The MINI Cooper needs no introduction, as it defined the premium supermini sector when it hit showrooms in 2001. It’s now in its second generation, and the designers haven’t tampered with the tried and tested formula.
Even a round of recent updates has done nothing to dilute its retro appeal, although only diehard fans will be able to spot the latest changes. For the uninitiated, they include fresh bumpers with a lower air intake at the front. Revised indicator repeaters also sit inside new-look grilles on the front wings. Fresh light clusters identify the latest model at either end.
Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the MINI Hatch
The LED rear units have a distinctive pattern and the brake lights vary with intensity according to the effort applied to the pedal, to boost safety. Otherwise, you get the same comprehensive selection of styling accessories as before, and looks that are capable of leaving passers-by either cooing with envy or raging in anger. Either way it provokes a reaction, which isn’t something you’re guaranteed to do in the Audi.
The interior also follows this approach – its central speedo and old-fashioned toggle switches will delight fans of the original. Updates for 2010 include improved controls for the stereo and heating, and a wider range of trim choices.
This new switchgear is a success, as it heightens the premium feel inside. It doesn’t match the A1 for solidity, but the MINI has more flair in its pod-mounted rev counter than the rest of the Audi’s cabin put together.
Where it comes a cropper is on space and kit, as the rear provides limited legroom. Headroom isn’t an issue, but the Citroen offers comfortably more of both. You’ll also want to opt for the £2,160 Chili Pack to give the Cooper a genuine premium feel, as this adds sports seats, a three-spoke leather steering wheel, trip computer, auto air-con and Bluetooth. Open the tailgate and you’ll be amazed how small the boot is. Practicality clearly isn’t key to the MINI’s success...
Aside from its styling, the retro supermini has won hearts thanks to its lively dynamics. Few cars can match the directness of its steering, and it sets the standard for agility in this class. The positive controls, perfectly placed pedals and powerful brakes combine to make the Cooper great to drive.
Body control is incredibly tight and the fun handling allows you to adjust your line through corners using the throttle. Back off mid-bend, and the nose tightens its line sharply as the weight transfers to the front. This kind of engagement comes at a price, though, as the suspension is firm. And if you opt for the larger 17-inch alloys seen here, comfort is severely compromised. They improve the looks, but magnify the car’s unyielding ride.
Then there’s the engine. In Cooper trim, it’s short on torque. At low revs it feels sluggish, and you have to constantly change gear to keep it on the boil. Even then, you won’t see which way the Citroen has gone – the MINI’s 0-60mph time of 9.4 seconds was two seconds slower than the DS3’s. So it’s clear the Brit faces a serious challenge in this test.
Chart position: 3WHY: MINI established the sector, but it now faces a pair of talented rivals. A series of improvements has arrived in time for it to put up a fight to retain its class crown.