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The All New Mini
What MT Mag thinks it will take to be a success.

By Charles Mclean

Introduced at the Paris Auto Show in late September 2000 the new mini appears to have been dubbed the auto sensation of the year. I'm not sure who did the dubbing but amidst all the media hype about the new mini there has been minimal discussion on it's potential as a performance icon for the coming decade. It's our intent to try as far as possible with the limited info we have, to set that straight.

As most of us are aware the new mini is built by BMW out of the Oxford, England plant acquired during the take over of Austin Rover. However it is not being sold under the BMW banner. Instead the word 'mini' has been adopted as a brand name and is now written as MINI. I thought I would throw that in early on and get the irrelevant trivia out of the way first. Now lets get down to serious business. What performance enthusiasts want to know is how does the new MINI check out as far as being a worthy replacement for the old mini. We can make these comparisons in all fairness because we were told BMW's intent was, from the outset, to make the new MINI as a modern version of the old.

Lets take a look around this car size, weight and aerodynamics with any modern design are a big issue. First size as, after all this is supposed to be a mini.

The old style mini never made it through US crash regulations in force from about 1968 on. Obviously the new MINI does and to achieve this it has been necessary to increase the length from a mite over 10 ft to, give or take an inch, 11 ft 9 inches (we did some scaling from the wheel size because the MINI press guy could not tell us what the length, width and height were). It is also a few inches wider at 66 inches but appears a little lower in the roofline. In reality the lower look is an illusion created by the MINI's greater length. It is in fact about 2 inches higher. This looks like it could add up to measurably more frontal area, which is not so good. But countering this we can expect far less shape induced aero drag. The old Mini's had a drag co-efficient of about 0.53 (higher for the Clubman style body). We estimated the new MINI should be no higher than 0.44 but could be as low as 0.4. If we go midway between these two estimates at 0.42 this should make it's total aerodynamic drag less than the original mini despite it's greater size.

Because the original Mini was based on a 'bare minimum' concept it weighed in considerably less than the new one. Some of the first 850's in '59 were reputed to be under 1400 lbs off the showroom floor while a typically equipped Clubman was around 1550 lbs. Although unconfirmed the new MINI is hinted to be about 2500 lbs. However a sizable proportion of this additional weight is supposedly due to the built in crash protection and added creature comforts for a considerably more up-market appeal. Lets face it, comfort of any kind was a little on the sparse side in to old Mini. As such these weight-adding aspects would not figure in a stripped competition version. We estimate that 250-300 lb. of the additional weight comes about due to the fact that this is a physically larger car with a larger engine.

Lets look at the 'a physically larger car with a larger engine' bit here. I have not driven a mini in the last 20 years due to a back problem and Mini seats but my lasting impression was the amazing kart like cornering and handling of the original mini. In their press releases the point that effort was made on the part of the designers to carry this over to it's successor's road holding and handling characteristics was not only made, but stressed, more than once. The point here is that the bigger and heavier the car gets the more difficult it is to make it respond like a Kart.

Whereas I don't believe it is necessary to achieve full Mini-like handling qualities the new MINI must certainly reflect a strong trend in that direction. If BMW has stuck to their intent here the handling can be what many potential MINI buyers, familiar with the old, would expect of the new. It is at least reassuring that this is a design practicality as has, at least partially, been demonstrated by the manufactures of other small, high performance cars. With the MINI appearing to be built lower than many of these cars it looks like it has the right ingredients for good handling and road holding while still delivering a far more acceptable ride than the old Mini. Certainly the designers are putting out the effort required to achieve this.

The press handouts describe the rear suspension as a 'multi link' type of a design common to the BMW line. As for the front suspension- well that's something else our press guy could not answer. However we suspected a McPherson strut and that seems to have been confirmed by other sources. Now this basic formula looks like getting the job done. More so if you throw in wheels apparently as large as 16 inches wrapped around what appear to be 9 to 10 inch disks brakes operated by ABS. This all looks a good formula for the dissipation of kinetic energy at high rates. A capability which, if we are lucky, might exist right off the showroom floor.

Still on the subject of suspension I was intrigued to find that, as an option, the MINI apparently can be had with BMW's Dynamic Stability Control system. This is a sophisticated system that integrates engine torque management and the ABS brake function for 360 degree grip/traction control. Basically this system can play a large part toward saving drivers from the results of over exuberance. While it seems an extremely worthwhile deal on a big Bimmer it somehow seems out of place on a car so well known for it's total 'chuckability'. My first thoughts (and probably not my last) here is, great for day to day road driving but switch it off at the track.

At this point lets look at what we can reasonably believe the new MINI is offering in terms of chassis performance. First it looks like it has a lower CG than the original Mini due in part to it's designed low stance and second to the fact the engine is mounted beside the gearbox not over it. This appears to be equivalent to dropping the whole engine unit in the original Mini by about 4 inches. The next plusses are the fact that it has, like it's forbear, retained wheel in each corner and the wheelbase to track ratio is about the same. Throw in the reduced overall aero drag and things are looking good if it is speed, handling, cornering and braking that we are after. Only weight seems to be on the negative side of the scales but offsetting this is a bigger engine. However it isn't offset enough to put it on par with the original Mini. A 1275 S carries a little over 1200 lbs per liter of engine whereas the MINI carries almost 1600lbs. This is likely to reflect in poor acceleration from low rpm in the higher gears. As we eventually found out, the new motor is a 16-valve unit so is likely to suffer from the typical lack of low speed torque that 4 valves per cylinder motors have. This is almost certain to further compound the situation of indifferent low speed/high gear acceleration. But more on this later...

The MINI's interior is something I feel most people will either like or not with little middle ground. With the center-mounted speedo, I personally found it pleasingly reminiscent of the original Mini. Granted it is out of the drivers line of vision but I work on the assumption that if you don't have time to glance at the speedo you are probably driving too fast. The tach on the other hand is close to optimum as it is located what seems only marginally out of the driver's line of sight. As far as everything else mounted on the dash or in the console beneath, it all looks like stuff the original Mini should have had. What that means is I don't think it looks out of place. At least not to some one my age where creature comforts start to count for more. What does seem out of place is the automatic transmission option. I have never driven an auto trans Mini before but DV, who drove one once and said 'no more', claims they were slush boxes of the first order. But that was over 20 years ago and autos have come a long, long way since then. If the MINI version of the BMW Steptronic automatic trans is at least a 4 speed and functions equal to that equipping it's big cousins I don't believe it will be too out of place. Indeed it could well be the favorite for those requiring a small, fun semi performance car, for real day to day use, city or otherwise.

We have got this far with little mention of the MINI's engine- with good reason. Outside of the fact that it's 1600 cc our press contact seemed reluctant to tell us anything. We got the fact it was 16 valves from info out of the UK. We also heard it rumored and now reasonably substantiated by sources other than the press dept, that the engine is a derivative of the Chrysler Neon unit. However that's the Euro one not the US one. This motor was in the pipeline being developed by Chrysler when BMW took over the deal from Austin-Rover. After this was well under way along comes the merger between Chrysler and Daimler (Mercedes). So we have, in effect, Mercedes making engines for a BMW car! This unit is an iron blocked, aluminum headed SOHC 16 valve unit said to be of a compact design suitable for the MINI chassis. The base motor in Europe is supposedly 1400cc or so but that size will be confined to the Euro market and possible Japan. The US will receive 1600 cc motors with about 120 hp normally aspirated in base form. There were some rumors, and print stuff alluding to a turbo version sporting 165 hp. This proves not to be the case. Sure a blown version is on the cards but it is a positive displacement supercharger not a turbo. This will be good as it will go far toward compensating for the 4 valve per cylinder motors almost certain weak kneed low speed output.

So far so good but is this enough for the MINI to dislodge Honda as the machine of choice with the younger set in the US market. So what has Honda got that the MINI does not. In simple terms a heck of a head start and VTech, Honda's variable timing valve train and a reputation for making a lot of hp. BMW is not without it's pizzazz but in the main appeals to an age group a little older and less intent on modifying their cars. The MINI will, and indeed must be a different kettle of fish. Marketing against current king of the hill Honda will not be easy. It also might be too early in the grand scheme of things to mention that Tech Editor DV has something that can, on a technology basis, go head to head with Honda's VTech. How does a PolyQuad MINI sound (or for that matter a PolyQuad Ford Focus- and Ford appear to be making a serious challenge to Honda)?
Without giving away a thing let me wet your appetite. PolyQuad will replicate what Honda's variable valve timing does but it involves no additional moving parts and- better yet, no additional cost if incorporated into the production line. As DV will readily attest to, inventing something new is not the big deal, it's getting someone to listen to you. The fact that DV has his name on dozens of patents, is linked with the Mini almost as strongly as John Cooper and has taught more people than anyone on the face of the planet about Mini performance apparently counted for nothing at the competition dept when it was run by Leyland. Is anyone at BMW/MINI interested?