Launched to the media last week in Italy, the MINI goes on sale in the UK on July 7. The entry-level MINI One will cost £10,300 on-the-road and the current range-topper, the MINI Cooper, will cost £11,600. Early next year a supercharged MINI, badged as Cooper S, will be launched, offering 163bhp and serious performance.
But for now drivers will have to make do with the Cooper, the only model available to drive at the media launch. With 115bhp available from its 1.6-litre engine, performance is brisk but not as 'peppy' as you would expect. However, with a top speed of 125mph and the ability to cover the 0-62mph sprint in a fraction over nine seconds, the Cooper has adequate performance and was quite happy cruising along the Italian autostradas at 90mph.
Around town, where the majority of MINIs will spend their time, there is plenty of low-down power for darting around bustling streets. Combined with a light and easy-to-use five-speed gearbox and responsive steering, the Cooper driving experience is fun. A six-speed continuously variable transmission is also available, combining a conventional automatic unit with a semi-auto facility. In both modes the changes are very smooth and there is some resistance weighted into the gearbox action to make you feel you are really changing gear.
But while new technology has improved the car, the MINI still has the same 'chuckable' feel of the original, thanks to the retention of the 'wheel at each corner' design. In some ways you feel you are driving an overweight go-kart, thanks to the responsive steering and chassis set-up.
The driving position is fully adjustable (a noticeable gain over the original), with height-adjustable driver's seat and steering wheel. But while the driving dynamics retain the same feel as the original model, in most other areas the new MINI is leagues ahead. Perhaps the biggest leap forward is in safety. All models are fitted with anti-lock brakes, electronic braking distribution and cornering brake control, and a traction control system is available as an optional extra.
Continuing the class-leading safety features are four airbags - driver, passenger and front side airbags, and a head airbag system is an optional extra. With run-flat tyres and a tyre pressure warning system, MINI drivers can now enjoy almost unheard-of levels of safety features in a supermini. Build quality is excellent (the car is built at BMW's Oxford plant so the car can still claim some 'Britishness' despite its German parentage) and the quality of interior materials is superb.
The models I drove were all fitted with the optional leather seats which felt first rate. BMW's legendary reputation for quality is much in evidence in the MINI. From the outside, the MINI is unmistakably a Mini, although one that has been substantially refreshed. Recreating a legend is an almost impossible task so keeping true to the original's design has paid dividends for BMW. That same friendly face is still much in evidence at the front although it is at the rear where the biggest difference is.
With sleek glass wrapping around the body and a hatchback tailgate, the appearance is much tidier than before. While the old Mini would never really have tempted user-chooser drivers, the new model is certain to be near the top of young people's choice lists. The MINI is fun and has a fantastic image - with apologies for sounding like an over-excited fashion journalist, it is THE car to be seen in this year.
In its first full year on sale (2002), sales volumes are expected to hit about 20,000, with 60% of buyers opting for the Cooper. Of those, MINI general manager Trevor Houghton-Berry expects about 8,000 fleet drivers to buy one.That figure will easily be reached and because of the limited early supply, expect residual values to be very strong (Houghton-Berry is confident that MINI will rival the residual value performance of the BMW 3-series, which has reached 50% after three years/60,000 miles).
A competitive front-end price, low carbon dioxide emissions, high fuel economy and a dedicated MINI dealer network (148 MINI franchises are in place at existing BMW outlets across the UK), mean the MINI has everything going for it as the car of choice for young, single user-choosers.
Refreshed looks and improved driving dynamics, as well as the addition of features usually reserved for cars several classes above, make MINI alive and well and capable of proudly carrying the famous name. Whether this model will last 42 years is doubtful, but the fact that the new MINI draws so much on the old Mini demonstrates the genius of the car's creator, Sir Alec Issigonis.