MINI Cooper Chilli

Can desirable, great-handling class leader keep its place at top?

The MINI can’t claim to have started the retro craze, but it’s the most successful motoring legend follow-up yet.

You only have to look at the hatchback to understand its appeal: it could easily be the car the original Mini would have become had development not been frozen in the Seventies. From its distinctive grille and large round headlamps to its unmistakable proportions, the new MINI doesn’t stray far from creator Sir Alec Issigonis’ original template on the outside.

It’s the same story inside. The centrally mounted speedo is a rip-off of the original, while the bank of toggle switches beneath harks back to a bygone era. The rev counter sprouting from the steering column is now a regular MINI feature and looks great, but the interior won’t please everyone. Elements of its design look a little clichéd.

Standard equipment is poor compared to the Alfa. However, the optional Chili pack fitted to our test model provides air-con, front foglamps, sports seats and a leather steering wheel. This comes at a price, though, because the extra kit adds £1,995 to the total.

Build quality is good, but the MINI can’t match the incredible packaging of the original, due to modern safety requirements. Legroom in the back is limited and both passengers (the MINI is a four-seater) have to squeeze their feet uncomfortably underneath the seat in front. At only 160 litres, boot space is also restricted, although the split folding rear bench does provide a welcome degree of flexibility.

Lift the stubby bonnet and you’ll find a 1.6-litre petrol unit that produces 118bhp. Thanks to its turbo, the smaller Alfa engine enjoys a 35bhp advantage, with predictable results against the clock. At the test track, the MINI sprinted from 0-60mph in 9.4 seconds – that’s 1.3 seconds slower than the Alfa.

The MINI was also second best in our in-gear tests. It took 5.2 seconds longer to accelerate from 50-70mph in sixth, with a time of 16.1 seconds.

Hot hatches aren’t only about pace and performance, though – and that’s where the MINI comes into its own. All of its controls have a level of accuracy that’s missing from the Alfa. From the beautifully weighted steering and slick manual gearbox to the sharp brakes and linear throttle response, you can feel the depth of engineering in the MINI.

It trails the MiTo in a straight line, but as soon as you tackle a corner, the British car rewards the driver with tremendous grip and a responsive chassis. Its agile handling is coupled to excellent ride comfort, too.

What the MINI lacks in performance it makes up for in running costs. Fuel economy of 39.6mpg is impressive and makes the turbocharged 32.9mpg Alfa look thirsty. Factor in the strongest resale values in the industry, and it’s clear the MINI won’t be giving up its crown without a fight.

Details

Chart position: 1WHY: Since 2001, the MINI Cooper has reigned supreme as the ultimate trendy supermini.

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