Back in 1959 when the first batch of Minis rolled off the production line few assumptions followed the unique vehicle. Back then it would have been slightly fanciful to assume that over fifty years later this diminutive model would be still going strong. But to think that in 2011 there would be a diesel-powered Mini that needs less than four litres of fuel to cover 100km, well that would have seemed unbelievable. Mini’s latest Cooper D can do exactly that, but achieving an exceptionally low fuel economy figure isn’t always enough. Present day buyers want fuel frugality as well as more traditional desires like comfort, style and dynamic ability. Can the updated Mini Diesel deliver in full? Car and SUV took a spin in the 2011 Cooper D to see if the future has arrived.
Cosmetically the Mini hatch shape hasn’t been severely restyled since BMW first created the ‘new’ Mini back in 2001. There have been a number of modest tweaks and the 2011 facelift continues that tradition with some subtle changes inside and out. The front end is modernised with a new bumper arrangement that has a broad lower air intake and recessed fog lamps. Use of chrome trim on the air intake adds visual width and further chrome work on the grille and surrounding the headlights dresses it up nicely. At the back there’s new LED taillights and a replacement rear bumper.
There’s little to distinguish this as a diesel model save for the ‘D’ badging and a slightly more pronounced bulge in the bonnet. The pepper white paintwork and contrasting black areas on our test subject is certainly eye catching while the chrome trim is more subtle, featuring on the door handles, hatch grab bar and along the window line. The Mini remains beautifully boxy and the shape works as well now, as it did 10 years ago. Aesthetically there’s nothing to suggest the economical nature of our test Cooper D, especially with optional 17-inch 2-piece alloys adding sporty flair.
In the Cooper D cabin there’s a new-look centre console and updates have been made to the dashboard and door trims. Everything is round, oval or at least curved and the massive speedo with its retro numbering remains the centrepiece. If glancing over to check the speed isn’t your thing, there’s a handy digital speed display in front of the driver as part of the tachometer. All switchgear is easy to reach but can be fiddly to work especially for thick fingers. The buttons and dials are arranged in an interesting but usable layout with toggle switches adding another touch of old school cool. There’s some nice detailing too with subtle touches like an oval chrome glovebox button and blue LED lights behind the door handles. The materials used are high grade and build quality is finished to BMW’s exacting standards. The only small disappointments come with the lack of a centre armrest/storage bin and no stereo controls on the leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Standard equipment on the Cooper D includes power windows and mirrors, remote central locking, start/stop technology and a single CD Stereo with Bluetooth and USB input. The list of optional equipment is extensive and ranges from various customisation tweaks to bi-xenon headlights ($1,500) and sports suspension settings ($440).
The standard seats are finished in a dark fabric, are comfortable and offer various manual adjustments but could be better bolstered for lateral movement. Sports seats with heavier bolstering are a $690 option. In terms of space the Cooper D interior is understandably compact. There’s plenty of headroom thanks to the boxy exterior design but it works best as a two seater. The back seat has headrests and seatbelts for two, but anyone taller than Danny Devito will struggle to be comfortable there. In the hatch there’s only 160-litres of space but fold down the rear seat back and that expands to a handy 690-litre capacity. There’s also tie down loops so you can secure your load before chucking the Cooper D round some corners.
That brings us to the 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel engine which is the Cooper D’s most distinguishing characteristic and the source of its epic fuel economy. The BMW sourced unit has been tweaked to now produce 82kW of power and 270Nm of torque that’s an increase of 2kW and 30Nm over the previous model. The extra power hasn’t come at the cost of fuel economy either which is rated at 3.8l/100km combined. So how exactly does the motor do it?
The Cooper D powerplant uses a range of tricks to keep fuel use down, like common-rail injection and a variable-geometry turbocharger. A switchable alternator, electric water pump and regenerative braking also do their part in lessening the crankshafts load. It’s a clever engine and while 1.6-litres is a small displacement for a diesel mill, the Cooper D has some pep and punch.
The 0-100km/h sprint will be covered in 9.7 seconds which isn’t overly quick but the Cooper D is much more impressive when it’s already rolling than from a standing start. A generous dose of torque is delivered through the mid-range making for assured overtaking moves and rapid movement between corners. Push the diesel Mini too high in the rev range and it will run out of breath but this is definitely no dull and lifeless eco machine.
The Cooper D is only available with a six-speed manual transmission, but don’t be put off, it has a great feel to it. The clutch take up is light and the chrome shifter fills your hand. To get the most performance or the minimum fuel usage you’ll want to stay busy on the gear changes but it’s a transmission that invites use and helps make this Mini an engaging drive. The automatic stop/start feature can be used at the driver’s discretion to save a little more diesel. To engage the system and turn off the motor you need to come to a stop (at the lights) put the gearstick into neutral and take your foot off the clutch. Once the clutch is reengaged the engine will start again, you put it back into gear and off you go. It does take a little getting used to but it’s easy to work and doesn’t disturb the stereo and air-con. If the battery begins to get low, the system will restart the engine and recharge it.
Handling dynamics is one area where the Mini really excels over other economy-focused vehicles like the Toyota Prius or Ford Fiesta Econetic. The Cooper D is no different to its petrol-powered brothers in its ability to dispatch corners with absolute ease. It’s agile, turns in quickly and there is plenty of feel for the driver through the front driving wheels. The suspension feels tailor-made for changing direction quickly with the low body keeping flat mid-corner and the electric power steering giving that signature Mini go-kart feel. The ride is certainly set at the firm end of what you’d expect in the light car segment and while some bumps and dips can be felt in the cabin they are rarely jarring. Refinement is mixed, there is some road noise audible through the tyres and the engine does clatter a little at idle and when cold, but once up to speed it’s a smooth unit.
The Cooper D safety systems include a clever Automatic Stability Control and Traction Control system, which is unobtrusive and diligently prevents torque steer at the front wheels. Other features include ABS braking, a cornering brake control system, a six-airbag package and a collapsible steering column that acts as a protective shield during a collision.
The Mini Cooper D makes a strong case for itself with its remarkable fuel economy, which will lead to money being saved in running costs. Mini continues to do retro styling better than anyone else and it’s a stylish machine inside and out. But its biggest strength is offering the low consumption while remaining fun to drive through its strong mid-range pace and go-kart handling characteristics. Like any Mini hatch there are compromises to be made in interior space and the dashboard layout won’t suit all tastes. There are a growing number of cars that can achieve similar fuel economy to the Cooper D but for baseline driving enjoyment this little Mini remains a big step ahead.
Price: from $38,900
What we like:
- Excellent fuel economy
- Fun to drive
- Safety features
- Retro styling still looks great,
- Dynamic ability
What we don’t like:
- All the best kit is optional equipment
- Controls can be fiddly
- Back seat and hatch space
Who will buy this car? The eco conscious that enjoy a good steer and Mini fans who want low running costs.
Cool Factor: High. Minis stand out as being different among other cars and the Cooper D stands out as being different among Minis.
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo