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Pampered pet finds its roar


POWER: The Countryman (pictured), Mini's full-sized Crossover competitor, and the Convertible, pack a real punch

POWER: The Countryman (pictured), Mini's full-sized Crossover competitor, and the Convertible, pack a real punch

POWER: The Countryman (pictured), Mini's full-sized Crossover competitor, and the Convertible, pack a real punch

IF the big beast of the Celtic Tiger years was the SUV parked ostentatiously, blocking the pavement outside a primary school, then the Mini was its pampered pet.

Sales have soared since the relaunch of the Mini under BMW ownership in 2001. Nearly 6,000 had been sold up until last week, with the peak in 2007, when almost 1,400 were registered.

The following year, things began to slip a bit, with sales down to 1,118, but in 2009 they fell off the cliff altogether, with only 288 Minis registered.

There was a limited recovery in 2010, with 373 registrations, and in the first three months of this year 202 units have been sold. Of these, 82 are the new Countryman, Mini's full-sized Crossover competitor.

Industry insiders say there is more than anecdotal evidence to show that many of the Minis sold during the boom were bought as presents by developers for their daughters and girlfriends.

The cost of accessorising the brand also needed a well-pumped wallet or at least an understanding bank manager -- and there were plenty of the latter around.

Sales are still soaring worldwide, outpacing the market by spades, but the car probably needs a bit of a rebrand over here.

Nevertheless, I have always had a soft spot for the Mini, both the Issigonis original and the BMW one designed by Mark Stephenson. And it doesn't just go back to memories of my rally-driving, Mini-owning girlfriend in the late Sixties and her long legs, short skirt and fiery personality. They are great cars to drive, with masses of passion and control, even though I find getting into the Countryman a lot easier than I will entering the soon-to-be-launched coupe version.

Last week, I spent a gorgeous day in the west of England, driving Minis around Somerset and Wiltshire. The occasion was the launch of the new Cooper SD diesel versions across the Mini range.

This diesel packs a mighty punch and should push even more Mini purchases into oil-burning territory worldwide.

Although the split is already 73 per cent in favour of diesel in this country, the SD gives Mini the real pulling power it needed in diesel form.

Over Salisbury Plain and up through the Mendips, the Mini at last has the grunt to really pull away, while still keeping the great dynamics of the breed. It was good in the Countryman but even more fun in the Convertible when my colleague and I put the roof down, changed our names to Claude and Justin, and really gave it wellie.

Mini says the 2.0-litre/143hp unit will deliver more power, frugal fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions. This is why the company has decided that for the first time the Cooper S badge will grace a new diesel model. Not only will it be the most performance-oriented diesel Mini, the Cooper SD will also feature the largest-displacement power unit ever to grace the engine compartment of a Mini model in the marque's 52-year history.

The two-litre, four-cylinder power unit follows the design philosophy of the familiar 1.6-litre engine but produces 143hp at 4,000rpm -- almost 28 per cent more than the Cooper D and nearly 60 per cent above that of the One D. It has a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 8.1 seconds in the Hatch.

The Mini SD features the Minimalism technology to eke ever more miles from every precious litre of diesel. The result is good. While the MINI Cooper SD Hatch will whizz effortlessly up the Col de Turini above Monte Carlo, it sips fuel at the rate of 4.3 l/100km and emits a mere 114 grams of CO2. Even the Countryman four-wheel-drive (ALL4) version only puts out 130g/km.

The price for the basic hatch Cooper SD model is €26,510 and rises to €33,510 for the All4 Countryman. This isn't cheap. I was struck on our test drives by just how many extras were loaded into the cars. The prices soared accordingly.

At the launch, Mini made much of the way an I-Phone can interact with the car and give everything from music to match your driving style to a fully interactive sat nav.

At least it gives a function for the otherwise-useless, dinner-plate-sized speedo, which sits on the middle of the fascia as a homage to the old Minis.

My memories are better.

Sunday Independent