Good points: cracking chassis, gem of an engine, interior ambience.
Not so good: not sure about the looks as yet.
As I couldn't make it to the international launch of the new MINI this Irish test is my first chance to really pore over the new hatch - and there's a lot to pore over. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the new protruding nose, even if the LED-ringed headlights are rather cool. And I've not made my mind up about the back of the car either. Sometimes I look at it and think the rear lights are just too large and too, well, cheery looking. Other times I glance at it and quite like it. Saying all of that, our test car did look special in the traditional MINI Cooper colours of red and white. Helped along by a few John Cooper Works catalogue options, including a rather eye-catching set of alloy wheels.
Before I open the door it crosses my mind that the super low profile tyres are going to do the usual firm MINI ride no favours, yet a week later I'm astounded at how good MINI's new chassis is. It's considerably more comfortable than before (even with those wheels in situ), quiet and yet just as much fun to hustle as before. In town the direct steering and sharp responses will ensure it curries flavour with its traditional customer and on the motorway it's quieter and more comfortable than before. But show it an open road and it still comes alive, appealing to the small percentage of the population (me included) that really like to explore the outer limits of a car's handling capability. It's utterly brilliant when driven quickly, soaking up bumps and camber changes with aplomb and more maturity than before, yet still engaging the driver with plenty of movement and adjustability front and rear - and there's even some feedback through that scalpel-sharp steering. In short: it's a blast.
And all this in the diesel-fuelled Cooper D model. Its engine deserves a special mention. It's a BMW-developed 1.5-litre three-cylinder unit and is incredibly well-judged. The offbeat nature of a three-cylinder engine is kept at bay most of the time so as to not put off the average buyer, but when you summon up its full performance it emits a throaty, distinctive bark, more performance car than diesel supermini. The engine's stats don't do it justice either, as the 116hp figure is largely irrelevant. Believe me when I say that this car doesn't need any more shove thanks to the availability of all that torque really low down the rev range.
Yet it's incredibly efficient too, meaning really low road tax and, if you can resist driving it as fast as it wants to go all the time, genuinely great fuel economy. The MINI One D is a little more frugal again, plus a useful €2,000 cheaper. It's worth considering one of the petrol versions if most of your driving is in town though: the MINI One starts at €19,900 and the much cooler MINI Cooper is €21,930.
The sensible among you will rightly point out how many alternative cars there are in the market at this price, with more space and practicality, but the MINI isn't really vying for the attention of Ford Fiesta buyers; it's more premium than that. And the new model cements the premium aspiration with a fabulous new interior. It retains a lot of the personality of the previous MINI, but with an added sheen of quality and tactility. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of quirky details to hammer home the point that MINI is fun, including the bright red engine-start toggle switch, the adjustable ambient lighting and the - at times cringe worthy - graphics that depict which driving mode you've just selected.
In spite of improvements, space in the rear is still at a premium and the boot isn't huge, but those compromises have never put buyers off before. Anyway, now MINI has the 5 door model to sell to people that really do need a little more practicality. Overall, not much has changed, MINI continuing with its highly successful formula, but there's nothing in the least wrong with that.