The third generation of the modern-day Mini is making its debut at the 2013 Los Angeles auto show and will reach showrooms in March. Using a new front-wheel-drive platform that will be shared with a new family of small, front-wheel-drive BMWs, the Mini will appear first as the hardtop (as the standard model is known). The rollout of the new version will follow the roughly one-per-year cadence of the current cars, with the convertible, the Clubman, the Countryman, and so on following in sequence. Until they are replaced, the current versions of those older models will sell alongside the new cars, as Mini’s factory in Oxford, U.K., has the flexibility to produce both simultaneously.
Still Mini, just slightly less so The new model creeps up a bit in size. It’s 3.8 inches longer overall, with 2 of those inches added to the front overhang. Wheelbase is up by one inch, and the car is also an inch wider. Weight increases slightly, by 60 to 80 pounds.
Pedestrian protection standards have led to a reshaped nose, with a more rounded hood, a less upright front fascia, and a bumper that protrudes further. The large round headlights are surrounded by round LEDs, à la the Rocketman concept, and the taillights bulge out from the surrounding bodywork rather than lying flush.
Powered by BMW The current Mini uses four-cylinder engines shared with Peugeot, but the new version switches to BMW-based powerplants. The turbocharged and direct-injected three- and four-cylinder units both have an iron block and an aluminum head and feature BMW’s dual VANOS variable camshaft timing. Auto stop/start is standard.
The base Cooper sees the biggest change under the hood,dropping its normally aspirated four-cylinder in favor of a turbocharged three-cylinder. At 1.5liters, the three-pot engine is only slightly smaller than the current 1.6-liter four, but output is up significantly. Horsepower climbs from 121 hp to 134 hp, while torque jumps from 114 lb-ft to 162 lb-ft. Working with the same six-speed automatic or manual transmissions, the base Cooper cuts its 0-to-60 time by a minimum of 1 second and as much as 2 seconds. The formerly sluggish automatic sees its time drop from 9.6 seconds to 7.6; the manual, previously at 8.4 seconds, drops to 7.4.Mini is not yet releasing fuel economy estimates, except to say that the top highway rating should be 44 mpg, which is 7 mpg better than today’s car.
Meanwhile, the 2.0-liter turbo four in the new Cooper S makes 189 hp and 207 lb-ft, versus 181 hp and 177 lb-ft for the 1.6-liter turbo. The S model’s 0-to-60 times decrease slightly, to 6.4 seconds for the automatic and 6.5 for the manual. (Output ratings for the more highly tuned John Cooper Works version are not yet available, as that model will arrive later.)
The chassis again uses a damper strut front suspension and a multi-link rear setup. For the first time, however, Mini will offer adjustable dampers; the optional system will have normal and sport modes. Electric power steering returns and adds torque-steer compensation.
More changes inside At first glance, the Mini’s interior seems largely the same, but a closer look reveals many changes in execution and technology. The large, round center gauge returns, but instead of housing the speedometer, it is a multifunction cluster—the speedometer moves in front of the driver (hurrah!) in a separate instrument perched on the steering column, with the tachometer alongside. The central display now features either a 6.5-inch or an 8-inch screen and is surrounded by an illuminated ring that changes color depending on inputs. For instance, turning up the temperature makes it glow red. The engine stop/start button features a similar glowing surround.
The invisible hand of the IQS Minis have always been fun cars (the company claims that one-third of owners name their cars), but they’ve also had design quirks that can be maddening. Some of the latter items have dragged down the brand’s score in J.D.Power’s Initial Quality Study (IQS), so the new model makes some welcome changes. The power window controls, for instance, are no longer toggle switches on the center of the dash, moving to the door armrests (a change made already on the current Countryman and Paceman). The outside door handles have been redesigned so that the whole handle pulls out, rather than using a button on the backside of the handle. Those new handles also are illuminated and cast a bit of light onto the pavement below. The manual climate controls switch from fussy roller wheels to three round knobs.
Technology 3.0 Naturally, the third-generation car also receives a technology update. New features include a backup camera, available automated parking, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, automatic high beams, and a head-up display. The iDrive-style multifunction controller is redesigned to be more like the BMW unit, and it includes a touchpad with finger-drawn figure recognition. Mini promises that its Mini Connected feature will work with Android phones as well as iPhones.
It’s hard to stay small. Even the Mini cannot resist seemingly inexorable increases in size, power, and feature content that the market and regulations demand. The brand’s designers have worked to preserve the car’s signature look. We’ll see whether the engineers were able to maintain the Mini’s unique fun-to-drive personality.