With the first ever car rolling off the production line in 1959, under a company which no longer exists, the Mini can be viewed as one of the true survivors in the automotive industry. "What a birthday! It's Mini!" A somewhat odd tag line which came about this year to celebrate half a decade of Mini. So, one of the biggest automotive icons of the British has finally turned fifty. A nice, round number, for that matter.
Of course, many things have changed with the Mini over the years. First of all, it's been manufactured under the auspices of quite a hefty number of brands, finally settling under the BMW umbrella in 1994. Second of all, the space-saving layout of the original car wasn't exactly preserved to modern times and the car slowly transformed from a cheap means of transportation for the masses in a cultural icon on wheels.
Not to say that this is a bad thing, since Mini now stands for a thoroughbred driving enthusiast's automobile. Driving enthusiasts, young females and gay male hair dressers, as a matter of fact. And yes, that is quite a motley bunch of Mini customers, we agree.
Since 2009 is a year of celebration for Mini as a brand/model, we though we'd also do something about it. We only succeeded in attending the Mini birthday party held at the Frankfurt Auto Show though, and on top of that we didn't even bring any present. To make matters worse, we also trashed in a very unholy way one of their products. We're exaggerating about the "trashing" part by the way, but to tell you guys the truth, this was one of the most fun cars we ever took for a test drive.
A mustard-yellow Mini Cooper S Cabrio with black racing stripes and black rims, need we say more? Why yes we do, but you'll find out more about our opinion about the little bugger in each of the test drive chapters bellow.
As pretty much everyone knows, the original Mini was designed in the late 1950s by Sir Alec Issigonis. Even though it was quite a good-looking "destroyer of German bubble cars", as his makers from the British Motor Corporation envisioned it, the first ever Mini was far from being a "cool" car, at least by today's standards.
Its design was pure "form follows function", with the project's main idea being that its passenger area would take approximately 80% of the car's total length. Every other design detail followed the same "road", with the hinges for the doors and boot lid being mounted externally to reduce costs, while the welded seams for the unibody were visible from the outside.
After taking over the MG-Rover Group in 1994, which also included the Mini sub-brand, BMW came up with the idea of making a "new Mini" which would bring modernism following a similar line of design as its predecessors.
After two mildly-intriguing but commercially unfeasible concept cars with tonnes of retro lines, BMW finally came up with a modern successor in 2001. Penned by Frank Stephenson, the first generation of the new Mini (now MINI) captured a lot of hearts from day one, managing to keep the basic lines of the original while adding a nice touch of modern ones. Here we are, eight years later, testing the Mark II generation of the new Mini, which at first looks as if it's only a slightly restyled version of the one drawn by Frank Stephenson.
Although first impressions usually count, we were surprised to see there are quite a few subtle differences, most of the coming from the fact that there isn't a single body panel identical to the one from 2001. It keeps and actually improves the previous generations' bulldog stance while managing to look very modern.
Such a large amount of chrome on a car so small would be blasphemy by most of today's standards. Oddly, it really works on the Mini, although some fans might be a little upset upon finding it's actually "plastic chrome". Obviously, the plastic is there for pedestrian safety reasons, not because Mini guys are cheapskates.
Since we got to test a Cooper S version, which was also fitted with some special extras, our car was even more good-looking than your average Convertible Mini. Sports-looking black-painted rims on all four corners of the car and two black racing stripes adorned its short and bulgy hood. The Cooper S version also ads a new front bumper and a hood intercooler intake which makes the car look even more "butch".
The side is obviously better-looking with the top down, while the rear is quasi-identical to the Mini from 2001, minus the exterior-mounted hinges for the petit luggage compartment. This last missing feature was of course harking back to the original Mini, and its disappearance actually makes the new one look less retro. We wonder if the Mark III and IV generations will transform the Mini line of design into a Porsche 911-like evolution though. Overall, the Mini Cooper S Cabrio is one good-looking convertible with almost perfect proportions for such a small car.
First thing when stepping inside our test car was to be (once again) amazed by the sheer size of the speedometer, mounted right in the top part of the center console. We realize the reason for its positions is strictly for retro reasons, so that it can be as similar to the original as possible, by the way. What we don't get is why it has to be sized the same as a cooking pan. Plus, when driving it with the top down pretty much everyone on the road can learn of your exact speed just by glancing towards your car. Not to mention every single one of your (maximum three) passengers.
Which brings us to the interior space, specially made to cure any agoraphobic upon entering it while the top is up. The overall space in the front is decent, although your elbows might feel a little "constrained" by the fact you'll always bump them from something inside the car if you're a larger fellow. The two seats in the rear are an entirely different experience altogether though.
Even if Mini's marketing says this is a 2+2 car, there is no way in hell you can fit four grown people inside it for a trip taking more than a few hundred yards, since most of the passengers will probably hate your guts for it. The luggage compartment is also only useful if you're traveling light, the Indian way. In other words, it's fit for a couple of briefcases and a backpack, with only 170 liters (6 cubic feet) of space.
Now, leaving the overall space aside, our test car's interior was quite a feast for a retro-geek's eyes. There are classically-shaped buttons and knobs everywhere on the car, while the overall design also harks back to "the good old days" of motoring.
Although at first it might appear a bit cluttered with buttons, the center console has easy to use and find controls and the materials used are much more "premium" than your average small econobox. A nice touch is of course the way the rev counter sits right behind the steering wheel alone, only to be "bothered" by a feature which can't be found on any other car's list of options. It's a small clock-like thingy called the "Always-Open Timer". In other words, it's a stop watch which tells you how long the roof has stayed open.
There is no actual purpose for it to stay right up there with the tachometer, but we kind of "digged" the idea behind its existence. To sum up the overall ambient in our test car in just a few words, it would sound something like this: cozy, cramped, sporty, retro and elegant. We should also further add that you can personalize your Mini's interior in just about every way possible, switching through a huge palette of colors and materials.
Just like the Alfa MiTo we tested earlier, the Mini Cooper s Cabrio is also penalized by the extremely low ground clearance in the front. By default, this car is an enemy of potholes, speed bumps and roadside curbs. Actually, these are the car's major downsides in the city. Those and the fact that with the top up there is absolutely no way for you to see something behind you.
Thankfully, the exterior rear view mirrors, albeit with a funky oval design, are more than decently-sized and, on top of that, our test car had both front and rear parking sensors. That, corroborated with the fact that the Mini is just what its name implies, Mini, almost makes parking in the city a breeze.
We got the chance to test a de-tuned version of 1.6-liter turbocharged mill under the hood in a Citroen C4 Coupe we tested before, and we have to say we were more than impressed with the one in the Mini also. The nice and beefy torque band is present almost on the whole rev-range, which makes city-driving as comfortable and as pleasurable as possible from the "switching gears point of view."
Although it's an engine with over 100 horsepower per liter, almost unheard of on a road car in the times when the original Mini was leaving the factory, the turbocharged four-banger is quite economical. During our test drive in a city with busy traffic we managed to achieve around 10 liters per 100 kilometers (US 23.5 mpg), which isn't half bad considering it has a 175-horsepower gasoline engine that can deliver quite a lot of punch.
We believe that in regular traffic, without endless lines of cars at each traffic light and intersection, the official 8.1 liters per 100 kilometers (US 29 mpg) can actually be achieved. We also should mention that, besides the direct injection system and the twin-scroll turbocharger, the new Mini Cooper S Cabrio also benefits from BMW's "stop/start" feature, which we kept disabled most of the time since the traffic we encountered didn't allow the said technology to actually help fuel consumption.
Almost everyone knows by now that the new-Mini handles like a go-kart. Well, hear it from someone is something, but to actually experience it on a twisted mountain road is something else. As far as we're concerned, the Mini Cabrio in Cooper S guise is one of the most fabulous front-wheel drive cars ever when it comes to handling.
We managed to drive it both on stretches of highway and on a serpentine mountain road and we must say that it was one of the most fun we ever had with our pants on. The steering is precise and offers enormous feedback (maybe too much at times), while the multi-link suspension on all four corners keeps the car planted no matter how hard you try to defy the laws of physics in a corner.
On top of that, the sound the exhaust makes when you shift through the gears with the top down is absolutely pandemic for your hearing. Our test car was also fitted with a "Sport" button (which obviously remained pressed for the whole period), which actually makes the steering sportier and the howls and barks of the exhaust even louder.
There's also a "boom-boom-boom" kind of sound every time you take your foot off the accelerator to change gears. Speaking of which, the six-speed manual transmission is almost flawless and the gear ratios are low enough to always keep you in the power band, thus providing neck-snapping acceleration. OK, the Cooper S isn't THAT fast in a straight line, but the rather high amount of torque available on tap is enough to provide quite a lot of racy sensations.
The naught to 100 kilometers per hour acceleration (62 mph) takes 7.4 seconds, which isn't extremely fast for today's "sports car standards", but it's more than enough to scare your passengers. Our test car wasn't fitted with the optional limited slip differential though, which kind of made any attempt to "kick it" from standing still pretty futile.
Because of the enormous (for such a small engine) maximum torque of 240 Nm (177 lb ft) available from as low as 1600 rpm all the way to 5000 rpm, the car would jolt from left to right whenever we tried to accelerate harder from low speeds. The engine also has an over-boost feature, which increases the maximum torque by 20 Nm (14.8 lb ft) for a limited amount of time.
The fuel consumption after a ride in the "twisties" jumped pretty high though, almost 12 liters per 100 kilometers (US 19.6 mpg). You shouldn't fret though, the soon as we hit constant highway speeds it dropped to a quite reasonable figure of 6.5 liters per 100 kilometers (US 36.2 mpg). As a side conclusion, if we were to buy a Cooper S Cabrio we would most likely do it just for driving it on a twisted mountain road with the top down, since the amount of thrills it can provide is probably the next best thing to sex, drugs or other endorphin-inducing substances.