The Mini Hatch of late has been the must-have automotive fashion accessory.
Back when I was still in school, so many girls in particular raved about how they wanted their first car to be a Mini because they’re cute and European – as opposed to your run-of-the-mill Japanese hatches like the Toyota Yaris or Suzuki Swift.
However, the $27,750 starting price for the entry-level Mini Cooper manual is pretty steep for those on a student budget, so Mini released the Ray, which kicks off at a slightly more affordable $25,922 before on-road costs.
Available in both three- and five-door body styles, the Mini Ray replaces the previous entry point; the Mini One, and is exclusively available with some funky colour packs – in pink, yellow or green as tested here.
The car on test is the three-door automatic, which can be had from $28,272 plus on-roads or $31,500 drive-away, making it the cheapest automatic Mini you can buy, putting it in direct contention with the entry-level Audi A1 equipped with the dual-clutch S-Tronic transmission ($28,600 plus ORCs).
For the money you get 15-inch steel wheels with wheel covers, bonnet stripes, Bluetooth phone operation, USB input, heated electric mirrors, rear parking sensors, keyless start and air-conditioning.
On the safety front, the Mini Ray comes standard with six airbags, traction control with electronic differential lock, stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution and ABS with brake assist – though the Mini only has a four-star ANCAP safety rating.
Compared to the A1, the Mini Ray misses out on automatic headlights, alloy wheels, a 6.5-inch infotainment screen, Bluetooth audio streaming, an eight-speaker sound system (the Ray has four speakers) and cruise control.
Finished in Pepper White solid paint, our Mini Ray also has the green colour package specified which adds lime green mirror caps, bonnet stripe outlines and exterior trim highlights.
For this tester, lime green doesn’t go well with off-white – personally, I’d prefer the black exterior with the bright colour pack.
Wheel covers also aren’t sexy, so the Ray’s wheels – while inoffensive in their design – have nothing on the alloys available on higher-spec models. It’s a shame you can’t even option any.
Even though the equipment list is a little sparse, the Mini is trimmed very nicely, with soft-touch plastics just about everywhere other than the very lowest areas in the cabin, giving the interior a premium, upmarket look and feel.
The large central infotainment system is almost cartoonish, and looks a little weird without the large navigation system available on higher-spec Minis, but you can see where the extra money has gone when it comes to choice of materials.
I’d never sat in, let alone driven a Mini before, so it was eye-opening to hop in the driver’s seat and see just how small the hatch really is – it’s tiny.
Being behind the wheel is kind of like those car racing games at the arcade, there’s just enough room for the driver but not much space left for anyone else.
That’s a slight exaggeration, the front passenger is also well-catered for in terms of space, but if you’re an above-average height – like six foot two-ish me – your rear passengers will need to be legless to be comfortable.
Hopping in the second row behind my seat position, it felt like my knees were going to become one with the seat in front, and my head was pressed up against the ceiling. I'm not a chiropractor, but I can safely say that position isn’t good for you.
For anyone under six-foot tall, this would be bearable for short trips, the same as it would be for a child or a baby seat – which can be hooked up to the standard-fit ISOFIX mounting points on both rear seats.
On the topic of space, the 211-litre boot is not really meant for things other than some small bags or shopping. It does open up to 731L with the rear seats folded, but it's well short of the A1 (270L/920L) and more affordable European light hatches like the Volkswagen Polo (280L/952L) and Peugeot 208 (311L/1152L).
The steering wheel is large and plastic – very basic – and even more annoyingly, there’s no buttons at all. No cruise control, no audio buttons, nothing. Not only is it bare, it doesn’t feel great to hold and you’re constantly searching for the places where the buttons should be and then realising “oh, there’s nothing there”.
If this car was say, $12,000, it might be something you can look past, but for a car costing over $30,000 on the road it’s just not good enough.
The lack of cruise control makes highway driving more of a chore than a cruise, as you constantly have to monitor your speed to make sure you aren’t speeding or holding up the people behind you.
Another annoying omission is the lack of Bluetooth audio streaming – you can connect your phone, make and answer calls, but you can't stream music.
Other gripes include the lack of a display for the parking sensors, because you hear the beeping noises but you don't actually know which part of the car is close to something – which makes negotiating tight spots that little more stressful.
However, things do get better once you got out on the road.
Under the bonnet is a 1.2-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine, producing 75kW of power at 6000rpm and 180Nm of torque between 1400-4000rpm, mated to a conventional six-speed automatic.
With a kerb weight of 1120kg, the Mini Ray feels light, peppy, almost brisk on the move.
The turbo triple has that characterful gravelly tone these engines are known for, and peak torque comes in quite low in the rev range with almost no lag.
However, higher up in the rev range it runs out of puff, reminding you that you're not driving a Cooper S.
Fuel use is pretty good though, we averaged around 6.8L/100km in predominantly urban driving, but still well off Mini's claim of 5.0L/100km on the combined cycle.
Something worth praising is the Mini's idle stop/start system, which is very impressive. The engine shuts off as you come to a stop so it doesn't require you to come to a complete halt and fully depress the brake pedal like some other systems, and starts up so quickly you'd have to be slamming your foot down on the throttle to be kept waiting.
By comparison, some of Volkswagen's systems can be quite sluggish especially when partnered with the, at times hesitant, DSG transmissions.
However, the engine sounds a little gruff when it shuts down and starts up, almost like a diesel.
The six-speed auto shifts quickly and smoothly – you'd be forgiven for thinking the Ray had a dual-clutch transmission.
Getting into some bends, I could see why Mini constantly refers to its cars having 'go-kart feel'. The steering is very much a point-and-shoot affair, nice and tight with good feedback.
However, the steering is almost too heavy around town, and the turning circle is deceptively large for such a small car – attempting a U-turn around a small roundabout proved more difficult than it should have been.
Tyre noise can get a little loud on the freeway, and amplifies over rougher surfaces.
Meanwhile in town, the Mini's suspension is quite firm, which helps it to stay flat through corners, but not so great when negotiating the lumps and bumps of urban driving.
Sharper bumps like pot holes and tram tracks aren't dealt with a lot of finesse, and sometimes send a loud 'thunk' into the cabin.
It's not awful, but at times it can get uncomfortable, or annoying, which isn't ideal considering the Mini will likely be used by the majority of owners as an urban runabout.
From an ownership perspective, the Mini Ray comes with a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty with three years of roadside assistance.
This is pretty on-par with the Audi A1, which offers an identical warranty period with roadside assistance.
However, unlike the A1 and numerous other competitors that have a fixed maintenance schedule, the Mini has a condition-based servicing plan like parent company BMW.
An array of sensors monitor the condition of the vehicle's engine oil, front and rear brake pads, brake fluid, based on how frequently you drive your Mini and they way you drive it.
If you don't cover many kilometres during the year, and aren't too heavy on the throttle and brakes, the Ray could prove relatively affordable to own.
The Mini Ray isn't a bad car, but when you consider how much you're paying and what you actually get, there's so many better options out there for similar, if not less money.
Its closest competitor – the Audi A1 – may be a little long in the tooth but still boasts a more substantial equipment list, is more practical, and wears the illustrious four-ringed badge.
Then again, if badge cachet isn't what you're after, you can get a Volkswagen Polo GTI or a Renault Clio RS for similar money, which are far more powerful, better equipped, and more practical to boot (no pun intended).
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.