The first car I’ve ever reviewed, though I would not have had the opportunity but for Coopers of Chelmsford screwing up the repair of my trusty BMW 330d. Long story, but it did give me the privilege of driving an open-top Mini for the first time, a convertible (though I’m not sure what the difference is between “convertible” and “roadster” models – they look identical to my untrained eye.)
Since BMW own the Mini brand and have ploughed many millions into design and manufacture, it’s hardly surprising that beneath the cute styling lurks what is essentially a small BMW that drives like a small BMW, is equipped like a small BMW and even has recognisable BMW components. Not that that is a bad thing in any way – and I have something like 15 years of BMW driving to demonstrate my satisfaction with the German car giant.
Did I say cute? There’s no doubt the designers scored a hit there. Many styling cues have been carried over from the old Alec Issigonis Mini design. The rest of the car is entirely modern, but from any direction unmistakably a Mini. A swollen, slightly chubbier Mini, replete with go-faster stripes, but a Mini nonetheless, from the open-mouthed grin of the front grill to the pert backside with the cheeky light cluster.
Where once there were a few variations on the Mini theme, notably the Minivan, the Clubman and the Mini-Cooper, a whole heap more have sprouted in the new incarnation, with a Mini SUV and a 4-door version joining the family. While the 2-door would be an obstacle course for passengers in the read, a 4-door Mini is like the baby of the family growing up into mature adulthood – inevitable but somehow difficult to conceive and a matter of nostalgic reverie.
Inside there is still the big centre-mounted speedo, though that inconvenience is mitigated by the inclusion of a digital speed readout in a small instrument binnacle straight in front of the driver, dominated by the rev counter, something never contemplated by Issigonis for his original Mini. The sparse equipment of the original is corrected many times over, with the expected central locking, electric windows, air conditioning, decent stereo and much more besides.
Once seated comfortably, I am immediately reminded of the size of a Mini compared to my own Beamer: rear leg-room is virtually non-existent (even my beautifully petite daughter would struggle to sit sensibly in the back), and the whole cabin feels claustrophobic – at least up to the point where you put the roof down, of which more in a moment. For a driver of any size and bulk it would be far better to consider the Mini a 2-seater rather than a practical load-bearing car. The boot is hardly bigger than a an overnight bag: thirty quid’s worth of shopping and it’s packed to the rafters.
Clusters of switches are located at various random locations around the dash, and higher up the cabin too. For some reason they are highlighted on either side of every switch by metallic loops, which is an ergonomic nonsense and does not help the usability of any one. Some are situated so haphazardly as to be an inconvenience, not least the window switch down by my left shin – to operate it means taking my eyes off the road. This is mirrored by more illogical sitings of other controls and not helped by the lack of easily accessible switches on the steering wheel.
The conversion process from my own car also meant reacquainting myself with manual transmission, though in true BMW style the car reminds you when it thinks you should change gear for maximum efficiency. Thankfully, I can see the road ahead and can therefore override the thoughtful advice in preparation for whatever comes next.
Whatever the shortcomings of Mini design, like all BMWs it is at its best and most fun on a clear road with plenty of bends. The steering is crisp and nimble, gear changes click into place on demand, handing is taut and precise. Performance is not in the 3 litre class, but on the road the Mini has plenty of torque and feels happy to rev. You want to overtake? No problem!
I suspect that the flipside of this fun motoring would fall on long motorway cruises: where my 3 series eats up the miles, the Mini ride would probably be less conducive and less comfortable, with the lack of cruise control an omission you would miss, had you experienced it previously. Putting this into context, adaptive cruise control on my car was the best money I ever spent as an extra on any car, to the extent that life without it on any subsequent car would be intolerable – it’s probably stopped me running into other vehicles on countless occasions and thereby paid for itself many times over! I was going to say that mission could be corrected by reference to the copious options list, but the one item missing from said list appears to be… cruise control. Ho hum.
But the big selling point of the convertible model is, well, that it converts at the press of a button into an open top number, which on three gloriously sunny days in the Essex countryside was a joy to behold. I would remind any other balding guys out there to wear a cap to prevent sunburned scalp, but that apart there are few greater thrills than to feel the wind (controlled and restricted by aerodynamic windscreens) surging through what is left of your hair. Better still, the Mini is sufficiently rigid that the lack of a proper roof does not negate the car’s handling. None of that nasty shuttle-shake you used to get on convertibles at one time. This one feels rock solid.
Some might call it a car for ladies. The BMW marketeers would probably dispute that, though a sizeable chunk of their demographic must undoubtedly be married ladies in 2+ car households. And indeed I’ve known one or two lady Mini owners and others that have praised it, largely for cuteness rather than technical specs, performance or fuel economy. A little cuteness goes a long way.
But the Mini is not currently the car for me. The lack of interior space to accommodate my kids, and paucity of luggage space for carrying anything of substance mean it is simply not viable for my purposes (unless I were to consider the Clubman etc.) However, I may someday be in the market for a weekend car, probably a 2-seater sports car and quite possibly an open-top number. In this case, I think it would probably be fair to consider the sportier end of the Mini range. Hell yeah!
PS. A few weeks later my car was back in for further attention, during which my courtesy car was a Mini Countryman, a slightly chubbier cousin of the convertible. It had slightly more space but many of the same compromises in instrumentation that made the car slightly irksome to control. Still pretty good on the road, but you knew that already.