Twenty years ago the new owners of the Mini brand managed to pull off a remarkable feat when they launched a 21st Century reinterpretation of the original Sir Alec Issigonis icon.
BMW’s modern ‘MINI’ has gone from strength-to-strength. In fact, since 2001, more than five million models (3-Door Hatch, 5-Door Hatch, Clubman and the Electric) have been built at Plant Oxford, all on the same production line.
In all, three UK plants have a part to play in MINI production today – Hams Hall near Birmingham makes engines and Swindon produces the body pressings and sub-assemblies, then it all comes together at Oxford with body shell production, paint and final assembly.
The “classic” Mini (1959-2000) was the stuff of legend. With front-wheel drive, an engine mounted sideways to save space, plus its wheel-in-each-corner design and genius packaging, it became the blueprint for all small vehicles to follow.
A British people’s car, it was a symbol of the Swinging Sixties and was owned by pop stars (George Harrison), models (Twiggy) and royalty (Lord Snowdon). It was the star of The Italian Job in 1969 and a Cooper S won the Monte Carlo Rally three times in 1964, 1965 and 1967.
The new generation MINI of 2001 stayed true to its illustrious predecessor, not just because of its retro looks, but the way it drove.
An all-new second generation MINI was unveiled in 2006, with a third generation appearing in 2014.
To mark the modern MINI’s 20th anniversary, the Mk 3 has received a mid-life makeover – a great excuse to get behind the wheel of a 3-Door Hatch Cooper S again, perhaps the model that still best personifies the brand and its heritage.
New for 2021 is a refreshed front-end design with a larger grille and new bumper, while the chrome surround is now painted black.
More personalisation is also available, thanks to three new colours, five new wheel designs and a “Multitone roof”, which effectively blends three colours into one in a gradient-effect finish.
Inside, the 6.5-inch touchscreen has been enlarged to 8.8 inches and the graphics are slicker than before. There’s also a new MINI Electric-style 5.5-inch driver’s digital display.
Powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine, it kicks out 176bhp and there’s a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes.
The 0-62mph sprint takes just 6.8 seconds and it tops out at 146mph, while 45.6mpg is possible and CO2 emissions are a low 139/km.
The cabin and driving position are still uniquely MINI. You sit low down in the supportive seats and you’re surrounded by quirkiness and superb build quality. The traditional dials and toggle switches, especially, are a refreshing antidote to the minimalism of many new cars these days.
Once you flick the ‘Start’ switch there’s a suitably sporty sound from the engine and exhaust, plus plenty of poke.
It drives as well as ever too, with MINI’s trademark go-kart feel, while three drive modes are available (Green, Mid and Sport).
The ride is on the firm side and a degree of caution is necessary when pressing on in some conditions because it can get knocked off line by a heavy camber or standing water, for instance.
Overall, it’s sure to put a smile on your face – just like a MINI should.
However, driving a modern MINI with three doors is not without compromises. Rear seat space is at best limited and 211 litres (expanding to 731 litres with the seats folded) is a modest luggage capacity.
The infotainment touchscreen is bigger, but still feels on the small side, and is fiddly to access when using the rotary controller down in the centre console.
The 3-Door MINI Hatch Cooper S starts at £21,900, though our test car came in hi-spec Exclusive trim with gorgeous leather seats and a long list of optional extras, boosting the final ticket price to £33,085.
Of course, there’s still plenty of fun to be had in an entry-level MINI 3-door Hatch One, which starts at a very reasonable £16,800, or you can go green and opt for the superb MINI Electric (from £26,000).
Verdict: The MINI 3-Door Hatch continues to ooze character, while offering a unique and fun driving experience at an affordable price – a worthy successor to the original small car legend.