Mini's new-age diesels on test

AT A GLANCE

- For the first time, Mini is offering diesel engines in Thailand. Parent company BMW Thailand says the late arrival of such motors is due to the country only starting to introduce Euro 4 fuel quality this year.

- Although Mini is currently selling six models in the Thai market, just three have received the diesel options including the Hatch, Countryman and Coupe. The other three less popular ones _ the Roadster, Convertible and Clubman _ are only sold with petrol variants.

- Mini is using one engine with two outputs: the Cooper D with 111hp/270Nm and Cooper SD with 143hp/305Nm. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit is shared with those in the BMW 320d, 520d, X1 20d and X3 20d, albeit with different engine mappings.

- While most of BMW's applications are mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, the Minis use a six-speeder instead. Paddle-shifters are available in all Minis.

- Due to higher production costs and a lack of diesel excise tax incentive in Thailand, the diesel-powered Minis are more expensive than the petrol counterparts by 250,000 to 300,000 baht.

- In spite of the price premium, Mini hopes to attract Thai punters with the diesel's advantage of superior torque (better drivability) and economy levels nudging 20kpl.

COUPE

Of the three Minis to be available with diesel power, the Coupe is the only model to come in one trim _ SD, which makes sense because clients of this two-door Mini are most likely to have sporty tastes.

Initially, you might be surprised that Mini has chosen to offer an oil-burning alternative for the Coupe, which is mostly regarded as a model that requires no money-saving measures by buyers.

For starters, buyers who fall for the Coupe should be ready to make inevitable compromises such as a controversially styled roof that backfires with low all-round driving visibility.

And the Coupe's firmly sprung suspension _ meaning great handling but an uncomfortable ride _ and the rear spoiler that pops up automatically at speeds above 80kph don't pave the way for a diesel to fit into such a sporty driving car.

It’s better to drop the ‘D’.

However, the SD diesel treatment still works in the Coupe to a certain extent. With more than 300Nm of torque, the Coupe Cooper SD is an effortless performer at all speeds.

You'd hardly have to rely on kickdown of the automatic gearbox to get moving around in a convincing manner. Actually, that has always been the merit of today's diesel engines, thanks to a turbo that comes alive at early engine speeds.

Despite the generous amount of torque, the Coupe's meaty chassis contains grunt. It's still difficult to unplant the front end even when the traction control system is turned off.

The Cooper SD is nearly a second slower than the petrol-powered Cooper S when you look at the claimed acceleration figures on paper (see graphic), but you can hardly feel this deficit when driving.

If you can forgive the clatter the diesel makes at idle speeds, the Cooper SD could be a perfect weapon for swift and economical driving outside the city and, of course, if you can live with the 300,000 baht premium it commands over the Cooper S.

However sensible the Cooper SD might seem, we'd still give it a pass and pick the Cooper S any day. Here's why:

As said earlier, the Coupe is about sportiness, which is why the Cooper S fits the bill better.

The 184hp 1.6-litre petrol turbo engine sounds much, much better, both when accelerating and approaching the engine's limit, has lots of revs to play with (up to 7,000rpm) and feels equally alive in performance at all times.

Oh, and more fun costs less.

Coupe is the sportiest of all Minis.

COUNTRYMAN

If diesel performance really had to make good sense in any Mini, that model would be the Countryman.

First, this baby SUV should be the least performance-oriented of all Minis because it's most likely to attract buyers with a family bearing utility in mind.

In fact, Mini reckons that the Countryman could become the bread-winner for the brand in the future (sales figures already speak for themselves in the Thai grey market).

More good news comes from the fact that the diesel-powered Countryman carries a 250,000 baht premium over the petrol versions, unlike the 300,000 baht space of the Hatch and Coupe.

Okay, it would, literally speaking, take years to start gaining on the savings the D and SD offer at the fuel pumps. But fuel economy is not particularly the whole point in the Cooper D, for one.

If you compare the diesel Cooper D against the petrol Cooper in real-world driving, it's the former that yields a more pleasant driving performance. The Cooper D feels more accelerative in a straight line, as well as punchier in the mid-ranges.

Of course, you will always feel that the Cooper D is the lesser performing diesel. In other words, you'd expect a 2.0-litre diesel-turbo to do better than this, just that it has been handicapped by a restrained ECU for the sake of economy and pricing. Yet, the Cooper D rarely feels sluggish partly because it doesn't have the four-wheel-drive hardware SUVs usually tote (it's a pure front-driver).

Because of this, it makes perfect sense for the four-wheel-drive, dubbed ALL4, to come with just the SD treatment because there's an extra 85kg weight penalty it has to carry.

Yes, the Cooper SD feels significantly faster than the Cooper D, clearly confirming the near-2sec advantage it boasts on paper in the 0-100kph run.

And with a 16.4kpl average economy rating, the Cooper SD is only 1.5kpl thirstier than the Cooper D. Now, that's if you're okay with the 450,000 baht premium the Cooper SD commands.

How then should you rationalise the diesel notion in the Countryman, you might ask? Do it like this, if we put prices aside.

The Cooper D makes perfect sense for urbanites needing a daily car and who might have been contemplating purchasing a petrol Cooper.

The Cooper SD would suit those who do frequent upcountry driving where its superior power and all-weather traction make for a more confidence-inspiring drive.

We are already suspecting that you are eying the lesser of the two.

HATCH

Contemplating which engine variant to go for in the Hatch? The pioneering derivative probably has the most difficult task of all the Minis to go diesel in Thailand.

Well, not really, and here's why. If you had already read the verdict on the Countryman, the same could easily be said for this three-door hatchback.

If all you crave is spicy looks and decent kit (the basic One version can be left out here, despite its sub-2 million baht starting price), then the Cooper D does the trick.

And since the Hatch is lighter than the Countryman, performance in Cooper D is more spirited on the move. The claimed acceleration figures are good proof: 10.1sec vs 11.3sec.

Combine this with the extra driving agility the Hatch boasts, it's quite a fun car to drive _ and still good-looking _ among all the Minis.

And if you want some real kick, there's the beefier performance of the Cooper SD. But the price difference in the Hatch's case is an eye-watering 500,000 baht.

And like in the case with the Coupe, performance-minded punters of the Hatch might just settle for the petrol Cooper S, cheaper by 300,000 baht at 2.84 million baht.

Which, in the end, makes the Cooper D more logical, if you need a diesel Hatch.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Richard Leu
Position: Motoring news Editor