Sir Alec Issigonis famously penned the basic design of the original Morris Mini on the back of a napkin at a time when fuel-efficient micro-cars like the German-made Isetta were gaining popularity in the U.K.
Shown to the press in 1959, the first Mini was just 10 feet long and less than 5 feet wide (about 3 by 1.5 metres) but could still carry four people. The Mini was a marvel of packaging efficiency, dedicating most of the space in its body shell to passengers. The current BMW-designed Mini is a giant in comparison (the current three-door Mini has grown by almost a metre in length) but the Mini is still one of the smallest new cars you can buy today.
The Mini has been through three generations since the marque was revived by BMW in 2000, with the first design done by Frank Stephenson that really captured the lines of the original. The current one has been with us since 2014 and looks its age now. It feels overstuffed, like a caricature of itself, missing that fizzy and happy character that once defined the brand. I’ve driven many versions of the 2014 generation, but never warmed up to them. They felt heavy and cumbersome, where I wanted light and quick.
The spicy John Cooper Works (JCW) editions have more power and stiffer suspensions, but even those failed to bring a smile to my face. And if a Mini fails to bring joy, what is it good for? It’s not the most practical car and with a starting price of $33,000, it isn’t exactly cheap for a subcompact.
But don’t let my words deter you, especially if you have your heart set on one. There’s not much else like it.
My advice? If you’re going to buy a brand new Mini before the 2014 generation is retired, consider a base model three-door with a six-speed manual. Get rid of the extra power and all the fancy options and the Mini’s character finally starts to shine through.
Under the hood, a 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine makes 134 horsepower and 164 lb-ft of torque. Meagre numbers, but for the Mini it’s enough. The torque hits low in the rev range, which makes passing slower-moving cars and merging into traffic easy.
The base model provides the most value. The heated sport seats are snug and supportive with firm bolstering and adjustable thigh support. There’s a heated steering wheel, large sunroof and you still get the quirky design, interior toggle switches and the glowing centre display ring. There are even different drive modes, and the infotainment system is an older reskinned version of BMW’s, so it’s excellent. A lot of the buttons and knobs are from BMW’s corporate parts bin and the quality benefits from this. You can jump up to a Cooper S or a JCW but apart from more power and a less comfortable ride, the car itself is largely the same.
Because it doesn’t have a bazillion horsepower, you can floor it more often and still stay within the speed limit. And 16-inch wheels allow room for a thicker sidewall, which means you don’t lose your fillings over bumpy roads. Its handling can be described as close to the proverbial go-kart that Mini says its cars are supposed to emulate.
The Mini is small but it has large windows and it feels like sitting in a fishbowl. You can sense exactly where all the wheels are all the time and that makes it an easy car to drive quickly and confidently.
The minute you start to add more power, options, and – inevitably – weight, the underlying character starts to fade further away from Sir Alec’s vision for cheap and economical personal transport. For the best Mini experience, spending less is the way to go.
2024 Mini Cooper 3 Door
- Base price/as tested: $33,740/$34,330 plus $2,245 for freight and predelivery inspection, plus fees and tax
- Engine: 1.5-litre, inline three-cylinder turbocharged; 134 horsepower, 162 lb-ft of torque
- Transmission/drive: Six-speed manual (optional eight-speed automatic), front-wheel drive
- Fuel consumption (litres per 100 kilometres): 8.6 city; 6.3 highway; 7.5 combined
- Alternatives: Volkswagen Golf GTI, Toyota GR86
It’s a cute little hatchback with big round headlights and its wheels pushed out to the very corners of its body. Union Jack tail lights are standard at just 12-feet-6 long for the three door, it’s one of the most recognizable cars on the road.
It has a large illuminated ring framing the centre screen that can display radio volume, fan speed, air temperature and more. The best feature, however, is mimicking the rev counter. The current Mini’s interior is more than 10 years old and looks like it is but that’s not such a bad thing because it means lots of real buttons and, of course, toggle switches. Rear seats will work for kids and cargo, but adults won’t be happy back there.
The factory-rated zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour time is eight seconds, but who cares? The base Mini isn’t a quick car, but it will make up for that in the corners and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Select the six-speed manual for an even better time. It’s not the best gearbox in the world and the gear changes take too long, but it’s much more fun than the automatic.
It has an older BMW infotainment system and it works really well. Wireless Apple Carplay is included. Automated braking, lane departure control and dynamic cruise control are all part of the deal, but the beauty of this Mini is its refreshing simplicity and lack of gimmicky gadgets.
If you use the back seat to carry extra stuff or fold them down to extend the cargo space, it’s actually a practical hatchback. With the rear seats in place, a couple of carry-on suitcases are probably all you’re going to squeeze back there.
Scheduled to be replaced soon by an all-new design, the current Mini is refreshingly old-school. Stripped of all the extras and the bigger engines, the base Mini is simple, efficient and a joy to drive, just like the original. It’s the one to pick.