First Drive: 2018 Mini Cooper

First Drive: 2018 Mini Cooper

The Soller Pass in Mallorca winds away from the main road through the mountains. It features 50 very tight hairpin bends in just 7.9km, the kind of route that you imagine World Rally Championship drivers competing on, pulling up the handbrake on each turn in order to gain a fraction of a second. It is also a road loved by cyclists, as are many roads on the Balearic Island, but not today.

Everyone talks about the go-kart handling of a Mini, many will never truly experience it, but then you discover Soller Pass and it all comes together. It’s a long way to go for 7.9km but if you have the right car then they can be some of the best kilometres you will ever drive.

We are driving the updated Mini, which will arrive in SA shortly and which features mostly cosmetic upgrades, although there are a few significant changes beneath the design elements too. Those design changes are focused on making the BMW Group Mini even more British in its appeal. It has Union Jack LED tail lights and the same flag motif on the dashboard that lights up at night and which can also be personalised.

Personalisation continues to be a big theme for the updated Mini, even to the extent that the side indicators featured the names of various members of the Royal Family. It was Victoria, for example, that I took for a drive up Soller Pass, but you can even put your own name on.

You can also personalise the inside door sills and that’s before you get to all the other ways to individualise your Mini and dip into the extensive options list.

For some it will all be a bit too much, especially if the Union Jack is not your thing but I really like it (as a born and bred Brit I might be biased on this one). I can imagine Mini eventually providing the option of other flag emblems in the tail lights though, after all I can’t see the Argentineans loving the idea.

The only other real exterior changes are a new badge, new colour and wheel choices and the option of piano black exterior trim inserts.

Inside there is a new steering wheel, new colour and trim combinations and a now standard 6.5-inch infotainment screen. Options include wireless phone charging and a load of Mini Connected functions.

Technology changes include the availability of LED Matrix headlights for the first time and the inclusion of a seven-speed Steptronic transmission, although a six-speed manual is still also available. The Steptronic double-clutch box is now accessed via a revised gear lever, something that will be controversial to some in the change from a more traditional Mini look and feel to one of these fighter jet joystick-style things.

Under the bonnet, the only real change is for the Mini One, which now gets an additional 10Nm of torque courtesy of a switch to the 1.5l motor. It’s status quo for the Cooper models, with the Cooper offering 100kW and 220Nm and the Cooper S providing 141kW and 280Nm.

So the changes are minimal, more of what BMW usually refers to as a life cycle improvement, but what they do is make the German BMW-owned Mini appear even more British at a time when Brexit is less than a year away and when BMW wants to increase production and sales by marketing the living daylights out of Mini’s heritage.

That heritage includes the cliche of go-kart handling and this is where I get back to the fun bit. I drove a manual Cooper S elsewhere on the island and it was superb. There was a constant need to weave around cyclists on narrow Spanish roads and the Mini dealt with everything in a way anything larger would struggle with.

The manual gearbox is positive and easy to manage even with constant gear changes and I completely forgot my regular criticisms of the size and price of a Mini these days and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

I enjoyed it even more when I crept out early one morning to hit Soller Pass in a Cooper S convertible Steptronic. Damn, it handles well. I have criticised the S before for having too much torque steer, the Cooper offering a much more pleasant ride with just enough power, but with 50 hairpins to negotiate and a true point and squirt in every single stretch between them, the Cooper S was in its element.

The gearbox dispensed the power perfectly and there was little torque steer, something that often plagues the model in the conditions. It gripped as though its life depended on it (it probably did) and showed what a Mini can do in a way that no drive around the best roads of Johannesburg or Cape Town possibly ever could.

Not everyone is going to enjoy their Mini in this way. Not everyone is going to appreciate just how well suited the Mini is to a road that includes 50 hairpins, nor how perfect it is on any of the other narrow twisty roads of a Balearic Island — but if you ever do get the chance, then put Soller in the navigation and remember to turn left at the roundabout just before the tunnel on the road from Palma. You will thank me for it. – Mark Smyth