You have to get close to the new MINI-Cooper S to spot the differences. Really close.
Virtually every panel in the car, with the exception of the bulkhead and floorpan, has been changed, yet it's hard to tell at first glance. And with that the company has succeeded in making this all-new MINI totally successful.
Evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Yet the changes are important, ranging from new engines through to better safety for pedestrians to improved ride and handling and a bit more space inside and in the boot.
In short, the essence of the BMW Group's first MINI has been retained, but a lot of problem areas have been improved upon or fixed altogether.
The main speeches at the world launch of the new car in Barcelona were in German and this, I suspect, was aimed at underscoring how BMW engineers have refined and improved upon the old Rover Group design and injected it with Teutonic thoroughness and design excellence.
Yet at the same time the car is more British than ever before, with, for the first time, engines assembled in the UK, as well as most of the rest of the car.
We went to the main MINI factory in Oxford and saw cars being built, but we were also told that parts, including the motors, come from two other factories in the UK, less than an hour's drive away.
The most interesting new feature, of course, IS the engine, which is still 1.6-litres capacity, but has been engineered by BMW and comes complete with BMW VALVETRONIC variable valve timing as well as, on the Cooper S, a twin-scroll turbo-charger, direct injection, and an intercooler.
Production engineering, however, was done by PSA (Peugeot-Citroen), and although it wasn't clearly stated, I think engine parts are made in France before being shipped to the UK for assembly.
There is, as with the last series, a MINI-Cooper version which comes without the turbo, as well as 1.4-litre petrol and diesel versions which are unlikely to get to SA for a while, although the diesel might make it one day.
The new car is already being churned off the production lines in Oxford, ready for massive release on November 18, which would have been the 100th birthday of the original Mini's designer, Alec Issigonis.
Yet the current MINI sedan is also being built to complete orders placed before the new car was announced, while "old shape" MINI Convertibles, which were only introduced in 2004, will still roll off the lines at Oxford for a few years yet, complete with the original Brazilian-made engines, supercharged in the case of the MINI-Cooper S.
The new car gets a new interior, too, some parts of which we loved, some bits we didn't, but the overall feeling is better rather than worse.
Big speedo dominates the dashborad - useful at speed.
At the same time the new car moves slightly away from the utilitarian look of the original, and closer to the sort of refinement BMW is used to offering.
Key points which spring immediately to mind are:
- The bonnet is longer and higher, both to make room for the new engine, and also to cater for new pedestrian protection laws planned for 2008.
- The headlights are now built onto the bodywork, not the bonnet, and instead peep out through holes cut in the latter.
- The direction indicators are incorporated into the headlights for a cleaner look.
- The grille is more rounded, with a deep matching under-bonnet air intake
- The air intake on the bonnet of the Cooper S is more stylised.
- The rear has a diffuser-look panel under the bumper, and a twin-pipe central exhaust.
- Rear lights are different.
- Mirrors are changed.
Inside the car:
- The big central speedo is now even bigger so the optional satellite navigation display can be slotted in the middle rather than the previously inelegant solution of moving the speedo.
- The toggle switches remain, but are a different design.
- Ergonomics are better, but I'm not sure I like the cheap-looking "boom box" silver-grey plastic switchgear.
- Two men (I tried it myself) can sit in fair comfort in the back without feeling cramped, provided the driver isn't lanky, and the journey isn't too long.
- A 6-speed manual gearbox is standard on both Cooper models.
- There's also the option of a proper 6-speed automatic transmission. Paddle shifters will be an option and the CVT 'box has been retired.
- Airbags abound, with dual, side and curtains making a total of six in all.
- The front suspension has been changed with 8mm more wheel travel.
- A round signal transmitter takes over the functions of the conventional door and ignition key, with proximity unlocking without using the key.
- The engine is started and stopped using a pushbutton.
As mentioned, this was predominately designed by BMW, and it shows. A very free-revving unit, the Cooper S produces 128 kW, which equates to more than the magic figure of my youth of "100 brake horse per litre".
Torque is a big plus point on both engines thanks to the variable valve timing, with the Cooper S having a quite extra-ordinary maximum of 240 Nm maintained consistently between 1 600 and 5 000 r/min, over-boosted to 260 Nm under maximum acceleration, such as when overtaking.
This equates to 0-100 km/h in 7.1 seconds and a top speed of 225 km/h while retaining a much-improved 6.9 litres/100 km in the EU test cycle
The Cooper clicks out a lot less, of course, but is still very lively at 88 kW with 160 Nm of torque, enough to push it from rest to 100 km/h in 9.1 seconds, and on to 203 km/h. Fuel consumption is 5.8 litres/100 km.
On the road
We managed to get in quite a bit of driving in and around Barcelona and into the Catalunya region, and although traffic sometimes conspired to slow us down, got more than enough feel for the car.
No Cooper variants were on offer, but we got to drive Cooper S models with and without the optional sports suspension.
And what a wow!
I'd forgotten just how direct the steering is on the MINI Cooper S, how quickly and easily it responds and turns-in. Some of my colleagues found it a little too direct, but I revelled in being able to get through really tight corners at a quick pace without having to feed the steering through my hands.
Right-left-right was more the order of the day, and it made for rapid progress without puffing and panting from effort!
The Cooper S, though not perhaps as punchy right from the bottom of the rev range as the old supercharged version, picks up pretty quickly, and once on the boil - above 2 000 r/min - is easy to keep there.
The new suspension also equates to phenomenal grip, especially on the stiffer sports version, with very flat cornering which keeps the wheels firmly on the ground.
Even MINI-Cooper s have to wait for a cycle race in Spain
I got more chirps from the tyres with the standard suspension, and there seemed to be a touch of body lean (such as it is) but quite honestly, given the poor state of South African roads, I'd choose the ordinary suspension rather than the firmer package for home use.
The gearbox ratios were nice and close, but the weighting on the gearshift action made it less precise than I would have liked.
Although I didn't have any hairy moments, one of my colleagues from overseas went from fourth to second by mistake and blew the top off the engine!
The brakes were excellent, with big discs back and front. At one point after climbing then descending a steep river valley with tight turn after turn they were a bit smokey, but I didn't encounter even a trace of fade.
The new dash layout is very nice, with the rev counter still moving up and down with the steering column, and there's also reach adjustment.
Controls are much easier to fathom out than before, and you also get a few extra ones such as seat heater switches, while the front loader CD/radio is now part of the centre console.
However, as mentioned I found the perceived quality of the switches less than expected, though, in true BMW fashion, they'll probably outlast the rest of the car.
There are a lot more options, including wood panelling, plus an "ambient light" interior package which makes the car look a bit nightclubbish inside.
The new MINI-Coopers will be a bit more expensive than the current models when they get to SA next March, but that will be down to them having more features.
Plant Oxford, as the Germans call it, is gearing up to produce more cars, but I'm betting there will still be long waiting lists.
It's highly unlikely two identical cars will leave the plant on the same day, such is the breadth of the option list, but the good news is that you can change your mind about what you want on your car up to seven days before they start to build it.
Now THAT'S a boggling thought!