still fun, striking looks, high-quality cabin, useful extra space
still not all that fundamentally spacious, feels big and hefty for a MINI, the options cost HOW much?
I recently bought some clothes from a shop called High and Mighty. Now, I don't think I'm all that massive and I'm pleased to note that I'm significantly smaller (in every metric) than some of the other customers in there on the day, but I was just struggling to find a jacket that fitted in a regular high-street retailer. Everything I tried on was either fine across the shoulders but too tight on the tummy, or went round my pie-belly (I don't drink enough beer for it to technically be a beer belly) but had orang-utan-spec arm lengths.
So, girding my pride as best I could, I went into High and Mighty and tried on a jacket. It fitted. Perfectly. Clearance room around the gut, arms the right length, comfy across the shoulders. Wonderful. And I abused my long-suffering credit card on the spot. Chatting to the guy behind the counter about sizes in general, he gave me a long list of examples of the 'regular' retailers simply not sizing clothes up properly. The labels, apparently, mean nothing - you're trying on a jacket that says it's a 46-inch chest but it could actually be a 43-inch - that sort of thing. People are going mad trying to diet into impossible shirt and dress sizes, but a big ('scuse the pun) part of the problem is that the labels are all wrong.
All of which occurred to me as I squeezed into the driver's seat of the new MINI 5 door hatch. Now, this isn't the first five-door MINI, in spite of many claims to the contrary. The five-door Countryman hatch-cum-SUV has been around for a while and (this is where full disclosure is required) my own 2009 MINI Clubman estate has, technically speaking, five doors. OK, two of those are for accessing the boot, but they count as doors.
This is, though, the first time that the mainstream MINI (nowadays a hatch, from 1959 to 1999 technically a saloon) has had four doors, two on each side. There were a few coach built specials in the sixties and one or two BMC and British Leyland prototypes but this is the first one you can saunter into a dealership and buy.
And it's a very different car to the regular MINI 3 door. This isn't just a case of chopping the three-door long doors to allow some space for grafted-on rear access - the whole structure is different.
It's actually 161mm longer than the standard MINI, and 72mm of that has gone into the wheelbase, all of it devoted to generating superior rear seat legroom. So, this is the first MINI hatch into the back of which real, actual people, can fit. It's not exactly what you'd call roomy back there, but I was able to get my kids in without having to compromise my own seat position in the front, and that's the first time I've been able to say that in a non-Countryman MINI. Boot space takes a small but significant jump upwards too, rising 67 litres to a decently useful 278 litres. Completing the embiggening is an extra 15mm of roof height in the rear and an extra 61mm of shoulder room too.
So it's now a practical, spacious, family car, right? Hmmm. Not exactly. At 3.9 metres long, the five-door MINI isn't especially huge on the outside. Bigger than before, certainly, and massively bigger than the original 1959 Mini, but then of course it is - the MINI had to get bigger or die. You simply cannot package modern safety systems into a 10-foot-long car and still fit more than two people in, so I always get a bit baffled when people start banging on about how a MINI isn't a MINI anymore. Of course it is - just the goalposts have shifted.
There is an issue when it comes to space though and, rather surprisingly, it's up front. Now, as I said a moment ago, I'm a MINI owner and in my Clubman, I fit comfortably, sitting low-down to the floor on broad, supportive seats. In the new MINI though, I struggle. The seats are incredibly narrow and hip hugging, which sounds great from a sporty point of view, but feels constricting and awkward most of the time. Worse, the hefty centre console impinges hugely on the space for my left leg, making me feel as if I have to cram it in at an odd angle to fit properly. How can a car gain in size over its predecessor (and I mean the 2000 MINI here, not the 1959 one) and yet seemingly lose space in the process? The seats are set too high as well and dropping them all the way down on the height adjuster leaves the leading edge of the cushion pointing up at an acute angle, which digs into the backs of your thighs on a long journey.
Now, as is obvious from my earlier shopping expedition, I'm not the smallest guy around and perhaps I shouldn't expect to fit easily into a car designed to appeal to bright young things for whom the challenge is finding something nice in a size zero. But then I fit perfectly happily into my own, old MINI...
At least the driving experience hasn't suffered. Flick the little mode selector at the base of the gear-shifter into Sport and you'll find that the five-door reacts with the same alacrity as the three-door. The steering really is right up there with the best, perhaps not quite bursting with as much feel as once it was, but full of deft weighting and laser-scalpel accuracy. The extra length, height and weight do indeed make themselves known and you'll really notice the extra bulk if you've stepped straight from a three-door, but the five-door stays true to the MINI's core mission - being fun to drive. Even the ride quality is a little more soothing these days.
The engine is the star of the show, though. My old MINI's 1.6-litre diesel rattles and roars at all times and all but overpowers the stereo on long journeys. This new 1.5-litre three-cylinder is missing a pot and 100cc but it's better by far. Overall power is up by 5hp and torque by 10Nm, but the biggest advance is in refinement. There's a pleasing off-beat three-cylinder grumble when you accelerate hard, but the rest of the time it does an admirable job of shutting up and keeping quiet. Indeed, tyre roar is now a more significant intrusion on cabin comfort than engine noise. It pulls really well too, with a lovely creamy hit of low-down torque that makes the 9.4-second 0-100km/h time seem redundant.
It's not quite economical enough though. You'll never get near MINI's official 78.5mpg (3.6 litres/100km), no matter how hard you try, and my 47.9mpg (5.9 litres/100km) average - achieved through a not-very-economy-friendly mix of city driving and fast motorway runs - is still well behind the trusty old Clubman's 60.1mpg (4.7 litres/100km) average; maybe the engine just needs to be run in and loosened up a bit. At least the cheapy-cheapy motor tax figure of 95g/km is immutable, no matter how you drive.
Which brings us to the price tag. Now, a Cooper-spec MINI is never going to be especially cheap, but a starting price of €25k for this model seems not bad, pitching it into Golf territory where it can't compete on space but can on dynamics and character. However, our car came with €10,000 worth of options, including satnav, a heads-up display, full leather trim, sports seats, black 17-inch alloys and €1,000 worth of LED headlights. Woof. MINI may be a British brand but its German overlords still know how to pad the options list. Spec-up at your peril...
What's pleasing is that in spite of the silly options list, in spite of the extra length, greater space and higher tech-count, the MINI remains true to its original appeal - a small (it's still smaller than a Fiat Punto, for instance) car that plasters a big smile across your face when it finds a corner or three. I do think that more attention needs to be paid to making it comfy for those up front though. Five doors are great and all (I'll leave the question of what they do to the styling up to you) but we can't all fit into a 43-inch jacket...