The Mini is about to build on one of its original assets and become a fuel economy champion.
Despite its luxury BMW origins and hefty price tag, the front-wheel drive hatchback will be a hit with environmentally conscious people who will ignore it at their peril.
Petrol rationing in Britain, induced by the Suez crisis, was a catalyst for the original Mini in 1959, but the BMW Mini arrived in totally different circumstances.
BMW says the latest 2007 R56 series Mini is admirably frugal, and uses less fuel than the R50 generation car that arrived in New Zealand in 2002 and, unlike its ancestor, no longer an economy leader.
But BMW’s Mini now has a set of advanced tweaks that will become standard across the range at no additional cost.
The three economy keys are; brake energy regeneration, an automatic start/stop function and switch point display.
Brake energy regeneration uses an intelligent alternator control (IAC) and an absorbent glass mat battery to recycle previously lost energy.
The IAC reduces drag on the engine by only engaging when required to charge the battery; a traditional alternator is always pulling power from the engine.
Additionally, the energy generated by the engine on overrun (under braking or descending a hill) was previously wasted. Now the IAC uses it to charge the battery.
Auto start/stop, only available on manual Minis, switches the engine off when the car is stationary and in neutral. It restarts when the driver engages the clutch again.
On manuals, the switch point display helps drivers select the most economical gear. Speed, road conditions and accelerator pedal position are analysed and the suggested optimum gear is illuminated in the cabin display.
I’ve just spent a week with a Mini Cooper automatic, a car made before the latest changes.
For city drivers, a clutchless Mini is attractive. You could argue that the typical buyer of a $40,000 car isn’t too worried about petrol prices, but that would be missing the point.
Certainly, the six-speed auto with Steptronic and gearshift paddles on the steering wheel is highly convenient – but at a price.
In the highway test, the auto Mini uses 10 per cent more fuel, but that increases to almost 17 per cent in the combined cycle and a whacking 24 per cent in the urban test.
Simulated fuel tests don’t always duplicate real world conditions, either.
In a cross section of driving, my 12.5 litres/100km (22.6mpg) average was heavy, especially compared to the official combined cycle result of 6.5 litres/100km (43.5mpg).
Visits to the pumps are no less frequent.
Fuel tank capacity has dropped from 50 litres to 40 for new Coopers, although the turbo S-type retains the larger tank.
Top speed drops from the Cooper manual’s 203km/h to 185km/h with the auto, and 0-100km/h takes 10.4 seconds – 1.3s more than the manual, a consequence of the transmission and a 75kg greater weight.
The alloy 1.6-litre DOHC engine developed by BMW and Peugeot is more efficient than the previous single cam iron block Chrysler motor.
Power rises slightly to 88kW, and torque lifts 10Nm to 160Nm, but the auto transmission saps some of the motor’s vitality.
The automatic changes smoothly enough, but there’s an occasional hesitancy into and out of corners when pressing on.
Even when selecting gears manually, some of the intimacy between car and driver, so apparent with the manual gearbox, is lost.
Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters are fun but we suspect most drivers will leave the six-stage Aisin automatic in Drive.
Expect plenty of feedback and involvement from the electric power steering. It has superb weighting and is enviably accurate.
Ride still borders on too harsh, and the optional 16-inch diameter five-spoke alloys with 195/55 series tyres (an extra $1500) stretch the limits for firmness.
For this reason we’d avoid the 17-inch wheels and 205/45 tyres, even though they look great. For softer, more compliant travel, stay with the standard 15-inch wheels with 175/65 series rubber.
Optional red leather seat inserts relieved the black trim on the test car, and the neat audio system is now integrated into the huge central speedo.
Expect a top driving position with heaps of headroom and a steering column that now adjusts for both reach and rake.
Rear seat accommodation is marginally improved in the larger new Mini, but most owners will still regard the Mini as a two plus occasional two.
Initially, drivers can find the shallow windscreen and intrusive rear view mirror somewhat claustrophobic, but once they experience the natty controls and excellent all-round visibility, their enthusiasm gathers.
The latest R56 is still fun in the manner of the R50 or the original 1950s classic. In whatever form you choose, it makes you feel special.
Mini sales in New Zealand are rising, with buyers prepared to pay the premium. Though the $35,900 base price for the Cooper is slightly lower than previously, it’s inevitable that most buyers will load them with costly options.
By the time the auto gearbox ($3000), bigger alloys, computer, foglights, bonnet stripes, sports steering wheel, ASC, sports seats and leather inserts were added to the test car, the price was just over $44,000.
Mini buyers tend to be different from other small car drivers. Though the trend is towards automatics with other makes, around 80 per cent of new Mini owners choose manuals. They’re more likely to have a high level of interest in cars and are happy to do their own gear changing.
Yet for urban dwellers that must have an auto, the clutchless Cooper offers a distinctive and highly original alternative.