WHEN I watched the last of the original Minis roll off the Longbridge production line in October 2000, it was in the presence of Sixties popstar Lulu, to the music of the film The Italian Job, followed by a pint and a sandwich, writes David Duffy.
That relatively low-key event marking the end of a motoring era suited to perfection the down-to-earth character of an incredible little car – first launched for £497 in 1959 – that offered the many their first opportunity of motoring.
It is a measure of how far upmarket BMW has moved the Mini brand in the past 14 years that this week handfuls of British journalists were whisked off by private jet to Majorca to test the third generation of the Oxford-built Mini on the twisting roads of the holiday island.
Pictures do not do the new car justice. For while it looks superficially similar to the outgoing model, it is not only bigger but also more refined, more efficient and packed with levels of technology usually associated with top-end luxury cars.
Priced from £13,750, it is more than four inches longer, just over two inches wider and even a fraction higher. It is also lighter, more streamlined, with a lower centre of gravity and, crucially, built on a lighter chassis with a longer wheelbase.
As a result, passengers are treated to a welcome increase in head, shoulder and legroom particularly for those sitting in the back.
The interior feels more robust with higher-quality materials, a revised look for the dashboard and a step-change in technology. Between the front seats is a rotary controller, along with a host of optional driver-assist systems including self-parking and collision avoidance braking, and a range of apps.
The speedometer has moved in front of the driver leaving the large central display filled with satellite-navigation, performance and diagnostic graphics, all surrounded by a glowing rim of colour-changing LEDs.
Under the bonnet is a choice of five engines, two diesels and three petrol, including a four-cylinder, 2.0-litre engine for the Cooper S that puts out 189 horsepower, all linked to new six-speed transmissions.
It was in the Cooper S that we tackled the toughest of the mountain roads on Majorca’s west coast, which it handled sublimely.
If anything, the combination of quiet ride, smooth engine and glued-down handling was just a little over-competent and lacked a little of the raw edge of its predecessor.
The other model I tried, the Cooper D, holds out the alluring prospect of exceeding 80mpg in day-to-day driving.
Enthusiasts have clearly been so impressed by the advances made by the new Mini that dealers took 4,000 advance orders before the car goes on sale on Saturday.