We were fortunate recently to be invited to the BMW Groups Drive Day at their corporate headquarters in Bracknell. Although many other BMW products were available, including the tantalising BMW i3 – surely the shape of things to come – we were naturally keen to try the Minis, particularly since the third generation of this much-loved range was only released in March this year. The range feature three new Euro 6 compliant engines, as well as new transmissions. Like most new models, the Mini Hatch has grown, by 98mm in length and 44mm in width, although this was certainly not noticeable from the outside. Opinions vary on the restyled grille, and whilst it may be true that photos taken from some angles do not do the car justice, in the metal the car looks great and still looks every inch a Mini!
First up was the Mini Cooper, this being the first ever time that the car had been made available to the Press. First impressions on jumping aboard were of easy familiarity, followed by spotting all the detail differences from the second-generation range. The influence of BMW was evident around the cabin, where standards had been improved without losing the unique “Mini-ness” which has given the product such a loyal fan club. Indeed, chatting later to Martin Harrison of BMW, it was clear that the company had very much taken on board user feedback from the previous generation, and addressed it without losing the spirit of the car. So, for example, whilst the “dinner-plate” central instrument in the facia is retained, it no longer contains the speedo, which was always tricky to see, particularly if the optional satnav screen was sat inside it. The “dinner-plate” is now given over to the multimedia screen, including, in the Chilli pack, an excellent and upgraded satnav sharing many similarities with that offered in the rest of the BMW range.
The controller for the satnav is still on the floor between the seats, but now uses the large iDrive control rather than the fiddly joystick of the second-generation car.
Window switches have been moved from their previous hard-to-find location in the centre of the facia to the more normal position on the doors. The seats now include an adjustable sliding thigh support. A raft of electronic features are now available, either as standard or options including collision avoidance, reversing camera, and a head-up display. I was, I confess, highly cynical of the value of a head-up display until I took the car on the road, and can report that it is, in fact incredibly useful, to the extent that it was sorely missed when driving any other car. The display can, amongst other things, show a digital display of speed, alongside an indication of the prevailing speed limit, and the next turn information. Best of all, the head up display option costs only £350!
Whilst boot space is still inevitably limited, the boot now features a two-level floor, with the highest position providing a flat load platform with no lip, and a useful hidden storage space underneath. Although the test drive was hampered by heavy rain, the new 3-cylinder engine was powerful enough to make the car great fun to drive, sounding tuneful but much more relaxed than I had expected. The ride was firm, but not excessively so, possibly because the Mini now rides on standard tyres rather than stiff run flats (with a repair kit including a compressor in the boot) whilst the handling had lost none of the glued-to-the road behaviour for which the previous model was famed. For the first time, the Mini is fitted with optional variable damping, although the difference between the two settings did not seem too great, unlike – surprisingly – the Cooper S driven later. Gearshifts were exactly as remembered – a little heavy but delightfully precise. All too soon, my brief test drive was over, but not before it was very clear that the third generation Mini represented a real step forward over its forebears. As with the second-generation cars, the reasonably-priced base car (£15,300OTR) can be specced up to the hilt, provided your pockets are deep enough – the test car’s on the road price was £24,830!
Next up was the Mini Cooper S. In many respects this can be summed up as more of the same but with a healthy extra dash of spice – 189bhp against the Mini Coopers still respectable 134bhp. This description however does not do the car justice, for the extra power and torque really gave the car, to me anyway, something which complemented the ride, handling and impeccable quality extremely well. One welcome change from the previous model is that the “sport” switch is no longer hidden in front of the gear lever; instead, it forms a rotary control around the base of the gearshift. This sharpens throttle response as well as stiffening the dampers and steering to give a real go-kart feel.
Just in case the driver fails to spot the increased urgency in sport mode, the rim of the “dinner plate” glows red as a reminder, fading after a few seconds. In a nod to these economy-minded times, the sport control can also be switched the other way to give – yes, you guessed it – an eco mode, this time with green highlights. Oddly enough…..or perhaps it was just me…the difference in ride seemed very noticeable in the different settings, with sport being hard but not intolerable, whilst in mid or eco modes the ride was much calmer.
Following this an opportunity was taken to drive the mildly facelifted Paceman, in Cooper D form, and, whilst the interior fit & finish of this model has always been considered as being of an excellent standard, jumping from the 3rd generation Minis straight into the Paceman really brought home just how far Mini have raised their game with the new generation in terms of refinement. This was confirmed by a brief test drive, where the Paceman seemed to be generally noisier than the cars driven earlier. Interestingly, noise levels from the new 3-cylinder 1.5 litre 114 bhp diesel engine itself were quite subdued, indeed it was difficult to detect that it was a diesel once on the road, but the car seemed to have a higher general level of road noise being transmitted though the cabin. The diesel power however provided a spritely level of performance which fully matched the Mini character. The day was finished off with a play with a John Cooper Works Mini Countryman. As a JCW hatch owner until recently, I was keen to see how the JCW magic had translated to the bigger chassis, and was not disappointed. Whilst, as with the Paceman, the Countryman felt a little dated, the performance was superb, and was accompanied by an intoxicating soundtrack of pops & bangs on the overrun in true rally car style. Handling with the All4 drive system was limpet-like, and certainly exceeded my limited abilities! All in all, a great day catching up with some great cars, and one which will be remembered for some time to come.
With thanks to Martin Harrison and the BMW MINI team.
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