What WAS Mini ? an econo car of the 60s? a 41-year-old living history? a technological breakthrough in city car design? a 3-time Monte Carlo rally winner wearing a badge donated by John Cooper? a transportation for Italian Job? Mr. Bean's car (plus arch-rival to Reliant Robin) ? all correct. No other cars ever enjoyed such a colorful life. Now BMW - ridiculously, not BMC, Leyland, Austin or Rover - wants to replicate the success of the original Mini. 

To the British, and those admiring the original British Mini, it is important to make the new Mini feels British and build it there. When BMW and Rover were still in honeymoon, that’s not a problem. However, since the signed-off prototype was shown to the public in 1997 Frankfurt motor show, things changed quickly. The German realized they should monitor closely the development program in order not to repeat the quality problems of the early Rover 75. Most of the development work was carried out by Rover's engineers (now BMW seems reluctant to admit), but every important decision such as styling and mechanical layout was made by Munich after extensive evaluation. As the name Mini fits into BMW's range very well (under the forthcoming 1-series), no wonder when BMW decided to spin off Rover and Land Rover it insisted to keep the Mini with itself, transfered all remaining work to Munich, tuned its handling on Nurburgring. Since then, the British actually lost one of its proudest labels ever established (others are Rolls-Royce and Bentley, also went to the German). Development was delayed a bit, the same goes for production, because BMW had to wait for the production line of Rover 75 to be moved out from the Crowley plant, then renamed it to Oxford plant and installed new production line for Mini. As a result, the new Mini comes a year later than planned. 

After knowing the background, let’s concentrate on the car. Like Volkswagen new Beetle, the Mini Mk2 looks like the original in sheet metal but is actually something else underneath. Predictably, to meet modern requirements of crash protection, comfort and refinement, it grows a lot in all dimensions. At 3.6 meters length, it is half a meter longer than the original. Needless to mention, it also boosts much larger width, tracks and wheelbase to accommodate "modern human". Compare with modern cars, it is in the same class as Peugeot 206 and Toyota Yaris, but with longer wheelbase because it pushes all 4 wheels to the corners like the original Mini. 

That doesn’t mean the new Mini as light or as spacious as its supermini rivals. On the contrary to its predecessor, the new Mini is a bad example of packaging. Although front seats are reasonably spacious, the rear passengers have no much legroom - Yaris and 206 have it beaten painfully here. Luggage space is also extremely small, just marginally better than the sub-mini Volkswagen Lupo. Put it on scale, the needle will point at 1125 kg for the Mini Cooper or 1115 kg for Mini One - the base model. A question must be asked: where do those extra kilograms come from? where is the long wheelbase spent? 

Touch the dashboard, drive the car over twisty roads and you’ll know the answer. This new Mini is no longer a poorly-finished British icon, it is a junior BMW under Mini’s clothes. The bodyshell is super rigid, 3 times as class standard and even stiffer than the current 3-series. The rear suspension is a simplified version of Z-axle. Though using steel frames instead of aluminium and using concentric springs and dampers instead of separate items, it is still the most sophisticated among competitors, most of which ride on half-independent torsion-beam. Now you know where the extra wheelbase is spent to. 

The cabin feels BMW too. Fit, finish, plastic quality and switch gears are far superior than ordinary superminis, including Mercedes A-class. Only Audi A2 feels more expensive, but then you’ll realize the new Mini is aggressively priced to compete with high-spec superminis rather than the Golf-rivaling A-class and A2. Considering the time and money spent into development, and the 100,000 units annual sales target, industry insiders believe it might make a loss like its predecessor, or at best break even. Anyway, BMW is already planning more derivatives from the Mini, so things might not result as bad. 

The exterior styling was carried out by American Frank Stephenson in Munich. It preserves many visual cues of the original Mini, such as round headlights, chromed grilles, sculptured bonnet, cap-like roof and two-tone color scheme (the roof is painted differently). No matter from which angle, the new car looks familiar. However, I don’t think it is a modern interpretation of the old car. If Sir Issigonis were still alive, he would not have approved such a retro car. You know, the old car was famous for forward-thinking, not going backward. Going backward is what BMW design boss Chris Bangle prefers.  

The interior was styled by ex-Rover designer Tony Hunter, who went to Ford accompany with Land Rover. He also chose a retro theme, placing a big rev counter above the steering wheel and an even bigger speedometer over the center console. Otherwise many plastics are colored in silver, something like Audi TT rather than Mini. Yes, although the cabin design is imaginative and funny, it doesn’t deliver any character of the old car. You won’t distinguish it if it is placed in a Chrysler or Volkswagen. 

The Mini is powered by a 1.6-litre 16-valver produced in Brazil by Tritec Motors, a joint venture between BMW and Chrysler. As I know, it was actually designed by Chrysler. The iron-block engine is quite light, at 120kg. It is not as eager, refined or torquey as BMW’s own 1.8 Valvetronic (which is for longitudinally mounted only), but reasonably able. Cooper model has it tuned to 115 hp and 110 lbft at a peaky manner. Mini One has a lower stressed version pumping out 90hp and 103 lbft. For the Cooper model, there is reasonable power available from 1500 rpm, and it revs quite smoothly and linearly up to 4,500 rpm. From then to the 7,000 rpm cut-out, it becomes harsher and noisier. A Ford Zetec 1.6 will have it beaten in terms of eagerness towards red-line. However, the biggest problem for the engine is that it is characterless, neither torquey nor sharp in throttle response. 

Both the 5-speed manual or Steptronic CVT came from the Rover era, the latter is still using by MGF, with 6 pre-defined ratios in sequential mode. Gearchange of the manual box is slick and light in action, matching the light clutch very well. Ratios, however, are less ideal, as the last two gears are too tall to satisfy cruising consumption rather than outright performance. 0-60 in 9.3 seconds and 0-100 in 28.4 seconds are right on the warm hatch league, but mid-range acceleration 30-70 mph and 50-70 at top gear proved to be very slow, thanks to the inadequate gearing and inflexible engine. Admittedly, heavy weight also plays an important role. 

So far, we have seen nearly every aspect of the car, all of them give us mixed impression. However, the most important aspect to the Cooper - handling - is not yet assessed. This time it succeeds overwhelmingly. It might not be the sharpest supermini chassis - that remains to the lightweight Ford Fiesta, but its ability to combine hugely rewarding handling and uncanny ride is incomparable. The basis is a firm but expensive-feeling suspension that is so soothing and so compliant over rough surfaces. Had he known this, Sir Issigonis would have regretted about his idea of rubber suspensions. Above the beautiful ride quality is great handling. Fly the new Mini into corners, the suspensions resist body roll so well, the weighty steering is so responsive (just 2.5 turns from left to right), accurate and communicative that it always ask for more speed to exploit the potential of chassis. Despite of 175/65 tyres, the Mini Cooper inspires the drivers no less than the best hot hatches. Lift off mid-corner, it will tail out a bit, but just a little bit before it regain grip. Look at the spec: front to rear weight distribution is a poor 62:38, so how does it balance so well ? only Z-axle can tell. Strong chassis also plays an important role to keep suspension geometry unchanged at the hardest cornering. 

Anyway, the new Mini does not drive like a go-kart, unlike what BMW said. Its steering is too heavy and too refined for that. 

The world has really changed. The old Cooper inspired drivers by its go-kart-like directness. The new Cooper undoubtedly feels heavy and less crisp, but it is no less involving while being super comfortable. Best of all, the new chassis is actually designed to handle more powerful engines in the future. Later, we’ll see a supercharged Cooper S pumping out 163 hp and a desperately-needed amount of torque. A 200hp Alpina version is also coming. By then the Mk2 Mini will be really an awesome hot hatch. 

The above report was last updated on 16 June 2001. All Rights Reserved.

Mini Cooper S


Bad luck to Honda Civic Type R: in one day it faces two tough new competitors. Having just edged out Ford Focus ST170, it is now facing Mini Cooper S - a front-wheel-drive BMW. 

New Mini is always a great-looking baby. I saw it just once, but I couldn’t help amazed by its road presence. This is perhaps the only hatchback looks prestige, thanks to its classical shape and heavy chrome treatment. A Golf looks well built, but without this expensive feeling. Honda Type R does not even stand a chance, until it sings a 8,000rpm song.  

In the Cooper S trim, the beauty of Mini is even enhanced, thanks to larger 16-inch wheels (17-inch is optional), sportier front air dam, an additional air scoop which fits so well into the bonnet and at the back, twin-pipe exhaust and tailgate spoiler. It does not make a big difference in the eyes of ordinary people, but car lovers like you will know that air scoop brings fresh air to an intercooler. Open the bonnet, and yes, the intercooler and supercharger fit tightly in the space in front of the transverse engine. It is so overcrowded that BMW had to extend the front overhang by 25mm.  

Supercharging is how BMW respond to criticism (actually was, prediction) that the standard 115hp 1.6-litre engine of Cooper lacks punch. Base on the same engine, uses new pistons, con-rods, crankshaft, bearings and valves to provide stronger strength and the 8.3:1 compression ratio the supercharging engine required. Oil and water cooling are enhanced to prevent from overheating. At last, the roots-type supercharger boost power to 163 horsepower and torque to 155 lbft. That makes it a rare 100hp/litre supercharging engine.  

Compare with rivals, 163hp is not really a lot, but the supercharging 155 lbft of torque is obviously superior. Less predictable is how linear the torque curve is. Some magazines emphasis that it delivers 80% of torque from 2000rpm, but with some calculation and you will see Focus ST170 takes just 200 more rpm to equal that 124lbft. Moreover, the Ford (like Honda Civic Type R) peaks at 145lbft, so its torque curve is actually flatter than the Cooper S. Forget those stupid magazines, we’d better to see how special BMW’s first supercharging engine is. It delivers its power linearly across the whole rev range, without the tyre-smoking surge found in conventional supercharging engines. As I understand, this is a good thing to keen drivers. It also creates fewer handling problems to the short-wheelbase chassis. Furthermore, it suits the traditional character of Mini - we don’t want a torque-driven, tyre-smoking Mini. The unusual character of this engine can also be seen in how well it tails out - at 6500rpm, it still produces 80% of maximum torque, remarkable considering peak power was already reached at 500rpm earlier. This tiny supercharging engine works like a large-capacity normally aspirated engine. 

With more muscle, Mini Cooper S can sprint from zero to sixty in 7.0 seconds, much faster than Focus, very close to the lighter Clio RS, but is again beaten by Civic Type R (who else not ?). Concerning top speed, poor drag - a result of classical shape - limits it to 135mph. 

Drive it on motorway is the best way to test its engine and gearbox. There is some reluctance below 1500rpm, where supercharger starts working effectively. Keep it above that and it will spin happily. From 2500rpm onward torque increases steadily and linearly towards well above 6000rpm. Superior torque gives it strong mid-range acceleration, though at all time it is quieter than the normally aspirated version because it does not need to be revved hard to get decent performance. It is not perfect though, as a noisy resonance occurs around 6000rpm. No matter how much BMW has reworked, this is still a Chrysler-based engine. 

In contrast, gearbox works very well. It is basically the same Getrag 6-speeder employed by Focus ST170, using twin-final drive ratios to achieve 6 close ratios in a compact dimension. While in Focus we found the tall 1st gear hurt engine response, the torquey Mini Cooper S fits this gearbox very well. Shift action is slick and super-quick. 

However, the fun of hot hatch always come on twisty roads, where the standard Cooper always loves. Cooper was already praised for great handling, the S version can only be more so. It has stiffer springs and dampers, larger and wider tyres. To balance the added weight at nose, it has the battery moved to the boot.  

On the road, Cooper S rides firmer than both Focus and Civic. It can suffer from big bumps in town. This is partly due to the stiffer side wall of Dunlop run-flat tyres which is mandatory because the Mini’s tiny boot is not designed to accommodate spare. But enter twisty B-roads and it improves, at least no longer a discomfort. The first thing you will notice is there is almost no body roll in cornering. The second is how direct the steering is. With just 2.5 turns lock to lock and a meaty feel, you will find turn-in is super quick, even go-kart like. This must also thanks to the small dimension of the Mini (with just 2467mm wheelbase, 100 shorter than Type R), which makes it so nimble and agile in corner. Not only without any torque steer, the rear end is completely throttle adjustable. You can easily test that by switching off DSC stability control: when the front tyres approach their cornering limit, understeer occur, then back off the throttle and you will see the tail step out, correcting driving line. Neither of its main rivals have this level of lift-off oversteering. Compare with Mini, Focus ST170 feels bigger (it is) and less agile, although it has more communicative steering feel. Civic Type R is also relatively bulky, and its steering feels numb.  

It’s time to make a decision now. We know none of the aforementioned hot hatches are perfect. The Civic has the best engine/gearbox combo and performance, the Focus has best steering, the Mini has best handling and fun. It loses marks in ride, engine refinement and space (think of that child rear seats), but it’s the only car here looks interesting, prestige and impeccably built. Let our hearts rule our heads and we’ll choose the Mini. Think of versatility and Type R is still the choice. Apple or orange, it’s a difficult decision .... what about both ? 

The above report was last updated on 30 Mar 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Mini Cooper
Mini Cooper S
Front-engined, Fwd
Front-engined, Fwd
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm
3626 / 1688 / 1396 / 2467
3655 / 1688 / 1416 / 2467
Inline-4, sohc, 4v/cyl
Inline-4, sohc, 4v/cyl, supercharger
1598 c.c.
1598 c.c.
115 hp
163 hp
110 lbft
155 lbft
F: Strut; R: Z-axle
F: Strut; R: Z-axle
175/65 HR15
195/55/ VR16
1125 kg
1140 kg
Top speed
125 mph (claimed)
133 mph*
0-60 mph
9.3 sec* / 8.5 sec**
7.6 sec*
0-100 mph
28.4 sec*
21.9 sec*
* Tested by Autocar
** Tested by Road & Track

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