The 2015 Mini One we're testing here is the cheapest model the company has offered in Australia since it relaunched under BMW ownership in the early 2000s.
Of course, ‘cheapest’ is a relative term that we take with a grain of salt, because at $24,500 plus on-road costs, it’s still very much a premium-priced city hatch.
The question we want to ask here is two-fold. Can the product justify the premium price tag? And secondly, is the $26,650 Mini Cooper with its bigger engine and features list actually the smarter buy?
Let’s not beat around the bush: it’s still too expensive either way, given a Volkswagen Polo or Renault Clio five-door can be had for two-thirds the price. But the 'tag is what it is, and plenty of people are willing to pay. And fear not, because we totally understand why.
There’s no doubt that if we gave ratings based solely on such ephemeral and subjective traits as ‘charm’, the Mini One would score a 10. And that’s not even really based on the still-funky and iconic styling.
Effervescent in engine and sweet in steering, it embodies the ‘Go Kart Feeling’ that takes pride of place in Mini’s marketing wonk.
It’s a crackerjack to drive, with a characterful 1.2-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine from the same family as the bigger 100kW/220Nm 1.5-litre three-pot in the new Mini Cooper and BMW 2 Series Active Tourer.
With 75kW and 175Nm on tap - the latter figure crucially on stream from 1400rpm - the engine is modest in output. But like all three-cylinder engines, it has a unique thrum to its note and, like its 1.5-litre big brother, commendably linear response and muscular punch in getting the 1085kg baby up to speed.
In proper European style, the power is channelled to the wheels via a standard manual gearbox — a transmission with six forward gears with a light clutch and pleasant shift action. Modern manuals are often slower and thirstier than modern autos, but they’re still more engaging.
You can have a six-speed automatic transmission option for an extra $2350 if you don't want to shift your own gears.
It’s truly a sweet drivetrain, brimming with verve and — with a claimed 9.9-second 0-100km/h sprint time — isn’t a total slug either. Mini claims official combined cycle fuel use of 4.9 litres per 100km, though we recorded closer to 6.0L/100km.
And engagement is what defines the Mini One. That lightness — a product of BMW’s big-money UKL architecture — doesn’t just harness the engine’s pep. It also makes this about the liveliest and most nimble little hatch around for the dosh.
Okay, the Ford Fiesta ST exists for $1000 more…. But still.
The chassis balance is outstanding, allowing you the confidence to throw it about and even modulate your line with the pedals as much as the wheel. In classic Mini style, turn-in is sharp and darty and the body control is such that you feel glued to the asphalt.
Tackle anything from a roundabout to a twisty rural road to a racetrack chicane and you’ll grin like an idiot.
We can’t help but think if you swapped the moderately scrub- and squeal-happy Hankook tyres for something a little more upmarket, you’d be all the happier. But cost-cutting is the name of the game on base variants such as this.
Want more examples? Take the 15-inch steel wheels with plastic hubcaps. Or the simple orange-and-black display screen mounted within the signature large, rounded fascia (thankfully the old car’s stupid oversized speedo is gone) bereft of Bluetooth audio streaming.
We can forgive the former — in fact, hubcaps in the city are in some ways advisable, because you won’t screech when you kerb them — but the latter is daft and cheap. You can listen to your tunes and podcasts via a USB cable, at least.
The interior itself retains the same cues as other Minis, including the nifty rounded instrument binnacle with digital speedo, a red jet fighter-style starter switch, 1960s retro toggles, and rounded ventilation controls and vents. Hard-wearing cloth trims on the mediocre seats complete the base model look.
Mini ditches the Cooper’s multi-function steering wheel on the One, as well, in favour of a two-spoke urethane number that actually feels decent in the hand. Like the hubcaps, we found a certain charm in the lack of buttons, but the cost-cutting is evident nonetheless.
It's worth noting that as well as the bigger engine (at 7.9s, it's 2.2 seconds faster from 0-100km/h), the $2150 more expensive Mini Cooper also gets 15-inch alloy wheels, seat height adjustment, steering wheel buttons, auto headlights, in-cabin LEDs and rear parking sensors. See the full list of Mini One pricing and specifications here.
Pleasingly, the latest-generation Cooper’s newfound cabin quality and tactility remains intact on the One. This iteration of the Mini has better fit-and-finish than the old car, with no creaks or squeaks as before, and simpler door pieces. The superior body rigidity over the old car is also obvious.
Also typical to Mini is the excellent outward visibility courtesy of the slim and upright A-pillars and large, square rear-side windows. Reversing sensors are a $550 option, which is frankly over the top. We love the fact the driver gets two sun-visors, one at the front and one to the side of the head.
Space in the back is, obviously, cramped, but there’s always the $1100 more expensive Mini One 5-door if you need extra room. And there are at least two ISOFOX child-seat anchors back there, behind easily manoeuvred front seats.
Rear cargo space is 211 litres, expanding to 711L when you fold down the 60:40 rear seats. There’s also a nifty two-tiered loading area with underfloor storage and netting to hold smaller odds and ends.
So here’s the thing — the Mini One, like all Minis, is not something you buy when practicality and value are at the top of your consideration set.
To use an example beyond those we listed earlier, the Mazda 2 Neo we had in the garage simultaneously costs about $10,000 less and has five doors and similar specification, and it’s hardly ugly or lacking in pep.
But as an ‘irrational’ purchase, the Mini remains sweet. In fact in its latest guise, it’s better than ever. And within that wider range, it’s the Mini One that is clearly the truest embodiment of whatever remains of the ‘original’ Mini ethos.
The fewer the frills, the more authentic it feels. And that is truly what Mini ought to be about. The John Cooper Works or Cooper S versions are a riot, but so is the One — and that shows just how good the foundation stone here is.
If a Mini is what you really want, then the One is the only version you really need, even if the step up to the Cooper is minor.