Mini 3-Door Hatch and Convertible (2018) review: A small car that’s big on tech
Cards on the table. My first car was a Mini, and so was my second. They were very basic, sometimes wouldn’t start on a cold morning and attracted rust like iron filings to a magnet, but I loved them, holes in the floor and all.
It’s been a fair old time since I sold my last Mini, though, and a lot has occurred in the intervening years. The most significant development, for the Mini brand at least, was its sale to and subsequent reinvention by German car manufacturer, BMW.
Less significant (but still important in the context of this review) is that my expectations as a driver have also evolved. These days, I’m a lot more demanding. I want more than a pair of second-hand Wharfedale hi-fi speakers stuffed under the rear seats and a shonky tape-cassette car radio balanced on the passenger-side ledge (the old Minis were so bare-bones they didn’t even have a glove compartment). I’d ideally like a car where I don’t have to stick my knees up either side of the steering wheel to get comfortable, too.
Too much to ask? Not for the 2018 Mini.
Mini (2018) review: Interior tech
Let’s start with the interior, and it’s a world away – no, galaxy in fact – from the Rover-built Mini of my student years. In fact, it’s a fairly big step forward in terms of technology over the previous model as well and probably the main advance in this mid-life refresh.
As standard, all new Minis come fitted with a 6.5in screen but I’d say if you want the best experience you’ll need to add a fairly hefty extra £2,000 to the price for the Navigation Plus Pack. This swings you a larger, 8.8in screen nestled in the large circular instrument cluster in the middle of the dashboard and a host of extra new features.
Chief among these is an embedded 4G SIM card for data connectivity, but you also get online search; weather and real-time traffic information; and a Qi wireless charging pad, located a tiny compartment under the middle armrest, and a bit of a tight fit for larger handsets. There’s also an expanded selection of connected tools available via the Mini Connected app, such as remote locking/unlocking and a locator to find your car when you’ve forgotten where you parked it.
The Navigation Plus Pack also adds a couple of different ways to use your smartphone in the car. There’s Bluetooth, of course, but you can also run Apple CarPlay in the new Minis or, if you prefer, simply plug in your phone via USB and the system will scan for supported apps and offer those, fully integrated into the car’s own UI. It’s a long way from Teenage Fanclub on tape cassette.
There are a couple of caveats here, though. First, the Mini’s system supports iPhone only for Connected Apps. And, second, there are no plans to implement Android Auto to go alongside CarPlay compatibility, either now or in the near future. As justification, Mini says the vast majority of its customers are iPhone users.
Whatever the reason, it means that, if you own an Android handset, you’ll only be able to connect to the Mini’s systems via Bluetooth or USB for local media file browsing.
That’s a shame but, even without Connected Apps and proper smartphone support, the Mini’s new i-Drive-inspired system is comprehensive enough that it almost doesn’t matter. You’ll spend your first week or two with it scratching your head and getting lost in its myriad options and multi-layered menus, but the good news is that it’s fast and responsive and does everything you need it to do. And, thanks to a large, clickable rotary command dial it’s easy to operate while you’re on the move.
The quality of the display is exceptional, too, with deep black, crisp, modern and colourful graphics and a useful split-screen view (only on the 8.8in display) that allows you use both Apple CarPlay and the car’s own systems in parallel without having to quit out of one in order to use the other.
There’s also a concierge service you can call if you want to set a new destination while you’re driving or want tips on good restaurants to visit along your route. And, in the event of an accident, the car will call emergency services for you, too.
Mini (2018) review: 3D print me
The technological touches don’t end there, though. They even extend out to elements of the design, with the ability to add personalised, 3D-printed decorative panels in various different places around the car.
You can add your, or the car’s name to the plate next to the left and right wing indicators (I was driving Mary) and you can customise the interior trim panel with various designs. Normally a backlit, colour-coded stylised Union Flag design, this panel can be popped out and replaced at will. The quality of finish of the 3D-printed pieces is a little more ragged than the default trim, as you might expect, but it’s a neat touch all the same.
Perhaps the least advanced part of the entire Mini package, relatively speaking, is the driver assistance package. Safety tech such as AEB, forward collision warning and “city collision mitigation” are included as standard, but you need to add the optional Driver Assistant Pack if you want traffic sign recognition and the pedestrian warning systems and the HUD (head up display), while excellent, is another pricey addition.
There’s also adaptive cruise control, available as part of the Pepper and Chilli packs, which does work well but there’s no option to add either full-time steering assistance for that fully relaxing motorway drive, and the adaptive cruise control doesn’t work at slow speed.
As for parking, there’s the option to add a rear camera and parking sensors all around (not that this is a difficult car to park), and automatic parallel parking via the Parking Assistant add-on but there’s no funky top-down 360-degree view available.
Mini (2018) review: Exterior design and drive
BMW has been very careful throughout the lifespan of the new Mini to keep design changes subtle – after all, it wouldn’t be a Mini if you started sculpting out the doors and adding pointy lights all over the place.
But there are a few improvements here, some fun and inconsequential, others solidly practical. UK customers, for instance, get rear lights with LEDs that take on the shape of a half Union Flag – a cute, funky touch I love, but that European customers bitter about Brexit may be happy to discover is optional.
At the front, the indicator ring now surrounds the entire front headlight and, within, are matrix LED headlights, but the Mini’s trademark round headlamps remain in place. Purists may never get on with the BMW Mini but – give the designers their due – they’ve stuck to their guns and the 2018 Mini is every bit as recognisable as the first rehash.
If you haven’t driven one of the new-style Minis before the interior is a bit of a shock, though. Everything is round and shiny and, to be frank, a little on the shouty side, but you’ll soon get used to it and, then, everything else will look as bland as a grey business suit.
There’s nothing in the cabin that feels cheap, either. High-quality plastics abound and the switchgear is all exceptionally solidly made. Mini’s decision to employ retro-style toggle switches (finished in chrome) instead of plain old buttons wherever possible is a good one, lending the car a totally different feel to the modern car mainstream.
As for interior space, though, that is limited. The boot, even in the five-door and three-door hatches, is not particularly capacious – you’ll struggle to squeeze in a couple of carry-on sized wheely cases – and, while there is room for two six-foot adults in the rear, both head and elbow room is constricted. If you want a fun-to-drive small car that’s a bit more practical buy a Ford Fiesta Vignale – but this is a Mini. It was never meant to be practical.
Even in the front, though, some elements of the layout feel cramped. The position of the control dial, for instance, requires T-Rex contortions of the hand and wrist to reach and taller people will almost certainly need to fold the tiny armrest out of the way to get comfy.
Mini (2018) review: Drive and handling
The drive, though, makes up for all of that. Magically, the new Mini manages to combine the go-kart feel the original was renowned for, with suspension that soaks up the bumps like a big, grown-up car. If you opt for the Convertible, there’s a little more wobble and tremble over the bumps in town than in the three-door hatch but if you want to make the most of the summer sun – and the wonderful burble that emerges from the Cooper S’ twin exhausts when you blip the throttle – then that’s something you’ll probably be happy to put up with.
I drove the two-litre petrol 189bhp Cooper S 3-Door Hatch with the six-speed manual and the automatic, 7-speed Convertible Cooper S and both were great fun: composed and reasonably quiet at motorway speeds, yet responsive and grippy around the tight and twisties.
I didn’t get the chance to drive the lower spec One (1.6-litre petrol, 101bhp), Cooper (1.5-litre petrol, 132bhp) or the Cooper D (1.5-litre diesel, 114bhp), but the 2-litre petrol in the Cooper S was a joy to drive, pushing the little car up to 62mph in a spritely 6.8 seconds, and with enough torque (280nm from a mere 1,350rpm) to make mountain-road overtaking as easy as dropping the roof on the Convertible model. This, by the way, takes a mere 15 seconds in total – just hold down the switch in the middle between the sun visors.
Mini (2018) review: Verdict
There’s no doubt the Mini has come a long way since the brand was bought by BMW in 2001 and, with this refresh, it has gained a thoroughly mature set of technological upgrades. There are areas for improvement: Mini needs to give its customers the choice of using an Android phone without sacrificing important features; the controls could do with a tweak or two to the layout; and it would be nice to see more driver assistance toys made available to Mini buyers.
But these are small complaints and, in many other ways, the 2018 Minis impress. In particular, they provide an object lesson in how to combine a classic with modern motoring technology without losing much of what made the original so appealing. These new cars are fun to drive, that little bit different inside and out, and yet sacrifice very little convenience over the best modern motoring has to offer.