Spacious, sporty and super-smooth, this third-generation BMW Mini – the Mini Cooper S Hatch – is the most hi-tech version of a much-loved car, says Tiff Needell
Back in the Sixties there was nothing more British than Big Ben, the Beatles and the Mini. The tiny little box that transformed the way we build cars was launched in 1959 and soon became a firm favourite. From Carnaby Street to Brands Hatch in Kent, to Monte Carlo, you couldn’t escape its presence.
Just 10ft long and 4ft 5in tall, and weighing around half a tonne, its little 848cc engine had only 34 horsepower and a top speed of just 72mph. Its handling was a revelation though, with the front-wheel drive pulling it straight from any angle at which it was turned.
More power was soon on the way. Designer [later Sir] Alec Issigonis was good friends with Grand Prix car builder John Cooper and developed a one-litre Mini Cooper with 55 horsepower. This was followed by the famous 1,275cc Cooper S. For 40 years the Mini remained in production in various guises, but little changed from its original concept. A total of 5,387,862 were built – mostly in Britain but eventually in plants all over the world – until the last one rolled off the Longbridge production line in October 2000.
BMW bought the rights to the name and, in 2001, launched its own Mini – German-owned but made in Britain. To suit the requirements of the new millennium, this new version was 2ft longer, nearly a foot wider, and almost double the weight. It did, however, retain its retro look. There were Cooper versions and models with Union flags on the roof and white stripes on the bonnet. Helped by a revised model coming out in 2006, the first 12 years of Mini Hatch production saw nearly two million cars roll off the Cowley production line.
Now an all-new, third-generation BMW Mini has arrived – it’s 4in longer and 2in wider, but it is, unmistakably, a Mini. All the cars have three-cylinder turbocharged engines and are available in both petrol and diesel (except the Cooper S). Prices start at £13,750 for the 102 horsepower petrol Mini One Hatch. The cars are more spacious, quieter, smoother and hold the road better than the outgoing model.
A new six-speed manual gearbox comes as standard with the Mini Cooper S Hatch and it’s a joy to use, so don’t waste your money on the automatic version. The most visible internal change to the Mini Cooper S Hatch is the speedometer, which has been moved from the centre of the dashboard to a more traditional position in front of the driver. The rev counter is now a neat half-moon affair attached to its side, so everything the driver needs to know is in easy view.
The huge centre circle remains, but houses a new LED display, which varies in content from a basic black-and-white information panel to an all-singing, all-dancing coloured sat-nav depending on the car’s specification. Surrounding the circle is LED lighting offering information such as the green to red range of parking sensors, to the variable illumination reflecting the proximity of a sat-nav turn-off point.
While the new shape might have propelled the Mini well and truly into the 21st century, it’s this burst of extra connectivity and technology that has brought the latest Mini Cooper S Hatch right up to date and, in some areas, even ahead of its time.