- 2011 MINI Cooper D; 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbo-diesel; six-speed manual; two-door hatchback
If it's a fun-to-efficiency ratio you're looking for from a car, then there are quite a few to choose from. Throw in price as an arbiter, and only one car on the market comes out on top - the MINI Cooper D.
Let's get to the bottom of this: Fuel consumption is what we want to know about, and we're talking the under 4.0-litre/100km club here. According to the Government's Green Vehicle Guide (which compiles all the ADR figures for cars on sale) the Toyota Prius uses 3.9L/100km. The Ford Fiesta Econetic does better at 3.7L/100km. The car we're talking about here, the 2011 MINI Cooper D, sits right in the middle, at 3.8L/100km.
But the difference between the MINI and the others here is that the MINI is flat-out cool. Its retro-inspired design is not overdone - it's never tacky or vulgar - and it combines a properly modern feel so you don't feel like you've been left in the 1970s. It's also bucketloads of fun to drive. Now I know what you're probably thinking - how can a diesel econobox actually be fun? Rest assured, from the moment you slip behind the wheel, you'll enjoy the drive.
It's the whole feel of the thing. The steering for example is fabulously quick and responsive, not to mention featuring a meaty heft that keeps you satisfied. The steering wheel itself is remeniscent of the Mitsubishi Evo IX with its split leather binding; it feels great to hold. While it may be a front-wheel drive, the MINI never sacrifices feel and that's despite using an electromechanical steering pump.
Go-kart-like springs to mind. But that's not just how quick it turns in. It's also how the MINI Cooper D handles. It changes direction like a springbok - and we're not talking about rugby players here. The MINI Cooper D is fabulously agile, and feels as if you could throw it onto a track and have a ball with it.
The amazing thing is it doesn't eschew ride comfort while driving. Sure, it's on the firm end of the scale, but it's never jolting or jarring. Rather it has an initial compliance which absorbs the really tiny bumps, but allows you to still feel the bigger ones with its progressive firmness.
The MINI Cooper D is only available in a manual, but don't let that put you off. It's got a beautiful rifle-bolt feel to it and the shifter's chrome surround with its domed centre feels wonderful in hand. The clutch action is easy and according to MINI is self-adjusting, meaning it will feel the same continuously.
It also brakes quickly and repeatedly with a complete lack of fuss. No early ABS intervention to spoil the fun here.
Inside, the MINI features high quality plastics and some wonderful design cues. Model year 2011 changes are quite honestly a blink-and-you'll-miss-it affair, more to do with slight ergonomic refinement and more colour availability than wholesale design changes. The massive speedo still dominates the dashboard, complete with retro-style font. Not one straight line is to be found inside the MINI; everything has a curve. The door-trims, for instance, feature a huge silver oval. The button for the glovebox is a chrome oval. The airvents are circular and even the pedals are ovals. There's some nice detailing, too, like the blue LEDs behind the door handles and the B-pillar airbag covers.
The aircraft-style switches which look after lights, windows and locking are a fabulous touch. Oh, and if you're wondering about having to constantly look to the centre of the car to see what speed you're doing, then don't stress - the tacho directly in front has a digital speed readout to keep your eyes in front.
The seats in the Cooper D are a neat cloth trim, and have enough comfort for everyday driving, yet have a slight bolster to keep you in place while cornering. There's also leather seats if you option the Chilli pack - that's probably a good idea if you like your music, too. The standard stereo is fine at low volumes but bass and treble suffer badly when it's turned up. The Chilli pack gives you a Harman/Kardon stereo, as well as sports seats and larger alloys.
Headroom is excellent both front and back, while legroom in the rear can suffer a little - it's a small car, so don't expect big things - however for a quick trip out shopping or a visit to a cafe, it's fine for four people. The boot is a bit on the small side, though that's to be expected from that shapely rear end. The MINI Cooper D is never going to be a family car (there's the MINI Countryman for that), so if you're single, or part of a couple, it'll suit you fine.
Under the bonnet is a new BMW-sourced 1.6-litre diesel which makes 82kW and 270Nm, up 2kW and 30Nm on the previous model, which used a joint-venture engine. It means it's now more powerful yet more fuel efficient (it has dropped fuel use by 0.1L/100km), and now does the 0-100km/h sprint in 9.7 seconds.
While it doesn't sound overly quick, as we all know, diesels are much better while on the roll, rather than punching out of the starting blocks, so it shines in overtaking. It will run out of breath if you don't change up quick enough, but rowing the gearbox is part of the fun. The engine is quiet too, and while you can tell that it's a diesel at idle, the rest of the time you'd be hard-pressed to pick it. It has a particulate filter (which eliminates the black soot) and it's housed in the same container as the catalytic converter - MINI says they're both maintenance-free. As a small capacity oil-burner, the engine is difficult to fault.
Helping it on its economy bent is such technology as Brake Energy Regeneration, the Auto Start/Stop function and Shift Point Display, which shows the optimum gear for the lowest fuel use. Combined with the electric steering pump, it's called MINIMALISM, and it's the brand's way of putting this car squarely in the sights of the Toyota Prius.
Let's get it out there: Anyone who somewhat enjoys their driving and buys a Prius over this car is stark raving mad. Drive the Prius for 10 minutes and you're bored. Drive the MINI for 10 minutes and you're left wanting more. Both the MINI and the Prius have instantly recognisable shapes (so much so that Honda copied the Prius with its Insight) and both make a statement. As an owner, it depends on what kind of statement you want to make.
The MINI does retro better than any car on the market today, but still holds a huge appeal because of its driving dynamics, plus with its Cooper D variant can claim hand-on-heart that it's green. The Prius tries to be funky with its wave-design interior and blue instruments, but has so much hard plastic that it can feel cheap - despite the $2800 hike over the MINI.
If it's fun and green you're after, then the choice is pretty clear.