Review: MINI Cooper is fun and sporty but hardly petite

Mini it was but today's model range has become maxi and it can't be long before that much-loved/derided Maxi hatchback is reborn. Or maybe not. The chunky Austin from the late 1960s never did all that well and today fewer than 200 are on our roads.

The Cooper is a nicely planned car giving a proper Mini feel but fuel consumption is a bit high

It was only maxi in comparison with the mini of the day and even today’s Mini Clubman is larger in every direction. So too is the Mini hatchback, apart from in length. In gravitas, the sub-ton Maxi illustrates the meaty build of the modern Mini.

John Lennon pitched an early Maxi into a ditch on a narrow road in bad weather in June of 1969 at Golspie in the Highlands, confused by an oncoming foreigner, he said. He was staying on a croft in Durness, Sutherland, where he had loved holidays as a child. He and Yoko and their children were not too badly hurt and Lennon later had the apple-white Maxi on show at his mansion near Ascot.

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It’s a reminder of times when superstars made long-distance family drives. Legend has it that when Ringo Starr bought the mansion from Lennon he had the Maxi crushed to extinction.

The Lennons had headed north in a customised Mini Cooper but had swapped to the roomier Maxi in Liverpool. Who knows, maybe Lennon wouldn’t have crashed the nimbler Mini, but he was not a skilled driver. George Harrison became the car expert in the band.

Maxi never had the success and charm of the Mini and after 12 years it was ended by British Leyland. It did illustrate the daft thinking at BL, where some clown said that no other BL model should be a hatchback.

The Mini was afflicted by a similar lack of vision. True, there was a small estate version and a pick-up, but it was never a hatchback until BMW gave us its MINI in 2000. The two cars had nothing in common, other than their similar names. BMW gives it caps. From here on in, Mini will refer to MINI unless stated otherwise.

Onwards. The Mini here is a Cooper, a bit faster than the plain One, thanks to a larger 1.5-litre, three-cylinder engine which gives 134bhp and 162lb ft of torque. The 0-62mph time is a feisty 7.9 seconds. Cooper prices start at £15,625 for three doors and four seats; or £16,225 with the more useful, longer, five-door, five-seater body on a lengthened wheelbase. A Cooper costs £1,550 more than the equivalent Mini One and has alloys instead of real steel wheels. To add to the mix there is a choice of three diesel engines for economy and a Cooper S engine for oomph. All variants are available with automatic gears and all bar the One as a two-door convertible.

What we have here is the Cooper Convertible, in a distinctive metallic green new to the model. From a base price of £18,475 you add £445 for the Caribbean aqua metallic paint and £740 for leather upholstery. The hood is hands-free and can be operated at low speed, as long as it does not conflict with traffic conditions and visibility. You can have it part-open, giving sunlight to the front seats, or right back, taking with it the side rails and folding in a ruff behind the rear seats. With the windows “down”, it is a fully open car. The stacked hood blocks the immediate view behind the car and so the reversing camera is almost vital.

This body format actually gives you an original feature of the original Mini, in the drop-down boot lid. The aperture is narrow but there is through-loading into the car, with levers which drop the rear seats.

It is a nicely planned car, giving that proper Mini feel which is lacking in spin-offs like the heavier and corpulent Countryman and Clubman. The convertible, for a price, has the true open-car experience.

Mini sales rose by a tenth in the first ten months to 56,508. That’s near enough to Citroën, more than Honda and Fiat, and comfortably ahead of SEAT, Volvo, Suzuki and Mazda.

It is a profitable franchise. Few buyers leave the showroom with a standard car. The demo car had a media pack (navigation, enhanced Bluetooth and audio and connection) for £1,400, and the Chili pack (including 17-inch wheels, multi-function sport steering wheel, sports front seats, automatic wipers and lights, LED lamps, climate control, the excitement pack – driving analysis – and another to guide you between sport, comfort, economy) for £3,200.

There were green lighting tones around the central display – that massive circle which recalls the central speedometer in the first Mini. I think I was in economy. This three-cylinder turbo petrol engine has a lovely soft and smooth feel – with power when needed.

The gearshift is just OK, with an awkward shove to the left to engage reverse, hampered by a long-travel clutch so you need to get your seating ergonomics sorted.

Verdict: No rivals in its class. Easy to like. A bit thirsty.