Road Tests

First Drive: No Brexit for the facelifted (2018) F56 MINI

Mini-ature changes

Still with the well-known formula of go-kart chassis sandwiched with BMW bells, whistles and drivetrain. Now more than ever the MINI genetics are coded between kitsch and efficient. But with the latest facelift, the kitsch factor has been dialled up to emphasise its British-ness over its German-ness. The facelift changes apply, ready for the SA launch in May-June, to the 3dr, 5dr and convertible  – leaving the MINI Countryman and Clubman for a later date.

How many Union Jacks did you count?

On the exterior, a quick walkaround counted seven but that number exceeds ten when you peer through the window. The list includes: new design of alloy wheel with the Union Jack on the centre caps, the convertible with its fabric roof finished in similar vain, and then there are the rear lights emboldened with the British Flag. Hey, if you’ve got animated LED technology from R&D, may as well be creative…right? MINI’s exuberant character mitigates the cheesiness of it and in an era where puddle lights commonly bear the brand’s name, it seems only logical or inevitable to personalise as many forms of lighting as possible.

A superfluous makeover then?

Difficult to ascribe the word ‘new’ to the MINI with lasting veracity as the facelift initially feels quite on-the-skin, rather than threatening to seep under it. But that means what we like about MINI is still golden, and as the competition matures into a sea of formulaic designs with each passing evolution, at least MINI hasn’t diluted too far beyond its renowned traits.

A quick two revisions to the spec sheet you may notice; the 1.5-litre 3cyl turbo engine gets an incremental upgrade in power while the dual clutch 7-speed gearbox not only makes it quicker in a straight-line with fewer emissions in the process, but – trust us – on a chaotic mountain pass when there’s so much else other than corners to worry about, the auto tackles it with equanimity.

And to drive

Up the frighteningly narrow passes of Mallorca, I can’t think of many quicker cars. First we drove the (R449 300) MINI Cooper S with the manual box– 2nd and 3rd gear for 100 kilometres – using the car’s short wheelbase to slipstream clumps of cyclists, squirt the throttle exiting of a hairpin then stab the brakes hard. Cut and thrust stuff. The parpy 2.0- turbo burbling away in Sport Mode – which incidentally is located on a toggle switch and not the rotating collar by the gearlever.

The harbinger of front-wheel thrills in the 70s carries on although not at the segment’s zenith. At 7nths though you’re having tons of fun. Refinement levels have led to a placid ride (which is what you want when adaptive dampers aren’t available), dense steering feedback enlivened by torque overpowering the 17-inch wheels into early understeer – no biting limited-slip diffs here…

Which is why a Megane RS and GTI Performance Pack do a better job of plying power to the front wheels, allowing the driver to crank in armfuls of steering lock under an increasing torrent of power. But the MINI isn’t talking to the same buyer. For one it’s notably cheaper and if you want something harder still with a MINI badge, head over to JCW.

It’s ultimately low on driving personalisation – you can’t separate steering weight from say a more alert throttle pedal – yet rich on ways to customise doors sills and puddle lights. A correct weighting in a base model, slightly backwards in a Cooper S.

Is the latter an extension of MINI Yours?

Yep, and while we don’t have space (or time) to browse the online shop, the test cars hinted at what’s possible. Remember the Rolls Royce Gallery in the Phantom? The concept of a customisable space on the dashboard (ahead of the passenger) to put logos, images, names etc is replicated by MINI. In this case another back-lit Union Jack.

No jokes about its size?

That’s why models like the Countryman and Clubman exist but since this is the same platform as before there’s no sudden revelation for rear passengers or boot space. Wireless charging is an available option, the gearlever for automatics is still ugly but shaped like BMW’s and with the right colour seats and stitching combination the F56 MINI can look very upmarket.

Not all of MINI’s quirky features have stuck around as it reconciles with its premium stakeholders but nevertheless the ambience is distinctly MINI. In the grand scheme the mix of circular, half-moon and toggle switches are as inharmonious as design synergy dares in the year 2018 but would you expect anything else? Would you want anything else? And it all works very well indeed, from MINI Connected Drive on crisp, vibrant displays, several ways to issue commands and perhaps being a little more driver-orientated than those who have already gone further down the autonomous rabbit hole.

Verdict

Somehow clambering back into a MINI after being bombarded by German hatchbacks reignited some lost adolescent spark. Has a lot to do with the unquantifiable blind fold test; fifty metres down the road – hopefully not in a hedge – you know by every strain in your body that you’re driving a MINI, whether it’s the base model or the Cooper S. That hasn’t changed. The new one just adds those reminders in a visual capacity…

 

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