Mini marvel: all new, all lovable

Could the new new Mini possibly be better than the old new Mini? Oh yes - thanks to (ahem) those clever German engineers. John Simister is hugely relieved

Price: £15,995 (range will start at £11,595). On sale 18 November
Engine: 1,598cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharged, 175bhp at 5,500rpm, 177lb ft at 1,600-5,000rpm (192lb ft on overboost)
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 140mph, 0-62mph in 7.1sec, 40.9mpg official average
CO2: 164g/km

Sometimes, it's great to be proved wrong. It's even better when the result of being wrong gives rise to stupendous entertainment. The reason for this unexpectedly upbeat response to the trashing of my predictions? The new Mini.

Stop right there. What new Mini? We must have made a mistake, because the pictures clearly show a Mini as known (and much loved) since 2001.

Or do they? Look again. It's subtle, but the signs are there. The new Mini's nose is 38mm longer, its tail is 20mm longer. The waistline is 20mm higher behind a bonnet 60mm higher - see how it bulges more? Crash-test regulations, especially for pedestrian impact, are the reasons for the re-skin, minimal as it is. Every outer panel is new.

At which point, may I lead a rousing cheer for Gert Hildebrand, the Mini's design chief? You may have noticed that new cars are growing longer, uglier noses to cope with crash tests, ruining proportions. It doesn't have to be so. "The engineers wanted another 100mm on the front of the Mini," Hildebrand says, "but I told them they couldn't have it. They would have to find another solution."

The engineers did exactly that and, by means of clever energy paths through the structure, have made the new Mini both regulation-compliant yet still visually Mini-like. So, why can't other car-makers do this? Are they just too lazy? "Yes," Hildebrand says, smiling.

So, a slightly less-mini Mini, yet it remains obvious what the car is. BMW still celebrates the Mini's Britishness, not least the fact that it is built here. But, whereas the 2001 Mini had a lot of British input, the new one doesn't. Maybe that doesn't matter any more; maybe the BMW dimension is more important in buyers' minds.

What is clear is that the BMW-era, post-2001 Mini has been a huge worldwide success and has established itself, like its predecessor, as a classless, gender-neutral and - dare I say it? - iconic car. The design is full of chrome, perceived as British, and circles, perceived to be Mini-appropriate and retro. The biggest circle (apart from the very un-Mini wheels) is the speedometer. And Hildebrand points to hints of anthropomorphism: it's small (like a baby), has a solid stance (male) and is curvy (female).

The slightly bigger body creates slightly more rear seat space and a fractionally less tiny boot. Thanks to many aluminium mechanical components, the new Mini is actually slightly lighter than the last one.

Inside, we find the options of an iPod interface, Bluetooth connectivity and ambient lighting in the doors. Under the bulgier bonnet (its Cooper S air-scoop now fake) sits a new, much more sophisticated engine, a co-operation between BMW and Peugeot, which is starting to use the new 1.6-litre, direc- injection engine range in its 207s. There's no new Mini One as yet - this entry-level car will have a 1.4-litre version of the engines - nor is there to be a diesel at first. When it comes, it will use Peugeot's 1.6 HDI unit. These two will arrive early next year, so the new Mini range starts off with the Mini Cooper, now with 120bhp instead of 115, and the Cooper S, with 175bhp instead of 170.

The old Cooper S used a supercharger, which made its engine very crisp and responsive, but thirsty. The new one has direct injection and a turbocharger. When I drove a pre-production example on a very hot July day at the Zandvoort racetrack in Holland, I thought some of the eager, snappy Mini-ness had been expunged. The engine felt softer, the whole car seemed less agile. Was the Mini being dumbed down to suit its burgeoning US fanbase? That was one theory; tyres suffering in the heat was another.

So here I am, just outside Barcelona, driving the new Cooper S in its final form. I've gone 1km, and I'm transfixed. Is this the same car? The engine feels just like the supercharged unit, with a fractional pause when you press the accelerator followed by a crisp, accurate outpouring of power. There's none of the "elastic" feeling you often get with a turbocharged engine. It's more mechanical-feeling than that, and delightful to exploit. Later, I learn there have been subtle changes to the engine's calibration since Zandvoort.

The exhaust note is hardly musical but it's enthusiastic enough, and six gears let you keep the engine working at its best. Which is great news when the road turns twisty and hilly, because the Mini hauls itself out of corners with energy. And what joy as you flick into them! This is how a small, fast car, a modern Mini Cooper S, should be: quick to turn, talkative to the driver and easy to influence.

The steering is electrically assisted now, but its weighting, its precision and the feeling it gives of the front wheels' grip are just right. Too much power makes the Mini spin its inside front wheel, but there's no need to abuse it like that. Far better to flick from one bend to the next, revelling in the quick-wittedness. Foot off the accelerator, feel the tail tighten the cornering line, accelerate again in one swoop. It's fabulous.

It's not often I test a car and end up wanting it, massively, but it happened here. I'll have the best compact hot hatchback now on sale in blue with a white roof and stripes, please. Thanks.

The rivals

Renault Clio 197 £15,995

The most obvious rival until the Peugeot 207 GTI and Vauxhall Corsa VXR arrive, and great fun to drive. But you have to work the engine very hard to counter the Clio's weight.

Peugeot 207 GT THP 150 £14,345

Uses a 150bhp version of the Cooper S turbo engine. It doesn't look like a hot hatch, but it certainly drives like one. Great car, which bodes well for the forthcoming 175bhp 207 GTI.

Ford Fiesta ST £13,595

This lower-cost candidate has great handling, but its 2.0-litre engine is rougher and less punchy. It's the less sophisticated option. Looks good with optional stripes, however.

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