The creator of the MINI, Sir Alec Issigonis, would have been amused, if not bemused by the proliferation of the modest little hatch originally devised to cope with a national fuel crisis. But making MINI great again hasn’t always been smooth-sailing for its German owner. BMW has had to manage the high costs of producing cars from a FWD platform that shared few common parts with its RWD comrades from the onset, and then there’s the challenge of model expansion – how many variants to fashion out of the icon, would they even fly?
Fifteen years after its revival, you could say that MINI finds itself on a solid footing. Most if not all MINI variants now sit on the new UKL platform that’s also utilised by entry BMW models, with common powertrains shared between the two. The experiments with the Paceman, Coupe and Roadster didn’t last long and they are now history, but global sales for 2016 hit 360,233 units – MINI’s best-ever achievement – on the back of a 6.4% increase over 2015. In Malaysia, 902 cars were sold over the same period, a 19% gain and a new sales record. For a brand that’s supposedly niche, those numbers are darn close to what Volvo (934), Audi (950) and even Lexus (1,353) managed last year.
MINI has grown up, so you don’t have to
You’ve got to hand it to MINI for keeping the creative juices flowing all this while. No matter what your biases may be towards the products, one can’t help but admire the communication spunk that brings smiles to even the most jaded of observers. Yet MINI is growing up, not just in the size of the cars but also in the manner which the brand is communicated. Notice how the tone and visuals have become more subtle and inclusive, it’s as if MINI is casting a wider net to cater not just to the core (something along the lines of trendy left fielders) but also to an audience with a more mature palate.
Upsized and upscale
If the new Clubman is to show the way forward, then expect MINIs to be more gentlemanly in their conduct from here on. The wagon-esque profile with its split ‘refrigerator’ rear doors hark of a shooting brake, but even after ditching the fussy one-sided suicide door of the previous generation, the new aesthetics do require some time to digest. I’ll admit harbouring doubts when I first set eyes on the new Clubman, but the more you study it, the better its long, low-slung body looks. In short, it’s yuge and bigly, and you wouldn’t mistake it for anything other than a MINI.
If you haven’t driven any of the new generation MINIs, an introduction to the Clubman would be fitting for this is easily the most premium-feeling effort of the modern MINI era. Think near BMW-levels of quality and polish, marry that with the alacrity and sharp responses of a MINI, and then add space and legroom to (finally) accommodate a family that may not necessarily be mini in size. A left-leaning candidate with a centrist agenda that also appeals to the conservatives? You bet.
Much more than just playful
Maximum go-kart feel. You’ll never find this kind of braggadocious messages ever displayed on any other car, but it’s a MINI, so it does get away with alternative truths, even if go-karts are rear-wheel driven and a MINI isn’t. But if you do give a MINI Cooper S the full beans in a tight corner, it’ll show you a rear-axle that’s more than ready to ‘rotate’ in aid of turn in. This behaviour can be summoned by dumping the throttle or throwing the anchors in mid corner, and then trusting the electronics (in Dynamic Traction mode preferably) to sort things out. It’s amusing and…maybe not unlike a go-kart after all.
Truth be told, the current F55/56-generation MINI hatch is probably no more entertaining to drive (and most certainly less amusing aurally) than say a supercharged Mk.1 R50 Cooper S, but it is light years ahead in areas such as quality and efficiency. Don’t let its old rabble-rousing reputation put you off though, the MINI hatch, even in Cooper S trim, is as well-rounded as any conventional hatchback in everyday use, particularly in five-door guise.
More importantly, the MINI hatch line-up remains a proposition predicated on fun. But if a Cooper S (now with an upsized 192hp/280Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged engine) is somehow too tame for you, you can always dip into the basket of goodies from John Cooper Works to bump up performance and visual impact with factory-approved add-ons. Yes, we drove one fitted with the Pro Kit mods and they do turn the Cooper S into something with as much bite as the previous generation JCW variant.
Can Issigonis rest in peace?
Perhaps the way forward for MINI is no longer trying to stretch the line-up but to shoehorn existing core models such as the Countryman. We already know that the forthcoming iteration of this popular crossover will be much larger in size to better compete against established premium compact SUVs. But until that happens, the first generation Countryman – still capable and distinctive nearly seven years after its global debut – soldiers on in Malaysia; its value-for-money proposition enhanced by attractive limited edition accessories.
No one should begrudge MINI for adopting the proven path to future expansion, it’s not as if there are throngs of customers beating down the doors seeking a MINI four-door saloon, pick-up truck or seven-seater. Change will happen as the electrification effort at BMW descends upon MINI, which is in many ways in harmony with the origins of a brand that defined efficient motoring. And as long as MINI retains its charm and uniqueness, Issigonis should be resting in relative peace knowing that his legacy is in good hands.