Preview: 2014 Mini Hatchback
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO—At its international press preview in Puerto Rico, a new Mini hatchback drove up onto the beach between two dinghies named Cowly and Swindon, approximations of the factory names in England where Minis have been built for half a century.
Onita Boone, a singer from New York, crooned a song written for the occasion, “I Was Made in England.”
Union Jacks and stuffed British bulldog toys were all over the place.
Then they introduced the group of men who had designed and engineered the car. German accents, every one of them.
The bits may be screwed together in England. But the new Mini is as German as schnitzel mit weissbier.
It will go on sale this spring.
A story neither confirmed nor denied by BMW is that the company originally bought the Mini brand over a decade ago because it had developed some terrific front-wheel-drive technology, but didn’t feel the market would accept a Bimmer with that configuration.
Putting it into a Mini, the car that effectively introduced front-drive to the modern car scene, made perfect sense. And it was a huge hit.
But times change. A front-wheel-drive Bimmer is no longer beyond the pale, so the platform that underpins this newest Mini will also be used for the upcoming replacement for the BMW 1 Series.
BMW doesn’t like to talk much about this, but for all its undeniable appeal, Mini has languished at or near the bottom of the initial-quality survey rankings. Bringing the car’s design and execution closer to BMW standards will, it believes, improve this.
Barely a nut or bolt is carried over from the former car, whose components continue to be the basis for all other Mini models. They will all migrate in due course.
If you park this in your driveway, your neighbours won’t even know it’s a new model, since the biggest external change is its massive tail lights, along with minor revisions to the headlights and grille.
The car is also less mini than before — longer by 98 millimetres overall and 28 mm in wheelbase, wider by 44 mm and taller by 7 mm, all in the pursuit of more interior room.
But you still won’t be stuffing Granny into the back seat to take her to Bingo.
Trunk space is up by 51 litres, to 211.
It does lose some weight, however, about five kilograms depending on the model.
Inside, a major improvement in design and materials is welcome. The design and layout is still somewhat idiosyncratic, although the speedometer has been moved from the centre of the dash to in front of the driver, where it always belonged.
That central location is now occupied by a 4-line Thin Film Transistor display or an 8.8-inch colour screen, depending on equipment level, for air-con, SatNav, infotainment and communication systems.
Two engines will be offered in our market, both four-valve turbocharged Valvetronic (throttle-less) direct injection gasoline units.
In the Cooper, a 1.5-litre three-cylinder offers 136 hp and 162 lb.-ft. of torque (169 during a temporary full-throttle overboost).
In the Cooper S, it’s a 2.0-litre four (192 hp and 207 lb.-ft. — 221 with overboost).
No diesels for us. Wah!
New transmissions, too — a six-speed manual now with rev-matching for both down- and upshifting, and a six-speed automatic. Both come with idle stop/start for reduced fuel consumption in traffic.
All-new single-pivot strut front and multi-link rear suspension are designed with increased rigidity and less weight in mind. Variable dampers on Cooper S are a first for Mini.
You can choose between three driving modes — Mid, Green and Sport — affecting throttle mapping, steering response, plus dampers and automatic shift pattern, if so equipped.
We grabbed a Cooper (three-cylinder) stick for the morning and a Cooper S with automatic (the only tranny in the S test fleet) for the afternoon.
I was amazed by the three-pot. Very little of the characteristic throbbing we recall from turbo-triples by Suzuki several years ago.
Powertrain engineer Udo Linder told me they spent a lot of time on the balance shafts, specifically to make the engine run smoothly. At six grand, you’ll think you’re doing maybe four.
Although torque peaks at 1,250 r.p.m., you will have to get more revs than that on the clock to make a smooth launch.
Once rolling, it’s fine. Mini claims 0-100 in 7.9 seconds, one-tenth quicker in the automatic. Take that, stick-shift fans!
Both my driving partner and I felt we were really good at shifting. Neither of us had read the press kit pointing out the rev-matching feature.
It really works, and the gearbox is slickness personified.
The Cooper S’s four is naturally smoother, and notably quicker, as you would expect. The acceleration benchmark is reached in 6.8 seconds (6.7 if you’re lazy).
The automatic also works well, with paddle shifters if you wish to exercise more control.
Fuel-consumption numbers are not yet available, but Mini claims improvements of up to 27 per cent.
Evaluating ride quality on unfamiliar roads is tough without a back-to-back comparison with the old model. It seemed to me the edges had been rounded off a shade, but it is still very much on the sporty side of the firm/soft continuum.
So, thankfully, is the handling.
On one narrow, twisty stretch of our test route in the Cooper S, with a colleague driving up ahead to warn small children about us, and whose brake lights alerted me to oncoming traffic, I was able to push the car a little.
Speed up, catch my colleague, drop back for a minute or two, catch up again, rinse and repeat.
The mechanical grip and balance are outstanding — nary a chirp from any of the Pirelli P-Zero tires, not a flash or a graunch from the ESC system.
Dial in the desired angle through the electric power steering, and around the corner we go. Quite fantastic, actually.
If this isn’t the best-handling front-drive car in the world, I don’t know what might be.
For buyers who will never push the car this hard, the marketing folks have foisted such irrelevancies as self-parking (you’ll show it off to your friends once, then never use it again) and an electronic key fob that no longer needs to be stuck into the dashboard to start the car, so you can lose it down between the seats just like you do in all BMWs. I just don’t see that as progress.
Fortunately, the essential goodness of the Mini has been retained. Improved even, thanks to stronger performance, increased interior space, slightly better ride, significantly improved fuel consumption and, we hope, better assembly quality.
For sheer driving fun with four seats and a bit of a trunk, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Transportation for freelance writer Jim Kenzie was provided by the manufacturer. Email: email@example.com.
2014 Mini Cooper/Cooper S
Engines: Cooper: 1.5-litre, turbocharged inline four, Cooper S: 2.0-litre turbocharged inline four
Power/Torque: Cooper: 136 hp/162 lb.-ft., Cooper S: 192/207
Fuel Consumption L/100 km: N.A.
Competition: Audi A3, Fiat 500 Abarth, Subaru Impreza WRX, Mercedes-Benz CLA 250, Volkswagen GTI.
What’s Best: Best-handling front-drive car in the world, outstanding manual transmission, iconic styling, improved interior.
What’s Worst: Some controls still take getting used to, rear seat still for occasional use only, no diesel option for us.
What’s Interesting: Even the British royal family is mostly German.