History books are awash with what the British press held as ‘the infamous Monte Carlo Rally of 1966’. Infamous because a certain car – British Motor Company’s Mini Cooper – had finished first, second and third against much larger and more powerful cars but was disqualified on a technical infringement that would leave a bad taste in the mouth of Englanders for years to come. It meant that Citroen driver Pauli Toivonen was elevated to the top step of the podium, but embarrassed by the turn of events, he never raced with Citroen again.
To say that the Mini has had a relatively forgettable history would probably be akin to erasing the bombing of London from the chapters of World War II. Not only has Mini been through a series of owners, turbulent times on the sales charts and of course rally wins, the biggest achievement from the ‘self-explanatory name for a car’ has been its front-transverse, front-wheel driven layout that has been the base for many a hatchback ever since. What began as an inexpensive hatch with just 34 bhp to begin with (yes, as much as a Tata Nano!), the Mini today produces anywhere between 110 and 210 bhp, is larger, more powerful and far more premium than ever before. And yes, it’s coming to India sooner than you can say ‘Hallelujah’. Mini has just announced the pricing of its cars that ranges between Rs 24.9 lakh for the standard Cooper and goes on to Rs 31.99 lakh for the Countryman. (Full prices available here: bsmotoring.com/autoexpo11/storypage.php ) Dampener? It sounds like. Is it?
At most auto shows around the world, the Mini has always been the last word in cool. Its press launches have been bubbly and youthful, a complete standout from the usual thingamajig of a few dancers, a rock star crooning to hit numbers and the CEO making his or her welcome speech. Effortlessly swell, the success of the Mini has been more than just its brilliant marketing. It’s also been the way it looks. Keeping some of the traits of the original number, like the large circular (now ovoid) headlamps, the chrome grille and the painted roof, the new Mini in its modern avatar still conforms to the design language set by Sir Alec Issigonis. Of course, with the added dash of modern requirements such as safety, space and features thrown in.
It’s hard to define the Mini’s design – the original is timeless in its own right. This, the second-generation of the new Mini, is more evolutionary when compared to the first one, though with a bit more space on the inside. The headlamps for instance are now part of the quarter panels and not on the bonnet, while the rear glass is supported by a prominent C-pillar. Unmistakably Mini in the way Frank Stephenson penned the original ‘new Mini’, there is a certain degree of quality thrown in too, which one has come to expect from a BMW product. But how does it feel on the inside?
To tell you a bit about that, let me first tell you that India will get just three of the current six models – the hatch, convertible and Countryman. Now I managed to drive the hatch and convertible in the limited time I had on hand, so let’s get down to it, shall we? The convertible comes with an electrically actuated roof, which is surprising enough, given the car’s dimensions and weight. It’s a two-stage roof that allows you to drive it around like a hatch with a sunroof too, but then again the convertible accounts for nearly a third of all Minis sold in the UK. Sure, the irony of the weather does get to you, but then again, the Mini convertible is just as pleasant a place to be in. There’s space for four and the interiors are pretty much what you get in the hatch. That means lots of large round dials, a splendid multimedia interface and lots of quality bits in and around.
While the convertible was a Cooper S, the hatch turned out to be a mighty John Cooper Works version. With all those red bits like the callipers, bonnet and roof and a classy black finish to top it off, the JCW as it is fondly called, looks every bit the hot hatch one would expect it to be. Like the Cooper S, it comes with a Sport mode and the ability to switch off the traction control, but more on that later. The seats are reasonably supportive on both versions, while equipment levels are not too bad either. You get the choice of trims and inserts, depending on whether you are buying a Cooper, S or JCW. The multimedia interface is controlled by a sort of joystick function right behind the gear lever that can appear fiddly at first, but its function is rather logical. In the convertible, for instance, there is even a timer in the instrument pod that resets itself every 60 minutes once you have put your roof down, to tell you exactly how long you have been driving with the top down.
Damn, if you are already overloaded with the features, let me cut it down to the performance factor. Out on the dreaded B-roads of Britain that feel more like our state highways, we managed to extract some pleasure out of the motors. Now the Mini Cooper S comes with a 1.6-litre, turbocharged motor with 184 bhp at 5500 rpm and over 24.4 kgm of peak torque that rises by nearly 2 kgm on overboost, starting at 1600 rpm.
The motors that power the Mini are a joint development between BMW and Peugeot-Citroen and can be found on products from both companies. The motor also has BMW’s Valvetronic valve-lift system to enhance breathing and efficiency. If you want more power, the JCW will blow your socks off. Using the same motor but in a different state of tune, it produces 211 bhp@6000 rpm and an equally impressive 26.4 kgm of peak torque with an additional 2 kgm on overboost.
What does this translate into? Well, for starters Mini has done a great job of hiding turbo lag. While we drove both cars with six-speed manual transmissions, it’s the manner in which the power graph and the kicking-in of the turbo meet that makes it quite easy to drive. Get the turbine spinning, put your foot down and you get a nice kick in the small of your back, as if to tell you that it ain’t going to take it lying down. Where the regular Cooper S takes all of 7 seconds to hit 100 kph, the JCW pelts down towards the horizon with even more ferocity. At some point, the 17-inch wheels feel completely overwhelmed and there is prodigious amounts of torque steer that sends shivers down the steering column.
Since torque steer is a bit of an issue in the JCW, let me tell you that it takes some guts to keep it reined in. Combined with a stiff suspension setup and run-flat tyres, the JCW hatch demands a lot out of you. Out on B-roads, the JCW’s steering literally fights with you, the gobs of torque notwithstanding. This is glycerine inducing stuff, one that will make you want to go harder and faster with your spine making a last ditch plea. The seats on the JCW lack that extra little ounce of support, so when you are into a corner, you hang on to the steering for life. Not dear life, mind you. And it’s right then that you realise what a gobsmacking wonderful hot hatch it is. The balance is pure and unadulterated, the steering weighs in pretty well and yet you keep wondering why Mini had to compromise on the ride. It’s stiff, stiffer even but not the stiffest yet.
If you want a perfect compromise between ride and handling, the Cooper S it is. It’s still a bit stiff, but your spine will find itself more on a vacation in Hawaii than trying to escape the molten lava of Pompeii. The steering too doesn’t feel all that hardcore in sport mode, which it kind of does in the JCW. My only gripe with the Cooper S in convertible form is a sort of incessant flapping of the soft-top at certain speeds. Other than that, it’s exactly what we in India should be ordering.
So, the Mini is hot stuff then. It looks good, goes like stink, drives like a butterfly and all-in-all, has a cheeky fun motor that you can’t get enough of. Of course, the price isn’t in its favour, but then again it will fill in a niche that so far has only been explored by Volkswagen with some success and Fiat with not so much. The truth is these are uncompromised fun cars that aren’t just posers. You don’t get the smaller engines or the diesel variants for the moment, but what you get are the best known and most-loved versions of the Mini. Expect more body styles to be offered in the coming years, but for now, we are happy to have it here in India and hope it gets a fair chance in convincing everyone about its credentials.