Let's begin with a question.
Have you ever made an impulse purchase that turned out for the better? Although 2020 is a year that might best be forgotten, it has given me the opportunity to consider things that turned out so right, including an impulse buy made years ago when we knew of more carefree times. I was looking to add some zest to my daily drive and that was what I got. In spades.
A day before the Easter break of 2015, I drove a deep-blue metallic, bug-eyed F55 MINI Hatch out of a local dealership and it was all smiles ever since. I called her "Little Angel Wings". She was from a time before MINI redesigned their logo in 2017 to its simplified fishbone form. In my opinion, the older logo was prettier and resembled an angel's wings. Hence, the nickname stuck. I was so enamoured with the car that I wrote a 100-day review of it on my blog. It was a fruitless exercise amounting to as much good as shouting into a void, because nobody read that article. But I digress.
Currently in its third generation, the BMW-owned MINI Hatch was launched in 2000. Although its design is said to be inspired by the original that was introduced in 1959, the two are certainly worlds apart in terms of size, appearance, age and technology. The MINI Hatch is infinitely customisable and back in 2015, was still exclusively assembled in the Oxford plant in England. BMW, its more mature sibling, promises to deliver customers the "ultimate driving machine", but MINI is the more youthful stablemate, offering oodles of fun and a rebellious attitude, often for less money. But that doesn't necessarily make it cheap to buy or own.
What's it like to buy?
Let's pore over these 2015 prices for a hot minute. While the little 5-door hatch has a list price starting at $25,227, it was the options that rapidly sent the driveaway price north of forty grand. Ludicrous for a car of this size and quite spendy, despite the MINI brand cachet and its unashamedly good looks. A 6-speed automatic ($2,136), metallic paint ($727), sat nav ($1,000), park assist package ($636), alarm system ($545) and reverse camera ($427) were among the list of options.
Even at that price, I wound up with a car that was decidedly spartan inside, especially by today's standards. Manually adjusted upholstery seats with no heating or ventilation, basic tech, limited safety features, ordinary interior lighting and trim. A driver's car, as I once remarked. Yes, it's an automatic transmission, shunned by purists. But I'll discuss that in a bit.
What's it like to drive?
Now, this is where it gets interesting. In tight inner-city spots, the diminutive MINI is up to the task of weaving through traffic and negotiating the smallest spaces. Its retro circular headlights and bonnet stripes are a playful statement against a backdrop of rigid grey skyscrapers, brooding luxury saloons and people in their unimaginative black power suits. However, the car feels fidgety at these speeds and it is on the open road where it really shines.
Settle in and a cheerful cartoon car graphic greets the driver from the instrument cluster. Push that prominent START/STOP dipswitch and the car springs to life, the high-resolution central display with its ever-changing LED ring adding pizzaz to the interior. Multiple toggle switches are scattered throughout the cabin, which is generally adorned with quality plastics, a tasteful combination of matte and glossy surfaces.
While the interior appears basic, everything feels sound and well crafted. The doors open and close with an enviable level of solidity and most other cars would sound tinny in comparison. Five and a half years old. Parked outdoors rain, hail or shine. Driven 85,000kms. Not a single rattle anywhere and barring expected wear and tear, everything still looks good as new. Those seats are comfortable too, even for the long haul, and you get a meaty three-spoke, multi-function steering wheel with hand-stitched leather. Speaking of leather, it's beautifully hard-wearing with lots of natural grain, none of that seemingly over-processed soft stuff that becomes sticky with time.
Under the bonnet is BMW's inhouse 1.5-litre, turbocharged 3-cylinder powerplant with a lightweight aluminium turbine housing, a world first. For a small engine, it's quite loud, making a pleasant thrum at low revs while creating an exhaust note like a toddler blowing the sweetest of raspberries. Floor the accelerator and the cabin is permeated with an increasingly high-pitched squeal, matched only by the delight of the driver.
The 3-pot makes 100kW from 4400-6000rpm and its full 220Nm in a fat band from 1250-4300rpm, taking the F55 hatch from 0-100km/h in 8.1 seconds. So the MINI is a little like a half-trained working dog: earnest, not particularly fast, but a couple of notches quicker than "slow as molasses". Adding to that, the engine has a tendency to lag when pushing off from a standing stop. Those default 15-inch alloy wheels have narrow tyres and can struggle for grip, especially with the original Hankooks, and a heavy right foot at the traffic lights just burns rubber.
On the other hand, those tyres are of such a high profile that it has saved me from curbing the alloy rims on a number of occasions, while improving ride quality. I had a much better experience with a second set of tyres, the Pirelli Cinturato P6, which gripped better, lasted longer and dramatically reduced road noise at highway speeds. The engine feels most capable in rolling acceleration where the laggy dead zone disappears. The performance inspires confidence especially from 40-80km/h, and the 6-speed auto is a brilliant match over the entire range of legal speed limits in Victoria.
Shift quality is generally good and downshifts are really quick. The transmission has an uncanny ability of being in the right gear all the time, with rapid access to the engine's power band. Needing a quick lane change? No problem. Twitch-steer, jab the pedal with a confident foot. The revs jump almost instantly, and you're done. For more control, I thump it into Manual/Sport mode, which improves fuel consumption by about 10%. But I'd be kidding myself if I chose to fumble with a stick shift for imagined or miniscule differences in driveability.
Part of the fun of driving a MINI is in its precise handling and predictable performance. A well-weighted steering wheel points the car accurately within a centimetre of where you need to be, while the engine delivers in a remarkably linear fashion. Not to mention that tremendous chassis with a low centre of gravity which just tempts the driver to carve out the asphalt everywhere. It has gotten me out of (and into) numerous tight spots in moving traffic without much trouble, save for a prolonged toot (plus a flip of the bird at me, for good measure) from the very odd ill-tempered people who flog their gutless rides and drive like it's got no brake pedal, tailgating every driver on the road.
Disclaimer: The author values safe driving. Please drive carefully.
How practical is it?
With an additional two doors, the larger MINI Hatch is more grownup, and now about as practical as most compact hatchbacks. That sounds like a mixed opinion because it is. However, it's marvellous to finally get two small-sized adults in the back without some acrobatics on their part. As expected, legroom in the rear seats is compromised in such a small car especially if the front passengers are taller or of size. There is also the risk of bumping one's head on the door frame on entry.
The car will still manage a trip to and from the airport for two passengers and a modest amount of luggage with one of the back seats folded, or a week of groceries for a small family. There is a puncture repair kit in the boot with no space saver tyre. Still, the boot volume is just 278 litres and caps out at 941 litres with all the rear seats down.
I struggled with space after the arrival of a baby. He grew rapidly and it became challenging to get him in and out of the rear-facing baby seat. That sadly pushed me to the point of switching to a larger vehicle. But for singles, childless couples, or even small families with preteen kids, this car would be a fun little runabout.
Visibility is great, thanks to the upright door apertures and large windows, plus those generously-sized rounded side mirrors (heated) which are as much function as form. Forgo the tinting and the clarity of the windows adds a feeling of being as one with the road. The rather erect windscreen does result in more wind noise, while making it difficult to see those traffic lights if you are stopped right on the line and have set a high driving position.
What's it like to own?
The engine proved quite frugal (although preferring a minimum of premium 95 petrol) under most circumstances, and a full tank would last well over 550km even with some spirited driving. In daily suburban trips with its associated school zones and traffic jams, it averaged between 6.5-7 litres per 100 kilometres. On a good day, 5.9L/100km. A bad one? 7.8L/100km. I have managed a low 4.9L/100km on a day trip of combined suburban and country driving and have seen a high of 10.8L/100km on an evening in horrible inner city Melburnian traffic.
Over a 66-month period, dealership servicing totalled $3,561. This included general servicing, replacing the brakes and related equipment (twice for the rear and once for the front), and replacing a dead battery. This does not include a full set of new tyres installed by a third party. That's pricey, considering I had optioned in a service pack ($850) at the time of purchase. On the flipside, the car had zero cosmetic or mechanical faults and proved reliable.
Second-hand vehicles of the same age and similar mileage are currently listed between $20,000-$22,000, which means purchasers of a brand-new MINI hatch expect to lose about half its value within five years. In my opinion, this makes them good value for money if you buy them used, especially for a car that scores this high on Fun, while having serious points in Style.
The day of the trade-in, I felt a little of what it's like to lose an old friend. I doubt we've ever seen a grown man shed a tear when parting with an old car, and I looked away so quickly that I wouldn't change my mind. Any rational person would say, "moving on to bigger and better things."
Bigger? An unreserved "Yes". Better? Well, that just got a whole lot more complicated. Today, I'm a little more senior (read: older) and a fair bit greyer on me noggin. But the memory of Little Angel Wings lives on in my heart. The spirit of a MINI goes fast and always has a blast. Now that, my friends, never gets old.