There are many impressive aspects to the way BMW has handled the relaunch of the Mini – sorry MINI – brand, but perhaps most amazing of all is that it never seems to run out of ideas.
Take the latest facelift of the 2018 MINI as an example, where the innovations include intelligent LED Matrix headlights normally only seen on cars costing twice the price, LED rear lights complete with Union Jack emblem, and even customisable 3D printed elements such as puddle lights and kick plates.
With that latest car recently going on sale we felt it was time to recap how we ended up with the most modern of MINIs by taking a look back at the company’s history under BMW ownership.
MINI Hatch Mk1 (2001-2006)
BMW bought the Mini brand as part of its purchase of the Rover Group in the mid-1990s (and subsequently retained it when selling Rover in 2000). At the time both Rover and BMW had ideas about what a new MINI should be, but it was American designer Frank Stephenson, working for BMW, whose concept was finally approved. The result was not a car bursting with original thinking in the same way the original Mini of Sir Alec Issigonis had done, but was still easily charming enough to reinvent this classic brand for a modern audience.
Those first MINI hatchbacks, built in Cowley, Oxford, are much more compact than today’s offering, but at the time were still criticised by some for being bloated. Not that it mattered to buyers, who flocked to the new car, captivated by its retro styling (nods to the past included round headlights and an enormous central speedo) and the ability to personalise it to their precise requirements, which in turn created brand advocacy and drove profitability.
The standard MINI was great, but it was the uprated Cooper S with its supercharged 1.6-litre petrol engine that gave MINI credibility among enthusiasts, for here was a car that was both fashionable and fast, capable of keeping up with much more serious machinery thanks to its instant punch and tenacious grip.
Even quicker versions, including the GP (pictured above) with its stripped interior (among other changes the back seats made way for a strut brace to reduce weight and increase rigidity) followed, along with a Convertible with a folding fabric top, allowing MINI to establish itself as the small premium car of choice. Indeed, it would take until 2010 for Audi to launch a rival in the shape of the A1.
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MINI Hatch Mk2 (2007-2013)
At 3.7 metres the second generation of BMW MINI (codename R56) was a full 6cm longer than its predecessor, a gain that allowed for an improved safety specification and marginally more interior and boot space. It looks like a significantly larger car too, despite retaining all of the retro styling cues to which buyers had become accustomed, and also offered a more refined driving experience that lived up to the premium badge (and price tag).
As before the range stretched from the entry-level MINI One through the Cooper and then Cooper S, with even more performance-oriented John Cooper Works and GP models following. With an increasing focus on running costs, including tax incentives linked to cars with low CO2 emissions, MINI broadened its diesel offering to include not only the One D, but also the Cooper D and Cooper SD. Interior quality continued to impress, as did the amount of personalisation available, although by this point rival manufacturers were beginning to offer similar upgrades.
Where MINI was clever was in retaining the car’s fun-to-drive nature despite changes as fundamental as switching from hydraulic power steering to an electric setup, or in the Cooper S from a supercharged engine to a turbocharged one. This is still a car that in any specification can put a smile on your face with its direct controls, instant response and peppy performance.
A Convertible was offered once again, along with Coupe and Roadster models that have two seats and a lower roofline for those who want to stand out from the crowd. Although not a big commercial success, both are great fun to drive and their rarity relative to other MINIs has the potential to make them interesting to collectors in years to come.
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MINI Hatch Mk3 (2014-present)
Although the stylistic changes from Mk2 to Mk3 might not be instantly obvious, the MINI of 2014 was in fact a completely new car, and once again larger than its predecessor. Here at last is a MINI with a boot suitable for a weekly shop, and while the rear still only has two seat belts there is more legroom than before. Practicality improved again in 2015 when MINI launched a 5-Door version (pictured below) of the hatch with a longer wheelbase, three seats in the back and a larger boot, creating a viable rival to the contemporary Volkswagen Polo and Ford Fiesta.
The engine range for the third-generation MINI starts with a 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol in the One before moving up to a 1.5 petrol in the Cooper and then a 2.0-litre petrol in the Cooper S. Again diesels were offered across the range, and they are impressively smooth by supermini standards, not to mention able to return upwards of 50mpg in normal driving.
The speedometer was finally moved to in front of the driver (a head-up display also became available as an optional extra), with the circular pod in the middle of the dash now housing a basic radio or full infotainment system. Despite this the interior of the MINI remains truly quirky, and finished to a very high standard for a car in the supermini class.
The increase in the car’s size didn’t harm its driving dynamics either. In fact, the third-generation MINI is more grown-up to drive than ever, offering improved refinement and handling that still feels as direct and engaging as when the original BMW MINI appeared all those years before.
Special editions to look out for meanwhile include the Seven, named after the 1959 Austin Seven (as the Mini was originally called), and the JCW Challenge, a UK-only model based on the cars used in MINI’s one-make race series. For those who want racy looks without the higher running costs of a full hot hatch there’s also the 1499 GT, which marries a 1.5-litre drivetrain of the 2018 MINI One with the styling of a John Cooper Works.
All of which brings us back to where we started and the introduction of the facelifted MINI for 2018. Not that the story ends there, because with new models set to come – including the first full production MINI EV in 2019 – there’s still plenty to look forward to.
Search for examples of the MINI Hatch Mk3 on CarGurus
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