and a 2-litre four-pot - are entirely fresh and, for the first time for Mini, designed and engineered solely by BMW.

The new Mini also features technology only previously available in BMW-badged cars. These include driver assist functions - an active cruise control, ''smart'' LED lights, collision and pedestrian warning system with city brake function, self-park smarts, a head-up display - and an extended range of comfort functions.

Very few of these enhancements are standard, which might suggest BMW has a certain cynicism about the value of cool and chic. Yet it argues that customers are happy to raid their bank accounts to achieve a Mini customised to their taste.

A Cooper S I drove at the media event, held on the Gold Coast, had no fewer than 16 extra-cost accessories and I'm told that's hardly unusual.

Price parity with the old models sounds good, although our neighbour gets a better deal for common spec cars; in Australia, prices have dropped significantly to induce a sales surge.

Mini NZ says the models' pricing here reflects its premium status. That shows through to an interior rendered in quality trim materials.

Previous Minis became ergonomic atrocities in pursuit of interior design daring. This one starts to resolve that silliness, yet still looks funky within while becoming a bit more functional.

One notable improvement is that the speedo and door switches are where they should have always been, respectively directly ahead of the driver and on the doors.

That doesn't spell the end of the toggle switches and big mid-console circular display; these were deemed too historically important to drop. The circular display is now reassigned as an 8.8-inch screen for infotainment systems capable of connecting with social media, internet streaming services and Mini's own driver feedback systems. The rim is part of the interior mood lighting package; it flashes green when the stop-start system operates and can be programmed to mimic the sweep of the rev counter needle.

This is the first Mini to adopt a BMW iDrive controller (replacing the old car's joystick), and a head-up display, showing driving speed, speed limit and navigation instructions.

Packaging both has been a challenge, as the only free space for the iDrive is an awkward location between the front seats. In BMWs, the HUD projects directly on to the windscreen but the Mini's short dashtop and glass angle doesn't allow for this, so they've instead gone for a retractable Perspex gunsight.

What does raise easy smiles is the driving, especially as BMW's keenness to play up the claimed go-kart handling credentials took us to a driver training facility inland from Brisbane. There we spent time with the brand's stunt-driving school, racing the new car around a road course and also learning how to pull off trick-driving manoeuvres, reverse J-turns and high-speed 360s included.

The on-track time was great fun, but the road work more important.

The completely revised suspension still has a tautness that might cause the car to be jittery on coarse chip, and more so in the Cooper S, which flies the sports flag until the JCW comes in 2015. But the handling is great, with a sharp, responsive turn-in from the steering and very good body control that resolves the emergent nervousness of the old car.

Cooper S owners can also option to a driver-adjustable set-up, the sportiest setting of which increases firmness. Wheel size and tyre choice (some rims are on run-flats, some not) might also make a difference.

The standard Cooper's three-cylinder, 1.5-litre is feisty and fun but enthusiasts will still naturally gravitate to the Cooper S. Ditching a 1.6-litre motor for a turbocharged 2-litre unit might go against the original rules of Mini-dom, but it's a sensational powerplant.

Torque matters as much as power here; there's a lot here from low revs and it uses it well. As with the 1.5, this engine revels in being revved out; the harder you go, the more pleasing the engine note. Ultimately, there's even some snap and crackle from the centre-mounted twin exhausts.

Which transmission? The manual is the better of the two, and more in keeping with the Mini's nature, but the auto will better suit the buyer profile. They both work well but I'd suggest auto buyers looking for playfulness should lay down the extra $500 required to provide paddle-shifters.

Ultimately, there will be more body types, though Mini New Zealand and Australian people assert there will be fewer offshoots than seen in the preceding line and nothing bigger than a Countryman.

For a while, too, the stepped process of replacing old with new means we should expect to see current and new derivatives selling side by side for some time. The Paceman, also a three-door coupe, but substantially larger than the new hatch, was released here only last year, after all.



New Mini - same, same but different
At a Glance


Price: $36,200 Cooper, $44,200 Cooper S

Engines: 1499cc three-cylinder TwinPower turbocharged petrol, maximum power 100kW@4500-6000rpm, maximum torque 220Nm@1250rpm; 1998cc four-cylinder TwinPower turbocharged petrol, maximum power 141kW@4700-6000rpm, maximum torque 280Nm@1250rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual, six-speed automatic

Brakes and stability systems: Disc/disc, ABS, DSC, BA, CBC, DTC

Wheels, tyres: 195/55 R16 (Cooper) and 205/45 R17 (Cooper S)

Fuel and economy: 4.7-5.9 litres per 100km on European cycle, capacity 44 litres

Dimensions: Length 3850mm, width 1727mm, height 1414mm