What the lowliest Mini loses in cubic capacity, it gains in everyday driving enjoyment...

A substantial R279 000. That's what an entry-level Mini costs these days. And for that price you get a three-cylinder, 1,2-litre engine, petite 15-inch alloy wheels and a few choice bits and bobs in the cabin ... and not a whole lot more besides.

This pricing structure raises two questions: why opt for the One when you could have any number of larger family hatches such as the excellent new Opel Astra and Mazda3 for the same wad of cash; and, considering the Cooper costs about R50 000 more but has a notably more powerful engine and healthier standard spec – not to mention a more extensive motorplan (five years/100 000 km versus three years/75 000 km) – isn't that the Mini to get?

These are valid questions, and undoubtedly place a spotlight on the One's on-paper shortcomings. What they also do is bely the fact that this newest addition to the ever-expanding Mini range might also be one of the best. Allow us to explain...

Ever since BMW relaunched the Mini brand in 2001, engine power has spiralled ever upward to what some would consider unnecessary levels (170 kW in the JCW), and so too have wheel sizes been on the increase.

It therefore came as a breath of fresh air to drive the One. Boasting just 75 kW from its thrummy 1,2-litre turbopetrol, the driver can often use full throttle while remaining on the right side of the law. And, because the engine isn't overly well endowed with muscle, stirring of the sublime six-speed manual transmission is the order of the day. And that conspires to make the One an involving driving experience, no matter the environment or speed. The, ahem, older members of the test team commented that the cheapest Mini feels closest in spirit to the fizzy Alec Issigonis model than any other currently on sale.

Another unexpected advantage of opting for the One is that it rolls on skinny, plump 175/65 R15 wheels, which benefits the ride – there's still an underlying firmness, but road scars don't jitter the occupants and it traverses poor surfaces quietly – and lowers grip levels. Uncongested traffic circles morph into chicanes before you hook a higher gear and race towards the next one, all at velocities that are legal and safe.

Dial back the pace, however, and slight cracks start to show. As is the industry norm, in the quest for optimal efficiency the gear ratios are long – second can hit 100 km/h, hence the competitive sprint time of 9,94 seconds – and you're often caught out in cut-and-thrust traffic, where first gear is needed when second would have been preferable. Luckily, the three-pot has a healthy glug of torque where it matters to pull such gearing, but we can't help but wish BMW had shortened the first three ratios to make the car feel even livelier.

Then again, its sensible engineering efforts appear to have paid off; with a claimed fuel consumption figure of just 4,80 L/100 km and a posted consumption of 6,90 L/100 km, the 1,2-litre is frugal when it matters. That's just as well, as the fuel tank is a petite 40 litres and there’s no fuel-range indicator in the cabin (a trip computer is an option).

On that point, One ownership sacrifices a number of nice-to-have items, including Bluetooth audio streaming (telephony is part of the standard package), the mentioned trip computer, steering-wheel-mounted controls and Mini's usual glitzy trims across the dash and doors. The latter bothered some team members less than others because the inherent excellent perceived quality of the latest Mini is still present and, besides, the brand offers optional packages if the One appears too plain for your tastes.

An element that does look somewhat at odds with the modern surroundings is the old-school audio system face with its dated dot-matrix display. Netting the Visual Boost screen requires an investment of R7 500, which is a worthwhile addition that greatly lifts the cabin ambience.

Elsewhere it's business as usual – the cockpit is still smaller than it should be considering the fairly generous exterior dimensions; the boot is even tighter, though neatly trimmed; the driving position is flawless; and there's headroom in abundance for tall drivers.



TEST SUMMARY

Whether the One is a good buy depends on your tastes and requirements. If your idea of a Mini consists of large wheels, loud trims and a surfeit of performance, the entry-level model might disappoint. And there are undoubtedly cars that offer more metal for the money.

If, however, you appreciate solid engineering and the ability to generate smiles while staying on the right side of the law, and don't have space requirements that would persuade you to opt for that Astra or Mazda3, the One merits consideration.

But we'd council caution when speccing the vehicle. Add a few extras such as a trip computer, Bluetooth audio, a smattering of glossy trim bits, and the One still handsomely undercuts the Cooper. Tick too many boxes and that model suddenly makes more sense than the lowliest Mini. If you practise restraint, you'll net a boutique hatch that instantly gratifies.

*From the July 2016 issue of CAR magazine