First drive: New MINI Cooper changes more radical than it looks

MINI’s most important new car is finally here; bigger, better and cleaner, but can three cylinders really do what a MINI Cooper is supposed to do?

Thu, Jan 30, 2014, 23:00

To a bunch of engineers sitting around a table looking at slide rules, giving the all-new MINI hatch a three-cylinder engine made perfect sense. It could generate great economy numbers, for starters, it was lighter and a turbocharger would make it every bit as strong as the outgoing 1.6-litre four cylinder engine.

Yet it was very clearly a risk and it didn’t make such perfect sense to the marketing and sales people who had to go out and convince people that less was more. MINI won the Monte Carlo Rally in its heyday, so people expect some enthusiasm, performance, smoothness and sharp throttle response and most three-cylinder engines we’ve seen didn’t meet those expectations.

That, and the percentage of Irish drivers with any experience of three-cylinder engines is very, very small. It’s new territory for most MINI targets.

Most three-cylinder engines, however, don’t share their core architecture with the BMW i8 hybrid sports car’s petrol motor, and that should have given us a hint that this new, 1.5-litre three-cylinder motor, code named the B38, is very, very good.

It’s not the only development in the all-new MINI hatch, which is longer, wider, taller, slightly heavier and has a longer wheelbase than the car it replaces, but it was the area of greatest concern for most and it is a standout for how brilliantly it alleviates those concerns.

MINI wanted this engine because it’s about 15kg lighter than the outgoing 1.6-litre four cylinder, develops 10kW more power, 60Nm more torque over a far wider range and makes the Cooper faster and far more economical.

Where the old engine’s power peak hit at 5500rpm, the turbocharged three pot’s power peak chimes in at 4500rpm and stays until 6000rpm. Where the old four cylinder’s torque arrived at 4250rpm the three pot’s torque peak hits at just 1250rpm and stays in a flat plateau until 4000rpm. It’s effectively the same engine as the new Cooper S’s 141kW, 280Nm, 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, just with one cylinder cut off the end.

It makes it an easier sell when it’s faster. Where the old motor, with the manual gearbox attached, took an entire 9.1 seconds to hit 100km/h, the new one manages it in 7.9 - and the six-speed auto’s sprint slashes 2.6 seconds off its predecessor to claim the Cooper prize at 7.8 seconds.

And, most convincingly, where the old motor’s NEDC economy figure was 5.8 litres/100km in the manual version, the new one delivers 4.5, while the automatic version is, at 4.7 litres/100km, a full 2.0 litres/100km better than the old one. It’s helped by the first MINI start-stop, obviously, but it’s also inherently very frugal and, unlike Fiat’s TwinAir two-cylinder motor, that’s at least partly because you don’t need to wring its neck everywhere to make it go.

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