inREVIEW: MINI One vs. BMW 1 Series 116i

Words & Photos by Francois Steyn & BMW SA

Both the MINI One and BMW 1 Series (5-door) 116i are entry-level models of a premium brand. Both are German and powered by 1.6-litre petrol engines. Apart from that they could not be any more different. Here’s why:

For starters, the MINI One test car was black and the Bee-Em 1 Series was white. But jokes aside let’s see what’s what.

The MINI One's 1.6-litre petrol engine comes with Valvetronic technology that produces 72 kW and 153 Nm torque. That’s about 20% less power than the standard (R30k more expensive) MINI Cooper, but still enough to get the little MINI to 100 km/h from standstill in a claimed 10.5 seconds. It will also go on to do 186 km/h. Claimed fuel consumption for the One is a frugal 5.4 l/100 km and it burps out an eco-friendly 127 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

My wife owns a 2002 MINI Cooper that produced 85 kW when new, and at speed you can feel this entry-level MINI One has less go when overtaking for example. Using the six-speed manual ‘box to keep the revs in the happy range, it's quick enough and pretty nippy on take off.

BMW 116i
Even though it also only has a 1.6-litre power plant, the 1 Series uses BMW’s TwinPower Turbo with double VANOS and 4-valve technology to produce maximum power of 100 kW at 4 400 r/min and 220 Nm of torque from very low down. This enables it to reach the 100 km/h mark a full two seconds quicker than the MINI One and only runs out of punch at 210 km/h. Thanks to ECO PRO mode and Brake Energy Regeneration the BMW’s claimed consumption figure is basically the same as the MINI, at a claimed 5.5 l/100 km for the combined cycle. Even CO2 emissions are only 5 grams more per kilometre.

On paper the BMW is almost 40% more powerful that the MINI, but it doesn’t feel that much faster. In part it must be due to the weight difference, but personally I think the MINI’s sporty persona deceived my perception somewhat. The BMW has some noticeable lag if you don’t keep the revs up during upshifting under hard acceleration. But get this right and you’ll drop the MINI in no time.

MINI has always been famous for its outstanding (watch out, cliché following) go-kart like handling and the One is no exception. It is not as taught as the Cooper (not even our 10-year-old model), but this allows for a much better ride even on dirt roads. This was further proven by the belly not scraping the ground in the apple orchards we visited for our wedding anniversary. You can feel the One is a tad less direct when suddenly changing direction, like when you’re overtaking a slower car in that small gap in the oncoming traffic.

BMW 116i
The test car had double-spoke, 18-inch rims with wide rubber and in Sport mode the suspension is bone-jarring stiff. Together with the super-direct steering there is nothing I can fault the handling of the 1 Series on. Being rear-wheel drive also frees up the front wheels to do what it’s supposed to do.

Both cars have more than enough modern safety features, such as countless airbags, Anti-lock Braking System, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Dynamic Stability Control and Dynamic Traction Control. The MINI also has ASC+T (Automatic Stability Control + Traction) to prevent the front wheels from spinning and help you pull away as fast as possible under limited traction situations. You can switch off the traction control, and on the BMW you can select Sport+ (as opposed to Eco, Normal or Sport) mode to partially disable the computer aided traction. All of these features only really come into play when you’re way over the limit, as both cars have huge amounts of mechanical grip.

This always comes down to personal preference, but the 1 Series BMW is just too mainstream and popular that you don’t really notice them anymore. I would not hold it against anyone to say the same about the 10-year-old body shape of the MINI, but personally I still notice a MINI when it drives by.

The inside of the BM looks like any other BM: all serious and functional. It’s got iDrive and my test car had the optional navigation package, which is fun until you’ve played with it for a day. The MINI’s interior is the exact opposite. A large speedo in the centre between the driver and passenger and rev counter on top of the steering column where you can’t miss it. Point being: it’s fun inside a MINI all the time. A BMW needs to be driven hard to fully enjoy it.

Before I picked up the cars I really thought that the rear-wheel drive, TwinPower Turbo BMW would be my clear winner, but I’d put my money down on the MINI One any day. I must admit that the sub-200 grand price tag might have played its part in my decision. Also bear in mind that the base price of R273 000 for the 116i would be far in excess of R300k if you add up all the optional extras this one had.