By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The latest Mini is a bit bigger now — and slightly smaller engined.
Usually, that’s a recipe for slower — and drinks more gas.
Would you believe (best Maxwell Smart voice) this one also goes faster — and uses less gas?
Now, the Mini is not perfect. Which I will get into below. But it’s become a much more practical car than it used to be, while still being as exuberantly adorable as a litter of British bulldog puppies.
WHAT IT IS
The Mini is a two-door/four seater (five in a pinch) subcompact cutester — a reincarnation (via BMW) of the iconic ’60s British micro-car.
Initially there was just the one model (way back in 2002) but there are now multiple Minis: The two-door/two-row hardtop and convertible, the high-performance Mini S (and even higher-performance John Cooper Works Mini), the two-seater/chopped-roof hatchback Mini coupe, the Countryman wagon and the Paceman — a large (for a Mini) two-door crossover SUV.
This review will cover the Mini hardtop, which starts at $20,700 with six-speed manual transmission.
Opting for the six-speed automatic bumps the base price to $21,950.
Possible cross-shops include the Fiat 500, which is a smaller, tighter fitting (and less expensive) car but comparably cute, the Kia Soul and maybe even the Nissan Cube — which looks kind of like a squatting Samurai but like the other slot cars in this segment has a very playful personality.
The Mini was subtly — but significantly — redesigned last year. Though at a glance it appears unchanged, the current Mini is 5.3 inches longer overall than the previous generation Mini and has a noticeably more spacious interior, especially the backseats (leg and shoulder room) and cargo area, which is about 20 percent larger.
The wheelbase is longer, too — and that along with adjustments to the suspension have markedly improved the car’s ride quality.
Tech features include pedestrian/object detection, an optional Heads Up Display (HUD) and a semi-self-driving automated parallel parking system — though it’s hardly needed in a car this agile and still abbreviated in dimensions.
But the huge news is the smaller engine — a turbocharged three that produces more power than the previous four, gives the car better performance (especially with the optional automatic transmission) and does it without drinking more fuel.
It’ll put a smile on your face.
It won’t put the arm on your wallet.
You won’t need to buy (or rent) a second car to go shopping — or pick up family at the airport.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Gas mileage can be very good, but gas tank is smaller than it used to be.
If you “motor hard” the Mini will run low sooner than you might expect.
Turbo three requires premium fuel.
UNDER THE HOOD
While the Mini itself has gotten larger, its engine is now smaller: A 1.5 liter three-cylinder instead of the former 1.6 liter four.
But — via the expedient of “twin power” turbocharging — the new three makes more horsepower than the old four. The hp number is up to 134 vs. 121 previously. And the turbo three produces a bunch more torque: 162 ft.-lbs. of of torque vs. the four’s 114 ft.-lbs.
This is a big difference, especially torque-wise (which is the twisting force that gets a car moving). And the net result is a snappier-performing Mini — particularly automatic-equipped models. Which (would you believe?) are now actually slightly quicker than the manual-equipped versions.
Zero to 60 takes 7.3 seconds with the six-speed automatic — and about 7.4 with the six-speed manual.
Previously, the manual Mini was the quicker ride — and the automatic the slow ride. It took 9.5 seconds to get to 60 (the manual car did it in just over 8).
Why the disparity?
Check those torque numbers again. The turbo three produces 48 ft.-lbs. more torque — and it’s produced at just 1,250 RPM. The retired four not only made a lot less torque, it didn’t make it until 4,250 RPM. That meant it was necessary to really work the engine to get the car going. But at least with the stickshift, you could rev the engine up to where the torque (and hp) were being made, then slip/sidestep the clutch to make the most of the available power. But bolt that torque-and-hp-deficient four to an automatic transmission and you can’t do that.
Hence, The Slows.
Turbocharging end-runs this problem by boosting the little three’s output at low RPMs, so there’s plenty of power right now — with the shifter in Drive — and without having to wait for the engine to rev up much.
And there is the additional benefit of on-demand power.
If your foot is light on the pedal, the engine’s smaller displacement (and reduced pumping losses due to the nonexistence of a fourth piston going up and down all the time) means it burns less fuel: 29 city/41 highway vs. 29 city, 37 highway for the previous Mini with the 1.6 liter four.
But — when you need it or just want it — more power is readily available. Pushing down on the accelerator causes the turbocharger to compress the incoming air. The more air (and fuel) you can stuff into the cylinders, the more powerful the ensuing explosion — and the faster the car will go.
But the turbo only does its thing when called on by your right foot. Back off the accelerator and the boost wicks down; when just puttering along, you enjoy the fuel economy advantages of a smaller engine.
The one hair in the soup is that the turbo three is designed to burn — and so requires — premium fuel.
“Requires” doesn’t mean you have to feed it premium. You can fill up with regular, but the result will probably be reduced power (and mileage) because while the Mini’s engine can adjust itself to burn lower-octane fuel it’s not optimized to burn lower-octane fuel. Put in plain language, you won’t hurt your Mini by feeding it regular, but you won’t get the best mileage (or performance) out of it.
To get it, you’ll have to spend the extra 20-30 cents per gallon for premium — which puts a bit of a dent in the Mini’s otherwise admirable fuel economy stats.
Most economy-minded cars (which the Mini ostensibly is) are designed to do their best on regular unleaded, for obvious reasons. It’s not unexpected that the Mini S — the high-performance version of the Mini — wants premium.
But it is surprising that the regular Mini wants it, too.
ON THE ROAD
The Mini’s turbo three doesn’t feel — or sound — turbocharged. No whistle, no “kick in the pants” when the boost comes online. Whereas in the past, turbos were bolted on to do exactly that, here the mission is to mask the engine downsizing from a four to a three. To maintain not just the power/performance of a larger (and not-turbocharged) engine but to mimic its steady power delivery.
Which the turbo three does, brilliantly. If you didn’t read the specifications (and if the engine didn’t require premium) you’d never guess that you were driving a turbocharged car, much less a three cylinder-powered car.
Previously, the manual-equipped Mini was the only way to go. Because the automatic-equipped Mini was almost pathetically slow. Now, you can go either way without sacrificing performance or economy.
All Mini’s have three driver-selectable programs which can be engaged by a typically Mini spiffy rotating plastic ring at the base of the shifter stalk. Thumb it to the right for Green/economy (“let’s minimize!”) or to the left for mid-range Sport (“let’s motor!”).
Most snarky of all — “let’s motor hard!” (that’s one more nudge to the left).
As is typical of such programs, the sportier the mode you select, the faster (and firmer) the shifts, the more responsive/aggressively the drivetrain reacts. In economy mode, though, there is an additional — and not-typical behavior: A “coast” mode that reduces engine RPM to idle until pressure on the accelerator is resumed. It’s like putting the transmission in neutral at 60 or 70, except it happens automatically and without the dangers associated with coasting, such as a “runaway” car or having to remember to put the transmission back into gear. Also, it’s designed to do this without hurting anything. Manually putting an automatic in Neutral at 60 or 70 MPH — and then back into Drive — might damage the transmission.
Don’t do it.
As you engage each mode, the Mini’s LED cabin mood lighting (standard in all trims) changes color — green for economy, orange red for normal and cherry red for sport.
This slightly bigger, slightly longer-wheelbased and slightly heavier-than-before Mini feels more substantial, less darty. Wind gusts affect it noticeably less than earlier (and smaller and lighter) Minis. The ride is still on the firm side, but this can be modulated softer — or firmer — by selecting from the three available wheel/tire combos. The base trim comes with 15s, which deliver the softest ride. Or, go with the optional low profile (short/stiff sidewall)18s, which provide sharper steering response and more grip in the corners, but also butch up the ride quality.
An adjustable/multi-mode suspension is also available.
Though it’s some five inches longer overall, the Mini is still mini (including its turning circle, which is just 35.5 feet, only slightly more than before) and can be Froggered through traffic with ease. The upticked power enhances the little car’s natural advantages, including its excellent forward (and to either side) visibility, which can be credited to the upright and fairly tall glass that’s all around you.
The Mini is a blast to drive, especially in urban/suburban traffic. It’s also exceptionally easy to park. So easy, in fact, that the optional automated parking system is pretty superfluous.
One nit, though: Mini has downsized the fuel capacity to 11.6 gallons from 13.2 previously. This makes the Mini seem thirstier than it actually is.
AT THE CURB
Penn and Teller must have been hired by Mini (BMW) to consult on the design of this car.
It just happened that the week I had the Mini, we had guests. My sister, her significant other and my nine-year-old niece. All of which — plus me, plus the baggage that accompanied them on their long-haul flight from San Diego to The Woods (rural SW Virginia) — had to fit inside the Mini for the trip home from the airport. A 40 minute drive.
No cheating by roping stuff (such as my nine-year-old niece) to the Mini’s roof.
Well, the Mini took all four of us, plus three backpacks and a 32x21x12 suitcase on wheels thing that could have carried my niece inside.
It actually fit in the Mini. Behind the second row — which was not folded flat. Or even forward. This was an Our Lady of Lourdes miracle, as far as I am concerned. And neither my sister nor my niece had to assume the fetal position in order to sit in the second row with 6 foot 3 me in the driver’ s seat and nearly six-foot niece’s dad sitting next to me in the front passenger seat.
It was tight — but not torturous.
Front legroom in the Mini has always been good — especially for such a tiny-on-the-outside car. It still is (41.4 inches, comparable to what you’d find in many mid-sized cars). But now there’s viable backseat legroom — 30.8 inches (several inches more than in the new Mercedes CLA sedan) about three inches more shoulder room and about 20 percent more cargo room: 8.7 cubic feet vs. 5.7 previously. Fold the second row and you’ve got 38 cubes — effectively, more “trunk” space than you’d have in many full-size cars.
Also, being German-designed, the Mini has superior headroom — which Japanese-designed cars sometimes lack. There’s 40.3 inches up front — so even with the optional sunroof, a very tall man (me) still has several inches of air gap between the crown of his head and the headliner.
Another “German” thing is seat heaters that get hot. As opposed to merely getting vaguely warm.
Thoughtful — and useful — design touches include a pair of adjustable side-window sun glare blockers (in addition to the usual two you get for the windshield) and retro-themed but gratifyingly tactile toggle switches for the various functions. The car also makes “happy” sounds, including the pleasantly muted and old-timey tick-tock turn signal indicator and the pinball machine-like cheerful bumpa-bumpa-bumpa themes for the park sensors and so on.
The Mini is mass produced but can be custom-configured to such an extent that your Mini may be the only one exactly like it. Two-tone Jelly Belly paint treatments, various stripe/decal packages — plus a bevy of a la carte (and packaged) optional equipment. You can “minimalize” — and keep the price around the entry-level $20k price point. Or you can load the car up with luxury and technology equipment (including a heads-up display, 10 speaker premium audio rig and a fan-cooled dock for your cell phone).
My test car was the latter — loaded — and the MSRP came to $33,095.
All Minis come with a “boot to bonnet” free scheduled maintenance deal for the first three years or 36,000 miles. Some car companies’ free maintenance deals are borderline fraudulent in that most new cars don’t need much maintenance (beyond really basic stuff, such as oil and filter changes) for the first three years or 36,000 miles and the stuff these plans “cover” is either stuff that probably won’t need to be done or which (like an oil change) wouldn’t cost you much anyhow.
But Mini’s deal includes stuff that probably will need to be dealt with before three years or 36,000 miles elapse — including wiper blade replacement and brake pads and brake fluid.
One final thing: I experienced a “bug” while driving the Mini. That is, a software problem that came — and went. After going to a Starbucks for coffee, the car’s gear selector would not budge out of Park. Not until I accessed and depressed the emergency release under the shifter cover, anyhow. And then the transmission acted oddly (would not upshift).
It may have been a glitch with this particular car — or something more general. I don’t know which. I was able to “fix” the problem by disconnecting and reconnecting the battery, which rebooted the computer. But it’s a little unsettling to need to do that in a brand-new car. The most unsettling aspect being that the problem just sort of cured itself and (as far as I could tell) there was no evidence of the problem ever having occurred. (See here for the full story).
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s still as cute as ever — but more plausibly practical, too.
Here’s to hoping the “bugs” have been found — and fixed.