Seeing the latest Mini is a bit like seeing a familiar friend, noticing something different about them but not being sure what it is - a fresh hairstyle, a sun-filled holiday, some new threads? It has had a makeover so complete that almost every one of its parts is different, yet it takes the sharp-eyed to spot the changes. The easiest way to identify this latest version is by its lights, which at both ends flaunt more fashionable sculptural lenses. Some may notice a redesigned grille on the Mini's slightly longer nose.
That nose is one of the major reasons for the makeover: impending regulations require a softer front to cushion the impact in an accident. BMW also wanted to equip the car with new, more efficient engines. It also needs to boost production: the car has been such a success that the Oxford factory where it is made has been running at double its planned 100,000 cars a year - not an efficient way to operate when the product is notoriously low-margin. It will now be able to pump out 240,000 without difficulty.
This Mini is cheaper to make, though it's hard to spot the cost-savings once aboard - a cruder-looking interior light, for instance, some slightly cheaper-looking plastics in the lower half of the dashboard. Yet, if anything, the cabin looks even richer and classier. The dashboard is dominated by the biggest speedometer ever, the size of a dinner plate. That will reassure buyers who like their Minis just as they are - almost all of them, BMW's research indicates. The redesigned front seats are now much easier to slide, recline and fold, curing a major failing of the old model.
But the most significant advance is the Mini's new engine, producing a lusty 175 bhp in the turbocharged Cooper S tested here - vastly more economical and less of a global warmer than of old. Whereas the previous 163 bhp supercharged S engine managed 32.8 mpg while putting out 207 g/km of CO2, the new one achieves 40.9 mpg and 164 g/km, a substantial improvement. It's also a little quicker. But just as crucial for Mini fans is whether the car's engagingly eager character has been preserved.
The answer is yes, at least in its ultimate Cooper S form. It's as keen as ever, the slicker six-speed gearbox allowing you to exploit turbo thrust that's evident from 2,500 rpm, making overtaking easy. Still more important is the Mini's ability to dart around corners like a puppy chasing Andrex. It invites keen cornering, protecting you with an excellent ESP anti-skid control that subtly reins in excessive enthusiasm.
This Mini is fun. It's also easier to live with. The ride is less rude now, the whines of the old S have been banished, the steering is lighter for parking and there are many improvements to its usability, the fiddly new air conditioning controls excluded. So, yes, this new Mini is better - even if you can't see it at first glance.
Price £15,995 (Mini Cooper S)
Max power 175 bhp
Max torque 170 lb ft
Max speed 140 mph
0-62 mph 7.1 sec
Fuel consumption 40.9 mpg
CO2 emissions 164 g/km
Ford Fiesta ST £13,595
Less expensive, especially with a discount. Good fun, practical but not
as swift or stylish.
Renault Clio Renaultsport 197 £15,995
Same price, more powerful and as much fun. More practical but lacks
Mini's cheeky charm.