I’M NOT quite sure why cars have to look so brutish. And why any attempt to make them look smiley or cuddlesome always ends in catastrophic failure. The Nissan Micra is a good case in point here. “Ha!” we laughed when we first saw it. And then “Ha!” again, when the company offered it in Katie Price pink.
BMW has softened its cars a very great deal in recent years but today, even the models that are powered by electricity are still designed to look as though the body has been stretched to its limits to cover the wheels and the engine. It gives the impression of a night club bouncer, his suit barely containing his gigantic muscles.
In fact, there’s only one BMW that does not do this. The X3. And that’s why, stylistically, it is a sad, sweet dreamer. One of those things BMW can put down to experience. A Noddy car.
When a car is designed to look like a big cat of some sort — and many have been over the years — it’s not the feline grace that stands centre stage: it’s the haunches. Because it’s the haunches that hint at the power and the speed. That, and a low, snuffly nose.
Any car that looks sweet looks wrong. Because sweet is weak. Sweet implies that it may cry soon, and want to watch a rom-com. And nobody wants that. Not even sweet people who watch rom-coms. Like I said at the start, I don’t know why.
When a car is designed to look like a big cat of some sort ‒ and many have been over the years ‒ it’s not the feline grace that stands centre stage: it’s the haunches
At this point, you may be jumping up and down while pointing at the picture that accompanies today’s column. “What about the Mini?” you’ll be squeaking. Everyone likes that. Yes, I agree. But only if it’s festooned with stripes and snazzy decals and various other things that make it about as sweet as a plate of underdone beef.
Even if you’re a 22-year-old girl who works in a nail salon, you are buying a Mini because deep down in your limbic system you know its predecessor won the Monte Carlo rally three times. And because it used to give much more powerful American muscle cars a bloody nose at the Crystal Palace racing circuit.
I will admit, however, that in the vast horde of motoring animals, the Mini is different. It looks friendlier than all the other cars. More puppy-dog sit-up-and-beg. It’s a clever trick. But only if, like a puppy dog, it’s capable of biting your ankles . . .
Which brings me on to the new model. It’s longer, wider and a smidge taller than the already quite large previous model, which has caused many to wonder whether it can realistically be called a Mini any more. Well, you can wonder all you like, but the reason it’s bigger is because it’s almost impossible for a small car to meet the EU’s new safety requirements. The downside of living after an accident is that you can never find anywhere to park.
Actually I’m not that bothered by the increased size, but I do wonder why it doesn’t translate into extra space on the inside. The back seat is small and the boot is a joke. You open the gigantic tailgate expecting to find a Victorian’s ballroom in there. And it’s more like an After Eight box.
There’s something else too. The new Mini Cooper comes with a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine. It’s very clever and almost certainly runs on polar bear drool, and it’s surprisingly refined. But powerful it is not. That body and that name and those stripes are all writing cheques that the engine cannot cash.
The figures suggest that all is well. They say that the body may be bigger than before but that it’s lighter. They also say there are plenty of torques and lots of juicy horsepower, but when you put your foot down, it’s about as exciting as being in a deep, dreamless sleep. It steers nicely, handles well and despite the fitment of wood-hard run-flat tyres, the ride is complaint as well. But there’s no point having the ability to go round a corner at two million miles per hour when the engine’s all out of ideas at 42.73535mph.
Powerful it is not. That body and that name and those stripes are all writing cheques that the engine cannot cash
And trust me on this, you can be that accurate about the speed you’re going because the car I tested was fitted with three speedometers. There was one where you’d expect, and another — as an option — in a fighter-jock head-up display, and then another, surrounding the big, dinner plate-sized command and control centre.
Though to be honest, this speedo in the middle of the dash could be all sorts of other things as well. Many things. All of which were startling and completely unfathomable. Suddenly, and for no reason, it would turn orange. Occasionally, it would flash madly. And then it would go all pastel and lilac. After many days, I worked out that it did this as you approached a turning you needed to make. Lilac: the internationally recognised “alert” warning colour.
“Oh no. We’re at Defcon 4. Sound the lilac alert.”
Then, whoa, what’s this? One of the orange lights to the right of the first speedometer has just gone out. What could that mean? It turns out this is part of the fuel gauge — a fuel gauge that, incidentally, is bigger than the actual fuel tank. You’ll be filling this car up a lot.
Hand on heart, I have never driven such a confusing car. I appreciate that it always takes time to adjust, as when you switch from a PC to a Mac, but I never did get to grips with the Mini. One button turned on the anti-collision system and then, when you pushed it again, you got a message saying you’d turned it on again.
Another engaged your iPod. But then no matter what I did with it, it wouldn’t play any of my tunes. Then you have the Sport, Mid and Eco mode switch. Play with that and you’ll do two things: go more slowly, and send the third speedo into a New Year’s Eve on Sydney Harbour Bridge frenzy.
I liked the old Mini. I thought it was a hoot, a clever blend between serious and not serious at all. A Steve Coogan car — half Martin Sixsmith, half Alan Partridge. One minute you were hurtling along at a million and the next, you were being let off a parking ticket because, well, because it’s a Mini. This new one, though? Hmmm. Some of the cheekiness — and practicality — has gone because it’s now so big. And I really can’t get my head round the blend of that Cooper name and a three-cylinder engine. It would be like calling your 15ft single-screw cabin cruiser “Thunder Rider”.
But I can quite understand why you aren’t listening. I could explain until I’m blue in the face that the Ford Fiesta is a better car and that the Fiesta ST is one of the all-time great hot hatchbacks. But you want a Mini. I get that.
So. It’s probably best to spend a bit more and buy the Cooper S, which has a 2-litre engine and therefore plenty of oomph, or save a bit and buy either the basic One, or even a diesel. Certainly I wouldn’t bother wasting your cash on too many of the options or you’ll end up with what the company sent me: a £25,000 mobile discotheque.
Clarkson’s verdict ★★★☆☆
It’s not mini and it’s not a Cooper either
2014 Mini Cooper specifications
Engine: 1499cc, 3-cylinder
Power: 134bhp @ 4500rpm
Torque: 162 lb ft @ 1250rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Performance: 0-62mph: 7.9sec
Top speed: 130mph
Road tax band: B
Release date: On sale now