Clearly, the box marked “new ideas” is empty in the Munich studio where Minis are designed, because this latest redesign is real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-stuff. This car is, to the untrained eye, almost identical looking to the first generation new Mini, launched by BMW back in 2001. There are some different colours - including the retina-searing chili orange of our test car - new head and tail lamp cluster designs, and a new lower grille for 2011, but that’s literally it.
But you probably either love or hate the Mini already, and this update is unlikely to do much to change your mind. You can still spend hours speccing-up your Mini (and virtually spending thousands of pounds) in the online configurator. Or adorn your Mini with union jack roofs, bits of chrome, or the chequered flag graphics that came on the mirrors of our test car to personalise it to your individual taste.
The big news for 2011 is the introduction of “Mini Connected”. It’s a new app-based system, which provides a range of additional services to use in your car, running off your phone. Download the Mini Connected App from the Apple Store (it’s free), register an account, then plug your phone into the car’s USB port and you can access the system via a joystick located down by the gearlever. The menu comes up on a screen in the middle of the cartoonishly large speedometer in the centre of the dash. As a whole though, it looks nice and is a good deal easier to operate on the move than a lot of touchscreens.
Clicking on Mini Connected brings up a host of functions to play with. There’s an RSS feed of news, it’ll pull your Twitter feed down to the car - making traffic jams less tedious - but the highlights are Google Send to Car, Minimalism Analyser and Web Radio.
Google Send to Car allows you to ping destinations and directions to the car from Google Maps, from any computer. The problem is that you need to buy the (optional and expensive) inbuilt Mini satnav system for it to be of real use - you can’t just run Google Maps off your phone through the car’s screen, which is a shame.
Minimalism Analyser is a coach to try and get you to drive more efficiently, rewarding you with stars for braking, accelerating and gearchange smoothness. Web radio works pretty well too, allowing you to listen to any number of web-based radio stations via your phone through the car’s stereo system.
Accessing the app on your phone away from the car will tell you exactly how much fuel is left in it and how far it reckons you can go with what’s left, which is handy if you’re the sort of person who’s permanently running late and always jumps in the car to find - to your surprise - there’s no fuel in it.
There are a number of “buts”, however. The first problem is that you can only run Mini Connected off an iPhone 3GS or 4. No Android, no BlackBerry, no Windows Phone 7 - for now. Mini won’t say when they’re coming but says it is working to integrate more operating systems. Next issue, thanks to the iPhone OS, is that you have to run the Mini Connected App full time on your phone to operate any of this stuff. Back out of the app to access your iPod, or should a call come in, and everything stops. Not that you’ll be answering calls on your iPhone 4, because the car’s Bluetooth system and the phone steadfastly refused to pair (we tried three different iPhones, all to no avail).
Right now, it feels like a system in development, but given that it’s an app and therefore likely to be upgraded before too long, and that there’s a brilliant USB interface that comes with it for playing music, at £210, it’s an option box we’d be ticking if we were buying a Mini and owned an iPhone.
The fact that not much else has changed about the rest of the car doesn’t really matter. The Mini is still great to drive and a unique piece of design. Minis are a common site on the road today, but thanks to all those personalisation options, you rarely see two alike. The circular interior design theme, and upright windscreen make the cabin feel special, because the space is very different to what you’ll experience in just about any other car.
You sit low in the car, with your feet straight out and the wheel pulled towards you, a bit like a racing driver. The Mini steers down the road with a real fluidity, gripping on like you wouldn’t believe through corners. And while the Cooper D won’t be winning any traffic light grand prixs like the petrol-powered Cooper S might, it’s still quick, quiet, refined and exceptionally economical. CO2 emissions are just 99g/km, which means it’s road tax free, and - in London - exempt from the congestion charge. Even driving with our best lead boots on, we averaged 47 miles per gallon. And after 400 miles, the tank was still a quarter full. So while the Mini might not be cheap to buy, it won’t break the bank to run.
Just make sure you’re sat up front. Because although the Mini officially has four seats, anyone over 4-years-old won’t want to spend long in the back, thanks to almost non-existent rear leg room. The boot’s only big enough for a large airline-style carry on case too. So the Mini remains a car for the individual, or a couple at best.
It might not feel brand new, but, 10 years after BMW brought the name back, the Mini is a more appealing package than ever. It’s fun, distinct, and cheap to run. If you’ve not got a family and are in the market for a small car, but have never understood what all the fuss is about, try one, because it really is as good as the hype suggests.