When I was six years old, my parents bought me a book called The Daft Dictionary and I dearly wish I still had it. Within its pages were ridiculous definitions for many of the words I was using at the time, some of which would no doubt be completely unacceptable in these politically correct times. But one I will never forget was its explanation for the word “minimum”, which was simply: Minidad’s wife. You can groan all you like but to a very young boy in 1977 that was comedy gold.
However, consulting an actual dictionary, I see the definition of minimum (as a noun) is: the least or smallest amount or quantity possible, attainable, or required. The accepted shortened form of minimum is “mini” and, when you look at the car with which that noun became a name, back in 1959, it’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to come up with something more fitting. It was, and is, mini in every sense of the word. Except, perhaps when it comes to fun behind the wheel.
Over the years I, and members of my family, have owned a number of Minis. I learnt to drive and passed my driving test in one, and I travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles in one. My cousin once drove from the north of England to the South of France and back again in a Mini, although I’m not sure I could have coped with that particular voyage. I’ve been left stranded by Minis, while their electrics have called it a day (usually after some slight drizzle) and I have watched in horror as they have been consumed by rampant rust. But not once have I ever regretted owning or driving one. The original Mini is a true icon of motoring and I’d own one now if I thought it and its occupants might have a fighting chance of surviving a UAE road accident.
So when I arrive at a nondescript warehouse in Dubai’s Al Quoz district, which is now an art gallery thingumajig, to drive the all-new variant from BMW, and I see the words “The New Original” plastered all over the sides of the assembled demonstrator models, my expectations are understandably high. The actual original Mini changed the motoring landscape forever – could BMW have made something equally trailblazing? I’ll find out soon enough.
While enthusiasts loudly lament the way that cars have evolved over the decades since the first Mini’s launch, we must all concede that car designers have had to radically alter the way they package automobiles. Mini was, indeed, an accurate descriptor for Sir Alec Issigonis’s car – it used a revolutionary front engine placement (sideways or transverse) and that motor also housed the transmission, which sent power to the front wheels, allowing 80 per cent of the Mini’s floorpan to be used for useful things like accommodating people instead of driveshafts and other mechanical bits and pieces. This was incredible stuff in the late 1950s and it changed the way cars were designed forever but things have changed and, if the Mini was launched now, nobody in their right mind would drive one on a public road. It just wouldn’t be safe.
Modern cars are getting bigger all the time and the Mini is proof positive, if any were needed, that legislation is killing the art of building a small car. I’ve said this before but when the original was 10 years old, another Issigonis-designed car was launched onto the UK market. The Maxi was, at the time, exactly that – the polar opposite of mini – and its ungainly shape was a familiar sight on that country’s roads for well over a decade. It was, by comparison, enormous, yet it’s still smaller than a current Mini Countryman. This is a quite ridiculous state of affairs. Exactly what is mini about the Mini these days?
So let’s forget about the myriad variants that BMW’s Mini sub-brand has foisted upon a marketplace that never knew it wanted them and instead look to the new base cars in Cooper and Cooper S forms. The new originals, if you must.
At first glance it would appear that, comedy-sized front and rear lamps aside, very little has changed when it comes to appearance. But look closer. When you do you’ll notice that this car, which was already getting a bit maxi, is now even bigger, to the tune of 100 millimetres of extra length. The wheelbase takes up 28 of those millimetres, with the rest going into the front overhang – where it’s really noticed – and this has to do with (yes, you guessed it) pedestrian and occupant safety. The result is a Mini that’s now 3,821mm long, whereas the original was 3,054mm, and while that might not seem like much, get the two physically next to each other and the differences are palpable.
As expected then, the new Mini is bigger than ever. But that lengthier wheelbase does increase the available legroom inside, and the boot space has been increased, too. So it’s all good, so long as Mini has retained the charm the previous model is known for, particularly in Cooper S guise. When I drove my first “new” Mini, it was a Cooper S, back in 2005, and immediately I fell in love with it. It handled superbly, felt just the right side of quick and never failed to bring a smile to my face. If it wasn’t for my wife saying I look a bit limp wristed in one, I would have bought one years ago.
Mini is promising more of the same, with “go-kart handling” firmly on the agenda. But before I get to experience that for myself, there’s the small matter of the interior to get my head around. The central (and quite enormous) speedo is no more; now that dinner-plate-sized aperture is home to the infotainment centre, sat-nav, you name it. The actual speedo is now placed ahead of the driver and, depending on how you spec your car, this is supplemented by a neat heads-up display, which is a very cool slither of glass that sits atop the driver’s instruments, coming out only when the car is running and retracting out of sight when it’s not.
The cabin’s look hasn’t changed a great deal over the years and that’s no bad thing in my book. It’s still one of the freshest and funkiest designs out there and simply adds to its appeal as a lifestyle accessory on wheels. What has changed, however, is the Mini’s source of power. Previous engines were shared with other manufacturers but this time around it’s all BMW group kit. The Cooper now comes with a twin-scroll turbocharged, 1.5-litre, three-cylinder that puts out 136hp, while the S gets a 2.0-litre four-pot offering 192hp. To be frank, these days that isn’t enough, especially when a Golf GTI easily breaks the 200hp mark. Anything with fewer than 200 horses is a bit of a tepid (as opposed to hot) hatch but let’s see how it performs where it counts: on road and track.
Our test route is, frustratingly, around the outskirts of Dubai, which means opportunities to form accurate impressions are few and far between, so I’ll need to get hold of one for a few days and spend some proper time with it. But initial impressions are favourable, with the chassis’s extra stiffness being entirely evident and, most surprisingly, that little three-cylinder engine makes for a properly quick car. The old Cooper always felt a little underpowered compared to the S but this is a tremendous piece of kit.
The S does feel meatier, that’s for sure, but it’s always utterly composed. Until, that is, I get it to a makeshift circuit close to Meydan Racecourse. A slalom has been set up for us to experience the Mini’s handling and we’re encouraged to give it some welly. I oblige and, as the Cooper S makes its way through the cones it understeers terribly as I heft the steering and the tyres screech and struggle for grip. There’s too much power going through the front to enable smooth progress but the standard Cooper is a revelation.
It feels more balanced, despite its significant power deficit, and its rear end cocks up a leg ever so slightly through the tighter turns. It’s more controllable, more predictable and more fun. That engine might be less powerful but it’s also lighter and that means the car is more easily pointed in the right direction. On the basis of this (admittedly unscientific) test, the normal Cooper would be the one I’d go for but, like I said, a lengthier experience may well yield a different opinion.
There’s no denying it, the new Mini is much improved in many respects but there wasn’t much wrong with it in the first place. The one area, however, the Mini has always attracted criticism, however, is in its pricing and those gripes remain. The standard Cooper starts at Dh140,000 with the S beginning at Dh25,000 more, and that’s before you go nuts with the options list. It’s simply too expensive when judged against its rivals and the S, in particular, looks like a rip-off compared to something like the Dh127,000 Volkswagen Scirocco R, which is much more powerful and still incredibly good looking.
But that won’t matter to most Mini customers, who see the car for what it is: an extension of their personalities. That’s something the latest Minis have in common with their humble forebear, which was and still is a unique fashion statement. While it’s getting less mini with every generation, it’s still a fun car to drive and be seen in and that, in our times of motoring androgyny, is something to celebrate.
The new original? Hardly, but it’s still a mighty fine car that won’t crush like a tin can in an accident, is reliable in the wet and drinks less fuel than ever before. Even Sir Alec Issigonis would have applauded that.