EVER since BMW introduced the first Mini Cooper more than 12 years ago, each successive generation has grown bigger. So while the size of the third version is not a surprise, its new engine is. The previous Mini Cooper had a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol engine that produced 120 hp and 155 Nm. But the new Cooper has a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged engine with 136 hp and 220 Nm, or an impressive 42 per cent hike in torque (the more powerful Cooper S gets a four-cylinder 2.0 turbo). Not only does it increase to 230 Nm in overboost, but maximum torque is now available from just 1,250 rpm compared with 4,250 rpm for the old four-pot.
The new three-cylinder unit comes from BMW's Efficient Dynamics engine family, which uses a half-litre cylinder as the building block for the group's modular range of turbocharged three-cylinder, four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines. As a result of the newfound performance, the Mini Cooper is a lot livelier, especially in the mid-range, where the second-generation car used to run out of breath. The engine is still mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox to drive the front wheels.
There are no steering wheel-mounted shift paddles for manual changes, only the new gear lever which is perfectly positioned with the more intuitive forward-nudge-to-change-down logic.
Despite the oomph factor of the new engine, the single scroll turbo is prone to some lag when the gear lever is slotted into D; S is recommended for delayed upshifts, especially if you have a heavy right foot. Then there is Sport mode, engaged by turning the cleverly positioned ring at the base of the gear lever (Normal and Green modes are the other two options). What this does is to quicken gear changes, increase throttle response and make the steering less light.
On the road, the Mini's handling remains confident with a more supple suspension. The ride comfort and cabin noise are improved, so much so that you may mistake it for a shorter BMW.
The added refinement means the Cooper is still nimble but its handling is not razor sharp as before. But then, it has grown in size - the 3,821 mm-long car is 98 mm longer and 44 mm wider, with a wheelbase extended by 28 mm to 2,495 mm. The cool factor is still high though. Like the other aviation-inspired toggle switches on the centre console, the new illuminated ignition lever looks great. The various knobs and buttons (the power window controls are now on the door) also feel more solid, while the rest of the cabin also manifests this higher level of quality with beautifully contoured leather seats and a new-look fascia.
The latter now has the speedometer and tachometer directly in front of the driver. The big round display, called the Mini Centre Instrument, is still there in the middle but only for housing the LCD screen (6.5-inch for the Cooper and 8.8-inch for the 2.0-litre Cooper S) and an LED ring that changes colour depending on the function chosen. To work the screen, there is a controller knob on the lower centre console (the one in the Cooper S incorporates a touchpad).
A nice touch is the steering wheel's cruise control function with speed limiter. Other cars may also offer this latter feature but on the Mini, its operation is wonderfully simple - just one button to press and another to select the required speed in situations where you fear for your licence. It is this combination of style, refinement and ease of use that has enhanced the Cooper's driveability.
Engine 1,499 cc inline-3 turbocharged
Gearbox 6-speed automatic transmission
Max power 136 hp @ 4,500-6,000 rpm
Max torque 220 Nm @ 1,250-4,000 rpm (230 Nm with Overboost)
0-100 kmh 7.8 secs
Top speed 210 kmh
CO2 emissions 115 g/km
Average OMV $28,000
Price $145,300 (with COE)
Distributor Eurokars Habitat
Tel 6473 3777