Can the new second-generation common rail diesel version of the latest generation Mini One be a case of more for less? Only recently I was singing the praises of the Cooper S Works BMW Mini, the most powerful version in the range.
But now I've spent time driving the recently introduced diesel, which is something of a conundrum. The fact that it has less horsepower than any other Mini implies it is something of a non-event, given the car's outstanding chassis.
Yet the very nature of the diesel means it overcomes one of the criticisms of the Cooper petrol models.
The five-speed petrol Mini Cooper feels under-powered largely because of tall gearing. While the diesel has equally high gearing and the added bonus of the six-speed gearbox from the Cooper S, the creamy power delivery of its 1.4-litre turbo-charged aluminium motor overcomes any apparent gearing shortfalls.
Diesel Minis are so far creating little attention in Britain because most people buy the new Mini as a fashion statement or icon rather than for practical reasons.
Owners might bang on about being kind to the environment, but there are other roomier and less expensive small cars.
Nor is the diesel Mini the most economical in the class. I took the diesel Mini from the prestigious Holland Park BMW dealership in West London over a similar town and country route to the 1.4 Peugeot 206 HDi and the French car was at least 10 percent more frugal. All the same, the 4.8 litres/100km (58.9 miles per gallon) average I achieved for the Mini is not to be sniffed at in an age of diminishing fuel reserves.
Unsurprisingly, this result is identical to the official combined test and 35.4 percent better than the 6.5 litres/100km (43.5mpg) figure for the petrol Mini One.
In the extra-urban test, the little diesel has less of an advantage. At 4.3 litres/100km (65.7mpg), it is just 21 percent more frugal than the petrol Mini. Given the chirpy nature of the Mini, however, few drivers will be able to replicate the extra-urban figures that relate purely to open road motoring.
The diesel Mini's real forte is in urban and city operation where it is a staggering 50 percent more fuel-efficient than the Mini One. While the petrol Mini turns in an only average 8.7 litres/100km (32.5mpg), or just slightly better than the more powerful Cooper, the diesel sips fuel at a conservative 5.7 litres/100km (48.7mpg) in the urban cycle.
More than this, the car drives so well around town, with the diesel engine brilliantly matched to the car's unique gear ratios. Key to this is the high torque at low revs. Forget for a moment that the diesel produces a modest 55kW (75bhp) at 4000rpm against 66kW/5500rpm for the One and 85kW/6000rpm for the Cooper.
Critical to the driveability issue is the impressive 180Nm of torque at a low 2000 revs. This betters all but the supercharged Cooper S, which produces only marginally more torque at twice the engine speed. Meanwhile the diesel has 29 percent more torque than the Mini One and is 21 percent higher than the Cooper. This translates into a smooth and flexible car that's not averse to pulling away in sixth gear from a modest 1000 revs. You can slip along, easing from gear to gear, with the diesel engine enhancing the slow speed operation that's typical of urban and city driving. This is all fine provided you don't want to do anything in a hurry. Seems as though a little more turbo boost down low would not go amiss, because under pressure the car is reluctant to respond quickly and there is some hesitancy under load.
Weighing 35kg more than the One and 25kg up on the Cooper, the diesel still manages to accelerate from 80km/h to 120km/h in fourth gear in 12.3 seconds. This is half a second faster than Mini One in the same gear and less than two seconds slower than the Cooper.
When it comes to sheer acceleration, the diesel's 13.8 seconds time to 100km/h falls short of the 10.9 seconds for the One and 9.2 seconds for the Cooper. Although of academic value, the diesel's 166km/h top speed is down on the 180km/h for the One and the 200km/h for the Cooper.
In most circumstances the car does not feel underpowered and the level of mechanical refinement and silence is superb for a small car, with a pleasantly muted turbo whine.
At a steady 100km/h in sixth, the Mini is in big car territory, as the engine is spinning at a low 2000 revs.
Cold starts are instant, the warm-up period is completely fuss-free and there is just minor diesel clatter at idle.
The gearbox is crisp, although the left and upward movement into reverse is sometimes difficult to snatch.
Some road surfaces induce a jiggly movement, but usually the ride is accommodating and highly compliant by small car criteria. With BMW's multi-joint rear axle and single-joint front suspension struts, the car's handling and roadholding is surefooted and satisfying, even on the modest sized 15-inch rims.
The front seats feel shapeless initially yet are comfortable on long runs. But the seat backrest action for access to the limited rear seat remains fiddly to operate.
Standard kit on the diesel includes ABS, four wheel discs, ASC+T traction control, automatic central locking at 16km/h and rev counter. Apart from a small chrome badge on the tailgate, the only way to distinguish the diesel is by a larger air intake, three black grille bars instead of four on other Mini models and Cooper S side sills.
A handy optional onboard computer reads out fuel consumption, remaining tank range in distance, average speed and outside air temperature.
With German engineering, Japanese engine and electronics, manufacture by the British and design by a North American, the Mini Diesel is a real multi-national package - and one that works so well.
Sales of the whole Mini range are going from strength to strength in Europe, and the car hit the top 10 model list in Britain in July for the first time ever. Not bad for a small icon with a big reputation and the cabrio version still to come next year.
Ironically, few Mini fans will ever appreciate the benefits of the diesel engine model which is only likely to achieve solid sales in markets like France and Italy where there are extra incentives to choose diesel power.
At this stage, BMW New Zealand has no plans to bring the Mini One D here.