Think small. Those two words were made famous by ad agency DDB in 1959 in a hugely successful attempt to flog Volkswagen Beetles to Americans. But the car that ‘thinks small’ most obviously applies to is the Mini, even 2014’s somewhat bloated F56 generation.
Compared to its 1959 Austin-Morris grandfather, the latest Mini is about as compact as an iPhone 6 Plus, but in contrast to most other cars lining my narrow, one-way street, this Mini Cooper Pepper hatch remains refreshingly small. That said, with a longer nose, thicker pillars and a steeper windscreen, the latest Mini definitely feels lardier and less airy than it once did.
Measuring 3821mm long, it’s 98mm longer than its predecessor, yet its wheelbase has grown by just 28mm, which goes to show how Latin the Mini’s pedestrian-friendly schnoz has become. All that crumple-zone real estate takes some getting used to, but with its regular parabola-lens headlights, at least this Cooper Pepper looks less like a startled cartoon character than the Cooper S with LEDs we tested back in June.
So what is a Cooper Pepper exactly? Well, it’s a $26,650 Cooper optioned with a $3000 Pepper package that includes black 16-inch Victory Spoke alloys wearing Hungarian-made Hankook 195/55R16 tyres (175/65R15s are standard), a larger 6.5-inch colour dashboard screen, dual-zone climate control, extended Bluetooth with music streaming and USB audio interface, Mini Excitement package with custom LED interior lighting, clear indicator lenses and fog lights at both ends.
In addition to three grand’s worth of spice, MINI-09 also includes a reversing camera ($470), black bonnet stripes ($200), no-cost black roof colouring and mirror caps, anthracite headlining ($300), piano-black interior finishes ($250), sun protection glazing ($400), and an anti-dazzle mirror ($200). That takes this six-speed manual Cooper Pepper’s RRP to $31,470, which seems like a fair wedge, but is more than a grand under what a dead-stock Mini Cooper cost when the R50 launched in 2002.
While the latest-generation Mini may not look as cute as its predecessors, it’s a vastly better car to drive. BMW’s thrummy new 100kW/220Nm 1.5-litre three-pot turbo is an ultra-flexible, peachy little thing, far superior to the slightly harsh 90kW/160Nm 1.6-litre ‘Prince’ four in the outgoing R56, and the peaky 85kW/149Nm 1.6-litre ‘Tritec’ four in the R50. Finally, here’s a Mini Cooper with the muscle to justify its name.
It’s incredibly tall-geared, though. At the turbo triple’s 6500rpm redline, first gear stretches to 65km/h, while second gear will hit an astounding 114km/h. Most small cars demand an upshift somewhere in the 90s, but not this leggy Mini. The Cooper manual’s claimed top speed is 210km/h, which translates to 5950rpm in fourth gear, yet at a comfortable 180km/h on an autobahn the engine would be ticking over at just 3600rpm in sixth. No wonder its official combined fuel figure is 4.7L/100km.
In the real world, this super-tall gearing takes some getting used to. After relishing the third-gear flexibility of my previous long-termer – a base Alfa Giulietta manual – the Mini’s legs are simply too long to tackle 90-degree turns or obstructive speed humps in third gear. Try it and the car almost stalls.
On the odd occasion, I drive at low speed in first because the gearing is so tall and the engine is so smooth. Yet Mini claims 0-100km/h in 7.9sec, which is 1.2sec faster than the previous Cooper and is achieved with just one reasonably slick shift to second. You have to be on your game with the clutch, though, because any delay in depressing it results in slightly jerky progress and notchy shift feel.
Travel between the floor and clutch engagement is quite short, but once you nail it, she’s an easy, breezy manual to get along with. And ditto the rest of the three-pot Mini. Decent front seat support (even though this pre-production Cooper lacks the centre-front armrest usually fitted to Pepper models), a useable back seat and improved luggage flexibility should make my Mini experience one to savour.
TANKS A LOT
A purely urban month, shared among Wheels contributors, all of whom must have deemed it their duty to ‘test’ the Mini’s performance while I was overseas on holidays, yielded a fairly poor fuel figure.
Arriving with 5748km on the clock, our Cooper manual covered another 806km during September, drinking 98RON at an average of 9.6L/100km. Given Mini’s urban claim of 5.9L/100km and an extra-urban figure of just 4.0L/100km, I thought the first month’s average would be about as bad as it was going to get. But not even close.
The next tank consisted of Thomas Wielecki and myself driving the Mini for its photoshoot on the Old Pacific Highway. Trip computer reset, it said we’d averaged 10.7L/100km for the day, which will surely be optimistic.
Can torque-surfing and short-shifting improve things?
This article was originally published in Wheels January 2015.