The new mini
The car that refused to die has finally met its match! The greatest four-wheeled icon ever to hit the road is ready to roll out of showrooms once again and capture the imagination and hearts of millions of motorists across the globe.
Bringing an end once and for all to endless speculation, mystery and hype surrounding its arrival, the production version of the new Mini bares itself to the world this week, prior to its first public appearance at the Paris Motor Show later this month. Three versions will be offered, all with a 1.6-litre, 16v engine, but with varying states of tune from 95bhp for the Mini to 120bhp for the Mini Cooper and 160bhp for the supercharged Cooper S.
Although they won't be set in stone until next June, prices will start at approximately Ł10,000 and stretch to almost Ł16,000 for the Cooper S. In future, parent company BMW plans to slot a new 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine beneath the Mini's distinctive snout, which will turn it into a cheaper product with a sub-Ł9,000 price tag.
For those who missed all the publicity surrounding the sell-off of Rover, the Mini lives on under BMW, whose top brass found it impossible to ignore the marque's potential value in a consumer marketplace which is becoming ever more attracted to niche branding. Bosses pulled back the dust covers in front of an expectant media ahead of the showroom-ready car making its debut in Paris. But they refused to turn the presentation into a predictable pastiche of the 'good old days'. The old car was absent, as were those rock and film stars, and assorted celebs, associated with the Mini.
This seems part of an overall plan to steer the car towards a new breed of image-conscious buyer. Just as the last versions of the old Mini became something of a lifestyle statement or fashion accessory, the new model will target twenty to thirtysomethings with high disposable incomes and a desire to show off the latest labels. Who designed the car depends on who you ask, as parties from Rover and BMW inevitably tell different stories about its birth. BMW says it did all the hard work, with Frank Stephenson taking up the reins as chief designer, and one other colleague joining him in refining the end product. Rover, on the other hand, argues that the car was the responsibility of its design team.
What is not disputed is that 15 full-scale 1:1 prototypes were put forward for consideration. Of those, four came from the UK, five from the US and five from Germany, with one outside con******cy also putting forward a proposal. The model pictured here was somewhere around the middle of the extremes. Resurrecting an icon is hard enough, but completely reinterpreting one which is so successful it's still in the showrooms after a 41-year tour of duty is damn near mission impossible. On the whole, the new Mini is an entirely likeable, if slightly disappointingly predictable rehash of its unmistakable predecessor.
Since the first sneak preview at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show, we have faced an excessive wait for the new Mini, as BMW ridded itself of troublesome Rover, then sought to pass further blame on the company by saying the car's build quality was not up to scratch, and this issue had to be addressed. Well, on the evidence of this first production car, lacklustre quality remains an issue. The interior looks great but feels cheap. Point the finger of blame at an over-enthusiastic use of low-grade plastics. But there's a great sense of fun and occasion when sitting behind the wheel, with endless interesting design details to enthuse about, and a surprising sense of spaciousness, too. The packaging is fairly impressive given the car's compact and squat exterior. However, climbing in and out of the back seats is a serious chore, and the boot is tiny.
Mini brand managers insist there is unprecedented public awareness surrounding the model. All of the market research on the project resulted in one message: that the Mini, as we already know, is incredibly popular. It's estimated that nine out 10 people have travelled in a Mini at some point in their lives, and BMW says that every story told about the journey was delivered with a smile on the face.
Capturing that key element of fun in the new Mini has been of paramount importance to the team behind the car. From a design perspective, that's more than obvious, but with the Mini it has always been the parts that you can't see which have made it so enjoyable to live with. Stubbornly, however, BMW is not releasing full technical details of the car until its Paris unveiling. But this will be the most advanced Mini yet. And it's this sophistication which BMW claims will help make it as entertaining to drive as the old model. A multi-link suspension assembly – similar to that used by the latest BMW saloons – sits at the rear and there's a McPherson strut arrangement at the front, while the new front-wheel-drive platform it's built around stays true to the 'wheel at each corner' approach of the old Mini and boasts a remarkably wide track in relation to the car's wheelbase.
Yet although the old-timer was undeniably a bundle of laughs when it came to short trips and blasts across country, it was not much fun if your journey involved three-figure mileage. Cramped, stuffy and ear-piercingly noisy by current standards, it could tire out drivers and their passengers alike sooner than any other mass-market car on the road.
The new version will be a far more refined and civilised machine, not least because the 1.6-litre, 16-valve four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual gearbox – with a Steptronic automatic offered as an option – promise to be more sophisticated than any other Mini's powertrain. With a bodyshell that's claimed to have two to three times the torsional rigidity of other cars of the same size, BMW insists that this "helps give the car its exceptional, go-kart-like handling and makes it incredibly safe."
On that last point, the company is confident of setting greater safety standards for small models. An extremely strong passenger cell, crumple zones, side-impact door beams and front and side-impact airbags will all be fitted as standard, with buyers able to choose head-protection curtain airbags as optional extras. In addition, other standard kit includes all-disc brakes with ABS, and a tyre pressure warning system. Those who want more can specify DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) and xenon headlamps. The legendary John Cooper, together with son Michael, has the full blessing once again from the owners of the brand to develop a full package of cosmetic options and mechanical enhancements, which will be sold around the world from their base in West Sussex. So now that we've seen the final production car in all its glory for the first time, what does the future hold? BMW will begin full production next June, and the car goes on sale here soon after. Eager customers will be able to size it up and decide whether it's really for them in new or existing dealerships around the country that currently sell BMWs, with dedicated sales staff for the Mini. There are also plans to place outlets in more fashionable locations.
In a full year's production, 100,000 Minis will roll off the assembly lines, although further variants in addition to the three already known about could boost that figure substantially. When questioned about its future by Auto Express, Frank Stephenson said the new platform is well suited to different body styles other than a hatchback.
Wolfgang Vollath, who manages the Mini brand worldwide, confirmed that many prototypes exist for various Mini models, and added: "A cabriolet version is one of the things we are looking at, because we want to create a family of Minis with different versions." We can't wait to see them.