What is it?
BMW has never pretended that entry to Mini ownership is cheap. The least you can spend these days is £11,160 for the new 1.6-litre Mini First, and that comes with a specification a bit too spartan for most of today’s owners. No air-con, for instance. For practical purposes, Minis start at around £14,000.
Once you’ve bought the car, however, the savings begin. Residuals are rock-solid; quality and reliability compare with cars costing five times as much. Just write that cheque, Mini people say, and you’re on to a winner.
For 2011, Mini is taking a couple of useful economy steps. First, by launching this bigger-engined First, still with 74bhp but with its torque output boosted by 17 per cent to 103lb ft. Second, by launching a ‘Minimalist’ version of the Mini One, which has steel wheels with wind-cheating flat hubcaps, low-resistance tyres, regenerative braking and standard stop-start for its 97bhp version of the 1.6-litre engine, all for a premium of £330 and a total price of £12,950.
What's it like
The Minimalist’s main function is to cut a One’s emissions to 119g/km (just below the tax break at 120g/km). In all other respects, a First makes more sense.
However, although the previous First was engaging, it always felt distinctly puny, especially when you were trying to pass slower traffic or tackle long hills.
The new version keeps the six-speed gearbox and high overall gearing of more powerful models, but its extra torque makes it much easier and smoother to drive. It requires less gearchanging and can even be more frugal in real-world use. It will now maintain an easy 70mph cruise, with the engine turning at less than 3000rpm in sixth.
On its standard (and somewhat unfashionable-looking) 15in steel wheels, it rides quietly and more smoothly than most other Mini models, and the steering turn-in is still quick and predictable.
Should I buy one?
In short, with the addition of this slightly bigger engine – which actually saves fuel – Mini has changed its entry-level car from a curiosity to a practical proposition for those who aren’t easily seduced by stripes, body décor and stand-out wheels. There won’t be many buyers like this, but there will be some.