Hard Times, Low Specs – a Cheap But Cheerless Mini
By Andy Bannister
The seemingly inexorable rise of BMW’s Mini division has taken a knock just lately, at least in Europe, where buyers have been downsizing their aspirations in search of better value small cars.
With Government scrappage incentives giving new car buyers big wads of cash in exchange for trading in their old wrecks, entry-levels prices have suddenly become all-important.
Hence the late summer launch in the UK of the Mini First, a value edition of the ubiquitous hatchback with a little of the normal content taken out and a downgraded engine which makes it – well, rather slow, in truth.
Costing £10,950 – $17,500 – before the scrappage allowance in the UK, the First undercuts the price tag of the previous base-model Mini, the One, by around £1,500 ($2,400), allowing the distinctive Brit to compete on more equal terms with its rather smaller Italian rival in the chic city car stakes, the Fiat 500.
The Mini First shares its 1400cc engine with the One, but its power output is down a sizeable 20bhp to just 74bhp, which really makes a difference bearing in mind the significant weight of the Mini compared to the European city hatch norm. The standard 1600cc Cooper, by contrast, has 120bhp, and the Cooper S 175bhp.
As a result, acceleration from 0-60mph takes the Mini First a glacial 13 seconds. While economical enough in terms of fuel consumption, it has fairly high carbon emissions for the class, making annual road tax higher than some rivals – a big deal for drivers on a tight budget.
Outside, the First is distinguished by some rather nasty plastic wheel trims. Interestingly, its pricier brother, the One, does without these altogether, being one of the few cars available anywhere nowadays with steel wheels as standard, unadorned by any hub cap. Personally I think these give a nicely retro feel and look far, far better than the plastic dustbin lids.
The First also makes do without the One’s standard air conditioning (it’s a £665 – $1,050 – optional extra) and buyers of the model are banned from upgrading to factory fitted alloy wheels, sat-nav or cruise control.
It’s not all bad, of course – the Mini is one of the nicest-to-drive small cars around today and, despite its lower power, the First is a pleasant enough place to be, with the handling finesse and refinement of all the products from the Oxford factory.
Undoubtedly a few buyers who’ve always wanted to get into a Mini but couldn’t quite stretch their budget may now be able to plump for a First. However, I can’t help feeling they will feel short changed every time they press the accelerator or catch a glimpse of their car’s reflection in a plate glass window as they drive through the city.
In its 50th anniversary year, Mini is making the most of its heritage and much of the publicity it is deploying harks back to the original Alec Issigonis design which (rather loosely) inspired the current model.
The marketeers who put together the Mini First package clearly weren’t brave enough to recall the spirit of those really basic Minis which made up the vast majority of the five million or so made.
They had rubber mats instead of carpets, the most rudimentary seats imaginable, a single speedometer in an otherwise completely empty dashboard, no radio, and indeed almost no interior equipment whatsoever.
They were among the most affordable cars available, though, and great fun because they were just so simple.
As an exercise in pared-down penny pinching in order to add a few extra sales the Mini First will no doubt be a modest success, but the model itself is unlikely to evoke such fond memories in future generations.
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