There's a new and improved Mini. It's like the old one but slightly bigger, and the Cooper S gets a turbo motor
Much has been talked about the new Mini - concepts have been shown, spy photos taken, expectations raised. So it was with surprise we discovered the new Mini is just like the old one.
There are differences, of course. It's claimed every exterior panel has changed, but only the connoisseur would know. We struggled to see what had been done - it's 2.3" longer, has a more pronounced rump, a bigger gill vent, higher hood, larger speedo...
We went to see where some of BMW's $375 million had been invested in Mini's three British manufacturing plants with a walk around the Oxford assembly line. With so much spent, you might wonder why they didn't take the opportunity to do something more adventurous, but wait until you see the new Mini Traveller in two years. Shortly after, there will be a new Convertible as well - the old one will continue alongside the new hatchback for the next three or so years.
Apart from new body styles, the Mini's conservative lines are the result of the car's success. Sales have increased every year since its introduction in '01, but this success is the problem. If people love the car, why risk everything and change it?
In the end, BMW was forced to revise the car by European pedestrian safety laws requiring a larger front end to cushion an impact. The new 1.6 16v was developed with the PSA Peugeot/Citroen group that also required more space. So if you have to re-tool your factory for these reasons, why not increase capacity to meet the growing demand? Maximum production was previously 200,000 cars (the total number sold in '05) but the Oxford plant can now build an additional 40,000 per annum if necessary.
The engine is better suited to future emissions laws and will be built at the Hams Hall plant, while pressings and sub-assemblies come from the Swindon plant. This creates the British Production Triangle and means 60% of the car is now sourced from the UK, reducing component shipping costs and making the new car cheaper to build than the old one.
Throughout the press conference for the new car (conducted in German!), constant reference was made to Sir Alec Issignosis' revolutionary post-war 1959 original design and it's incredible 47-year heritage that includes over five million sales and unexpected motorsport success. And yet, time behind the wheel showed the raw fun of the OG Mini is gradually giving way to luxury and convenience.
Maybe the influx of BMW technology in the world market is what matters today. Maybe things like a direct injection, Valvetronic 16v engine with a twin-scroll turbo, Steptronic transmission with paddle shifters, electro-mechanical steering, brake and hill-start assist, six airbags with side curtains, run flat tires, Bluetooth technology, an iPod plug and variable ambient lighting are what's important. But without its unique Britishness and history that made the car an icon, the new iteration would be just another small car - a rather special car, mind you, and definitely a baby BMW - the 0.5-Series, if you like.
The new car doesn't disappoint. It still goes where you point it and with added verve thanks to the new turbo motor that represents the tuner's dream. Even with a decent 175hp, the new motor has so much more potential for big power. The payoff is a slightly more cosseted experience that removes you from the action somewhat.
Luckily we know the solution - slightly stiffer damping (this car now absorbs bumps better than ever), a noisier exhaust and the software upgrade that somebody is inevitably writing at this minute. With these few components, the Cooper S will be a riot again.
Although this is a new Mini, it's better described as an improved Mini. The wheezy motor has been replaced, the suspension is more forgiving and there's more passenger room. It also bristles with more technology, but there's nothing that detracts from the overall flavor; it's like the car grew up, got a summer job and bought its first pair of new shoes. It's a little more mature, but can still get rowdy with its friends on the weekend.
Just do me a favor. Please stop referring to Mark Wahlberg's movie as The Italian Job and buy Michael Caine's genius original. Then you'll understand what Mini means.