I know it is a pretty poor show for someone who calls himself a car enthusiast but today has been the first time that I have got behind the wheel of a Mini of any description. I have been driven around in original minis back in the day when friends had them as first cars and they seemed a lot of fun (if low geared) but I never felt a huge urge to try one (my own first car, a Fiat Uno 45, being streets ahead on space and refinement if not in handling). The launch of the new Mini kind of passed me by too, namely because the old, old new MINI had no boot space and a rough old Chrysler engine and the old, new MINI (don’t worry even I’m confused at this point) was unaffordable in Cooper S form and had a pretty gutless 1.6 petrol engine and a DPF laden 110 bhp PSA/Ford Diesel engine that would not have suited my mainly urban driving patterns.
However when the motoring press announced last year that BMW would be fitting all new 1.5 litre twin scroll turbo triples in the MINI my interest was aroused. This was partly due to the fact that I like three cylinder engines for their off beat, throaty growl under acceleration and partly due to my interest in the current trend of downsizing and using soft turbocharging to meet emissions and economy standards whilst at the same time maintaining power and torque and improving drivability. The Ford 1.0 ecoboost is a standout engine in this respect, again a three cylinder, which pulls strongly from next to no revs which belies its diminutive capacity whist remaining smooth and quiet with it. I was therefore eager to have the chance of comparing the new BMW 1.5 litre engine with that of the Ford and the 1.4 litre four cylinder TSI engine of the VAG group. In the end I was lucky enough to have a decent drive in two Cooper models: the 114bhp 1.5 Cooper D with a manual box and the 136bhp 1.5 Cooper with a six speed auto. I will deal with them both in turn below.
The MINI Cooper D
The first thing I noticed about the 1.5 Diesel triple is how smooth and quiet it is on start up. There is no diesel clatter worth speaking of at all and no discernible three cylinder shake as you come off of idle either. It fires with just as much civility as the petrol engine, probably a little more so, as the petrol (of which more anon) has a tuned exhaust note which gives a fruity burble at idle. Things did not go immediately well however as the gearbox was a real pain to get into reverse gear. True the car had only done 35 miles but it needed a really good shove to get reverse engaged and there is no push or lift indent with the box to confirm that one is in reverse gear. I noticed quite a few people before me moving forward when they wanted reverse and the sales girl who came with me admitted people were finding it a problem.
However once out of the parking lot and onto the road, things improved significantly. The manual box being short of throw and precise. The little 114bhp/270NM Diesel three pot is superb. Moving off you are swept off down the road with an instant, meaty surge of torque accompanied by a deep, baritone growl from the engine that sounds not dissimilar to a BMW six pot Diesel. It does run out of puff at 4000 rpm though with that familiar “brick wall” effect in the power delivery common to so many Diesel engines, but such is the low down torque of the engine that there is absolutely no point in ragging the up to its 5000rpm limiter anyway but if you fancy it, it will do it smoothly and without fuss.
The big selling point of this engine though will be the fuel economy figures with BMW claiming a combined figure of 80 mpg. I always take these official Euro readings with a pinch of salt but the trip reading of 46mpg on a test route combining urban and a short stretch of dual carriageway does not sound too bad to me and I suspect one should be able to get 60mpg on a run with a bedded in motor.
In terms of handling the car was pretty impressive. Obviously I did not have a chance to throw the car about with a chaperone by my side but the car gripped well in roundabouts and accelerating on curved motorway slip roads and had very quick and precise steering which tightened up further with the selection of the “sport” driving mode. I was expecting the Diesel car to feel fairly nose heavy too but not a bit of it, with the front going exactly where you pointed it with no feel of heft or delay. So yes the MINI Cooper Diesel: very impressive and great fun and, as you will see below, the choice between this engine and the petrol would be a real headache.
The MINI Cooper
I was initially disappointed that the only petrol Cooper available at Arden Maidstone was fitted with the 6 speed auto box. However the sales guys informed me that they expect the auto to sell as well, if not better than the manual. It is actually one tenth of a second quicker to 60 (7.8 seconds) than the manual, has no CO2 emissions penalty and virtually identical fuel economy. Even so I like my manuals so I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Nothing however could be further from the truth. The 1.5 litre 136 bhp engine produces its 220NM of Torque at only 1250 rpm and peak power at 4750 rpm (though it will rev to 6500) and so not only has an instant, torquey and lag free response very nearly as muscular as the Diesel but, unlike that engine will keep pulling where the Diesel begins to tail off. Given the fact that the engine is so flexible and the manual boxes ratios are so high, the auto to me seems the better option.
After pulling away with a fruity rasp from the exhaust (windows wound down) the little car bounds forward on the tiniest touch of throttle even with the driving mode switched to “green”. and the changes are quick and smooth if not quite up to the standard of the best Dual Clutch gearboxes that I have tried. The green mode does leaden the throttle response a bit (and activates a stop start system that takes a bit of getting used to) but shifting into normal mode perks the throttle up a little bit and lets the engine rev a little more, something it is more than happy to do. Put your toe down and the box kicks down instantly and the little car rushes forward with a smooth and beautifully linear flow of power. The engine also sounds fantastic under full bore acceleration with a really raspy howl that sounds much better than any rival four cylinder in my opinion. It is not super quick by hot hatch standards but it is the willingness of the engine makes the impression and left me more than satisfied. This car too has a “Sports” mode which lights up the centre console like and 80s arcade game in red (no prizes for guessing what “green” mode does) gives you rpm and gear position and more importantly drops the box down a cog or two, and firms up the steering. It makes the car a lot of fun in the handling department and does feel a little bit more responsive in that respect than the Diesel, although the test route was the same and I did not have time to really push the car. One thing I would have liked to have had was paddle shifters on the steering wheel but they don’t appear to be available even as an option. If you want manual shifts you have to move the selector over and push forward to change up and back to change down which feels counter intuitive to me, but in truth I would be happy to drive this car under most circumstances in normal drive mode.
One concern would be the economy however. BMW are claiming 62.8 on the combined cycle but the trip computer showed a little over 25mpg after completing the same test route as the Diesel. That is way off what even the completely “pie in the sky” official figures suggest. I dare say though that this can be improved on significantly with lighter use as the consumptions curve on a petrol is much higher than on a Diesel (which operates on the same level of efficiency no matter what the revs) when you start to drive it hard. I really would have to drive this car for a longer period over a greater distance to ease my mind about the economy however.
I like small nippy cars and am starting to think about replacing my 9 year old Skoda Fabia VRS and I can say that the MINI is now probably top of the list to replace it. The decision as to which model to go for though is tough and depends very much on your priorities and how many miles you do. The Diesel is over a grand more expensive than the petrol which feels similarly torquey, has more character and a wider operating range and I would be tempted to buy that and use the money saved to spec the excellent automatic box which makes the MINI a dream in traffic. However I must admit I was expecting to see better fuel economy and I think many people coming from a Diesel would not be satisfied with the real world figures of the petrol compared to the Diesel on back to back test. For me I think I would pick the petrol anyway as it fits in more with my driving patterns and I would not want the worry of a DPF but for others the choice will be a tough one.
What I can say though is that whatever version you go for, the new BMW 1.5 litre three cylinder engines are characterful and gutsy motors which I think will impress drivers and only add to the popularity of the MINI brand.