BMW's Mini Evolution
The Good: More powerful, better handling, improved fuel economy and interior design
The Bad: Cramped rear legroom (what else do you expect from a car named "Mini?")
The Bottom Line: BMW proves once again that great things come in small packages
The Mercedes driver cruising in front of me peeled over as soon as he saw what was bearing down on him: BMW's cheeky new Mini Cooper S, clad in racing stripes. A perverse delight filled me, even if I'm hardly a hot-rod driver. Snugly encased in the cockpit of the little car, I was a fraction of the Mercedes sedan in size, but no less horsepower-worthy. I put the accelerator to the floor and rocketed past.
Those highway antics were just a teaser. As I exited into the rolling hills south of Barcelona, I put the torque-crazed Mini Cooper S through its paces on a three-hour country road-test devised by BMW for outrageous curves and maximum scenic beauty. It was a joyful ride.
The second-generation Mini Cooper which hits European showrooms Nov. 18, and arrives in the U.S. next spring, is not about looks—the exterior design tweaks are minor. It's all about improved power and handling—and better fuel efficiency. The 175-horsepower Cooper S accelerates to 100 kph (62 mph) in 7.1 seconds, but in European tests it burned a mere 6.9 liters per 100 km (or drove 40.9 mpg).
The neatest trick BMW's engineers performed with the new Cooper S engine is a turbo-charger that speeds the delivery of maximum torque. That means you don't have to shift as often. The car whips around curves in third gear without any shortage of pulling power. The 170-hp first-gen Cooper S had a supercharger that delivered the torque more slowly, so there was an annoying delay before it kicked in, says Johannes Guggenmos, head of Mini's power-train development since 1999.
The innovative new technology developed for the Cooper S turbo-drive gives the 1.6-liter engine sports-car power, topping out at 225 kph (140 mph). But it still sips far less gas under normal driving conditions.
Such innovations are never free. One hundred BMW engineers slaved over the new Cooper S engine for four years, Guggenmos says. To share the high development cost, the Germans cleverly partnered—in purchasing and production—with French automaker Peugeot, which will use one variant of the engine in its popular 207 sub-compact.
Just a Little Bigger
Together BMW and Peugeot will build 1 million motors a year, revving up big economies of scale. That's one reason the new Cooper S and Cooper will cost only slightly more than the $18,000 starting price for the first-generation Mini Cooper. (The Cooper S will start at $21,850.) Both the Cooper S and Cooper are equipped with six-speed manual transmissions.
So how to tell the brash new Mini Cooper and Cooper S apart from their cocky predecessors? The front end is now 2.36 inches (60 millimeters) longer, to accommodate larger engines and stricter pedestrian safety requirements. That forced designers to rebalance the car's overall lines by adding 20 millimeters to the tail. Look for more attitude in the car's stance.
"The new Mini sits up more and looks stronger and prouder," says Mini designer Marcus Syring. The car's feisty look is enhanced by a higher waistline—some 0.8 in. taller than the previous Mini. "I took the new volumes given to me as an opportunity to express the technical changes under the skin of the car," says Syring. The Cooper S hood is also 0.7 in. higher than the Cooper, giving it a body-builder profile. The roof and the 360-degree wrap-around windows are unchanged.
Interesting, too, are the design battles fought behind the scenes before the car ever hit the production line. Exterior designer Syring furiously opposed BMW engineers who were pushing for a longer front overhang to make it easier to fit those bigger engines. "That would have caused an ugly nose," destroying the car's proportions and the Mini's iconic face, says Syring.
BMW group chief designer Chris Bangle backed Syring and saved Mini from the disastrous nose job. Engineers had to work doubly hard to fit the muscular new engine into Mini's smallish front-end. "The engine fits so tightly into the small engine bay that a coin can't even fall through the spaces," says Syring, praising the effort BMW's technical experts made to accommodate good design.
Improving on a Winner
Look inside the Cooper and Cooper S for more noticeable design changes, including higher-quality materials, such as aluminum and wood, and a less-cluttered dashboard. It's also rich with new features, such as ambient lighting that ranges from a deep cool blue to toasty orange. The speedometer has been enlarged and moved to the center console between the driver and the passenger, to allow for an optional navigation system and entertainment controls. Glancing right to check one's speed takes a bit of getting used to. The rev counter remains directly in the driver's view, a reminder of the car's sporty ambitions.
German auto reviewers looking for something to criticize carp about the lack of legroom in the rear, but who would buy a Mini for space in the rear? True to BMW's mantra, this car is really about the romance of driving. It's about being one with the open road, and with the Mini. The second generation of this little go-cart inspired car achieves what all automakers dream of—making a winning model even more of a success.