A collection of brightly colored MINIs line-up neatly outside Plant Oxford, the marque’s original manufacturing site in the UK. From a distance they could be mistaken for toy cars. Up close though, these are nicely finished, immaculately painted vehicles with refined features and resting on a selection of striking wheels.
I’m here to sample the 2021 MINI range which includes the three and five-door Hatch, the soft-top Convertible and the Electric — all of which have undergone a design refresh and technology update. Changes are subtle to include restyled grille and lights to blend more harmoniously with their surroundings. Inside the driver interface is digitalized, while the oversized circular display unit is decluttered for a more intuitive user experience. There are a host of driver assist and safety tech on-board this car too with the go-kart drive feel, so central to the MINI experience, also optimized.
The new MINI launch is timed to coincide with the marque’s twentieth birthday in its second life under BMW Group ownership. Looking at the colorful collection before me, I’m reminded of what a remarkable success story this modern MINI project has been. After all, this was one of those ideas that could have easily backfired since the initial attraction was purely nostalgic. And while retro design has its charms, it can feel tired after a while. Not so much with MINI. The marque has successfully carved a neat little family of products designed around a single car and a tightly defined theme.
The portfolio includes the main sellers, the Hatch and Convertible, the larger Countryman and racy John Cooper Works as well as a slew of super niche products under the Sidewalk label. Aside from the cars, there is a clothing and product line. Then, through the MINI Living project, the marque is exploring how an archetype urban carmaker can evolve to become an urban lifestyle brand via a series of conceptual temporary dwellings and a multi-use residential building currently operating in Shanghai.
It makes complete sense for MINI to have a wider long-term vision. There is only so much you can do with the cars since the design elements — the volume and stance, the circular comic-style lights, the oversized graphics inside which are all subtle nods to the Sir Alec Issigonis 1959 original — are what makes a MINI unique. You play too much with the proportions and graphic icons and you stop being a MINI. Instead, the brand has concentrated its efforts on tailoring unusual color pigments and material applications. For instance, the 2021 MINIs can be ordered a novel painting technique called Multitone Roof.
Head of MINI design, Oliver Heilmer, says his team have worked to make the car’s design “more modern, fresher, clearer”. His brief was for the new innovations to follow a common mission to offer less complexity and more individuality. The larger radiator grille now has black, hexagonal surround, while the position lights have been replaced by vertical air inlets to optimize aerodynamics and the central bumper strip is in body color rather than in black for a more subtle expression. The wheel arch has new contours, the side indicators have been redesigned to feature LED technology and the rear fog light is integrated into the apron as a narrow LED unit.
Central to the 2021 MINI theme are the highly graphic wheel designs. Five are available in a mix of 17 and 18-inches with names like Tentacle Spoke, Scissor Spoke, Pedal Spoke, Pulse Spoke and John Cooper Works wheels in Circuit Spoke black design. They successfully bring the MINI expression closer to product design than cars.
Inside feels less busy since the shiny chrome elements of the previous models have been largely edited out. Elsewhere, the air vents have been completely redesigned, embedded to be flush with the interior surface. The audio control unit, warning lights and driver assistance systems are now integrated into the 8.8-inch circular color touchscreen display for an altogether visually quieter cabin experience.
To drive, the new MINI retains its trademark go-kart feel. The ride is notably refined on the new cars thanks to an updated version of the adaptive suspension which provides an optimized balance between sportiness and ride comfort using continuous frequency-selective damping. An additional valve acting on the traction side takes over the task of smoothing out sudden pressure peaks within the damper. The damper force is adjusted within 50 to 100 milliseconds and, depending on the driving situation and road conditions, the damping forces can be reduced by half.
Driving the MINI Convertible through the rolling golden hills of the Cotswolds around Oxford, the cloth-roof half lowered to let in just enough sunshine, I cannot help but love this car. My parents drove the original Mini, as did so many youthful Londoners then. My father taught my mother how to drive in a black one. The Mini was the star of The Italian Job and, alongside Mary Quant, Biba and The Beatles, became the symbol of youth liberation, fun, freedom, the Swinging Sixties. The name holds such a powerful place in our collective memory.
The new capitalized MINI may be bigger in size, more luxurious inside and offer a refined drive, but it somehow retains the care-free spirit of the original. Observing the polished, quiet cabin around me, I am reminded of how much the modern MINI has matured in the last 20 years. Gone are the huge circular graphics and almost comic book looks. Mostly, I’m thinking of this vibrant brand story carved out of a single tiny affordable urban car. As the automotive world navigates the second age of transport, MINI’s strength will be in its agility to evolve as a brand to be more than a maker of just personal motor cars.
See MINI’s future outlook with Vision Urbanaut, read about the MINI Electric, racy MINI JCW GP and MINI Living