DORADO BEACH – The tropical paradise of Puerto Rico is easily the most picturesque new vehicle launch location I have visited in my entire career with CAR. At least that’s what I thought until my driving partner and I, ensconced in a new Cooper, departed the pristine resort where Mini was hosting the pair of us (as well as other members of the world’s motoring media).
The lush vegetation and picture-postcard coastline of Puerto Rico prompts one to pause and imagine what life must have been like before capitalism sunk its teeth into the world’s neck and started sucking. But as the test route snaked its way through dilapidated hamlets where domestic animals and livestock wander in harms way and banged up cars stand prone on blocks next to condemnable buildings, the island’s pockmarked roads fired backspaces into those thoughts.
Later, as I stood next to the Cooper I’d been driving before the island’s cruel asphalt gnashed the little car’s right front rim, causing a terminal deflation, the contrast between New Mini and the Sixties original and the Caribbean jewel depicted in travel brochures and in coffee table books, compared with the sobering snapshot I’d seen during the test drive, could not be more poignant.
Apart from lengthening, widening and raising the Cooper compared with its predecessor, Mini’s designers have sought to modernise the iconic design by adding a hexagonal radiator grille and wide chrome surrounds for the sweptback headlamps (with daytime running lights) and oversized rear light clusters. I have never cared much for the pastiche of contemporary Mini styling, so the best thing I can say is that the new little one reminds me of a beloved stretched jersey that you can still wear in public as long as you do so with flagrant insouciance.
But before you declare this new Mini too derivative and irrelevant, consider this: the biggest changes comprise improvements to the cabin’s user-friendliness, safety and convenience features and, perhaps most notably, the adoption of a punchy all-new 100 kW, 220 N.m 1,5-litre three-cylinder turbopetrol from BMW.
Let’s start with the cabin execution. I am sure there are aficionados who adored the previous Mini’s centrally-mounted speedometer with its electronic fuel gauge readout, but those incongruous (if not just plain ludicrous) quirks have been banished in favour of an inclusive new instrument cluster (as shown in the gallery above) that’s located directly above the steering column. The facia, in turn, can accommodate a colour display of up to 8,8 inches in diameter. The electric window switches have been relocated to the inner door trims, a big red toggle starts the engine and the quaint turret-shaped MINI Controller joystick of yesterday has been replaced by a slick and snappy iDrive-derived console.
Indications ahead of the Cooper’s introduction in May are that the newcomers will sport better standard specifications than their predecessors. Automatic lights and wipers, keyless start and auto air-con will be stock, and some of the following could also make the spec sheet: rear park distance control, electrically heated and folding exterior mirrors and automatic anti-dazzle mirrors. Should Mini buyers however want to specify their vehicles to heart’s content, head-up-display, parking assistant, rear-view camera and driving assistant, including camera-based active cruise control, collision and pedestrian warning with initial brake function and high beam assistant can all be fitted at extra cost.
Of course a modern Mini would not be modern Mini without some gaudy cabin detail; and although the armrest still gets in the way when making snap gearshifts or operating the iDrive, oops, I mean Mini Controller, it’s the LED-laced bezel of the central display monitor that steals the show by lighting up in a cascade of colours – depending on which operating functions are selected. One of three Driving Modes can be chosen by twisting a rotary switch at the base of the gearlever or selector. In addition to the standard MID mode, SPORT and GREEN influence the characteristics of the Cooper’s throttle responses and steering reactions, as well as the shift patterns of the auto ‘box and the behaviour of the dynamic damper control (DDC) – if both or either specifications are specified.
A number of factors, such as the newcomer’s wider tracks front and rear, adapted spring and damper setup (with triple-path support bearings), uprated Servotronic steering system and overall weight reduction work in unison to endow the Mini with that characteristic Cooper wieldiness, but with a noticeably more forgiving ride quality to match it. For now I’ll delay giving dynamic damper control most of the credit for suppressing the Mini’s former tendencies to tramline and be skittish over poorer road surfaces – at least until I’ve driven Cooper and Cooper S without DDC on roads that will do Puerto Rico proud.
All of which brings me to the highlight of this model. Whereas previous naturally aspirated 1,6-litre offerings in the Cooper were derided for not quite doing Mini’s sporty nameplate justice, the latest version’s motor has a generous dollop of mid-range kick. Featuring a single turbocharger, direct injection, variable valve and camshaft control, the Cooper’s rorty 1,5-litre three cylinder produes its peak torque of 220 N.m from 1 250 to 4 000 r/min and makes such an eager, hearty thrum while doing so. Mated with a slick six-speed manual gearbox with short throws and a precise action through the gate, the Cooper feels tailored to making short work of daily urban trundles, especially when brisk pace is required.
Given its sophistication, enlarged proportions and enhanced user-friendliness, the third version of the New Mini Cooper is undoubtedly the most BMW-like interpretation of Sir Alec Issigonis’s creation. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. An island paradise untouched by the rigours of the economic downturn –how I and many others would like to imagine Puerto Rico – is as much a product of idealism and naivety as the notion that a brilliantly simple car that served a carefree generation with basic motoring needs could still be a relevant, let alone viable product in today’s market. In effect, the BMW Group has just introduced the most complete boutique hatchback in the market, but it’s made in Oxford, not Germany, and there’s no blue in the badge, just white. Mini’s dead. Long live Mini.
Model: Mini Cooper
Engine: 1,5-litre, three cylinder turbopetrol
Power: 100 kW between 4 500 and 6 000 r/min
Torque: 220 N.m between 1 250 and 4 000 r/min (230 N.m on overboost)
0-100 km/h: 7,9 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 210 km/h (claimed)
Fuel consumption: 4,6 L/100 km (claimed)
CAR fuel index: 5,52 L/100 km
CO2: 107 g/km
Price: R289 900 (standard model, TBC)
Maintenance plan: Yes, duration of which TBC
Service intervals: determined by onboard computer