Minis might be quite large nowadays, but their original spirit survives
It speaks volumes for the strength of the Mini name that, in the 17 years since BMW breathed fresh life into it, and despite its conspicuous success not just here but right around the world, no one has tried to steal a slice of its action. Not unless you count half-hearted reheats of old soup like Citroën’s DS3 or the ‘DS 3’ as we must now call it. It’s interesting, too, that many customers are so wedded to the idea of Mini ownership that too often they’re prepared to pay rather too much money for a car with rather too little charm and, indeed, ability; none more so than the original Countryman.
And yet throughout it all, there has remained a central kernel of brilliance at the heart of the more easily accessible of BMW’s two British brands: the basic Mini hatchback. And its most recent iteration has just received its mid-life facelift.
It’s a very subtle affair cosmetically, though clear signs of BMW’s desire further to individualise the brand without spending pots of cash are clear. The Union Flags etched into the rear light clusters might seems a little heavy handed, but the ability to let customers design their own 3D-printed messages on panels for the dashboard trim, the kickplates and even the puddles of lights that illuminate the ground under the wing mirrors at night will certainly be a hit.
Mechanically, there is now a seven-speed double clutch automatic option for the Cooper S tested here, plus an engine with new injectors, turbo and exhaust. There’s no more power at least on paper, but a useful boost in fuel consumption. Some suspension retuning completes the picture.
And pretty joyous it is, too. There is nothing else in this price bracket that combines such a sense of fun with such a profound feeling of quality. The interior is no ergonomic masterpiece, but it does seem an improbably special place to be, especially for a car in this price bracket.
I don’t even mind that there are plenty of hatches that are just as powerful and quick on sale for rather less money, for few if any offer such entertainment. One is likely to be the new Ford Fiesta ST – more on that in this space next month. For now, however, I appreciate how hard BMW has tried to preserve the roller-skate feel of the Mini despite its weight and not exactly short wheelbase. It reacts immediately and urgently to every tug of the wheel and darts about the place like a hyperactive teenager. Nor does the slight but significant torque reaction through the steering wheel trouble me – it’s part of the car’s character and just one of many ways it communicates with its driver.
The old limitations remain, of course: there’s very little room in the back and even less in the boot, while its long-distance ride quality is nowhere near as nuanced as that of, say, a Golf GTI.
But if you care more about enjoying the drive, and insist on a car with a premium feel, now and as ever there really is nowhere else worth looking.