A mini battle

Written by Vikram Chaudhary | Updated: Nov 3 2012, 15:33pm hrs
In adversity lies opportunity. Not many know that the iconic small car, the Mini, was born out of the energy crisis in the 1950s. Modern history lessons tell us that with the Egyptian blockade of the Suez in 1956, the price of petrol shot up. And when the crisis forced the British government to introduce petrol rationing, British Motor Corporation (BMC), sensing an upcoming new market, set out to design a car that was affordable to run. (In fact, during the design stage, the Mini was called the New Market!) The revolutionary, front-wheel drive, compact design was created by Sir Alec Issigonis and by 1959 the car landed on British roads. The car was so successful that it became the small car icon of the 1960s. Its design such that even four decades later some cars keep getting inspired by the Minithink Suzuki Swift, Skoda Fabia. In the 1990s, the Mini went from BMC to BMW, when the German carmaker took control of the Rover Group, which included the Mini.

Here it must be added how Cooper got added to Mini. John Cooper, owner of the Cooper Car Company and a friend of Sir Issigonis, saw the potential of the Mini as a performance car and wanted to make a car for competitive events. So, he appealed to the BMC management and the two men collaborated to create the Mini Cooper. In fact, in the Mini world, Cooper treatment means making the car sporty!

The Audi A4, on the other hand, is a product of the 1990s and has been among the largest selling compact luxury cars across the world. India is no exception. In fact, it is because of the A4 that Audi has managed to become a serious luxury car player in India.

The Mini Cooper was launched in India at the Auto Expo earlier this year, while the Audi A4 was launched in 2009. Recently, a mid-life facelift to the A4 brought in a lot of subtle improvements to an already good car. Now, one might say that there is no comparison between a small car such as the Mini Cooper and a saloon such as the A4. We agree. But then, what unites them is the price (roughly R30 lakh). And to do justice to our comparison, we chose the five-door Mini Cooper Countryman (Cooper S and Cooper Convertible are three-door cars).

The Mini Countryman is the first member of the Mini family that is more than four metres in lengththis gives the car extra legspace as well as bootspace. But, surprisingly, the car maintains the Mini factor, which means it looks smaller than it actually is until you sit inside and realise how spacious the car is. On the outside, the Mini is an eye candy and, on our roads, the attraction it receives is massive. Features such as the horizontal roof line, hexagonal radiator grille, large headlights set into the bonnet, side indicator surrounds, capacious wheel arches, massive 17-inch wheels and vertical rear light clusters make it stand out.

Getting inside the Mini is easy because of the cars slightly raised seating position. The front seats are decently comfortable, as are the rear bench seats. There is generous legroom, headroom and shoulder room. The rear seats can be moved forward and backward, which means the luggage capacity in the boot is variable. But it is the dashboard of the Mini that stands outfrom large side to central air-vents, from central speedometer to the gearshift lever, everything carries a pronounced concave form.

The Mini Cooper Countryman is powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that produces [email protected] (135 kW), which is too good for a car this size and weight (1,400 kg). This power and a peak torque of 240 Nm (260 Nm with overboost)reflects into mighty acceleration and takes the car from 0-100 kmph in just under 8 seconds. The Countryman goes on to touch a top speed of over 200 kmph. While these figures are quite impressive, what is not is the comfort while the car is doing such speeds, and the cabin goes quite noisy. Although the cars handling is precise and never feels out of control (even at high speeds while cornering), a slightly stiff suspension means it is not as comfortable as the A4. In fact, the car wobbles on bad roads! As said earlier, the Mini was born out of a petroleum crisis and on the fuel-efficiency front it doesnt disappoint. Driven sensibly, the Countryman returns you about 13 kmpl. A good-looking car would make itself up too, and so you have a selection of as many as 11 body colours for the Countrymanfive non-metallic and six metallic. You can also customise the colour of the roof.

Coming to the new A4, the most noticeable difference from the old one is the headlamps, which now have a continuous band of LED daytime running lights, an Audi trademark. The new cars door mirrors are slightly smaller, thereby reducing wind noise. Audi has not carried out many changes inside, but a new gear lever and steering wheel mean the interior looks fresh. The A4s cabin quality was, and remains, what many feel, the best in its class.

The new A4 comes with three engine options1.8-litre TFSI petrol (125 kW), 2.0 litre TDI diesel (105 kW) and 3.0-litre TDI quattro diesel V6 (180 kW). While the 1.8 TFSI and 2.0 TDI offer decent performance and touch a ton in about 8.5 seconds, 3.0 TDI quattro gives the car a blistering performance (0-100 kmph in just 6 seconds). The amazing thing is that all the engines are quite frugal and the company-claimed fuel-efficiency figures for the three are 16 kmpl, 17 kmpl and 15 kmpl, respectively.

Where the car scores over the Mini, and massively so, is ease of driving (not driving fun, though), comfort and interior space. The A4 is supremely comfortable to drive around townthe electrically-assisted steering makes the car easy to park and manoeuvrebut its the highway where the car belongs and the A4 can stay at three-figure speeds all day long without giving the driver much discomfort. The rear seats are spacious and very comfortable, and the A4 remains among the finest chauffeur-driven cars. The drive on our not-go-good roads is excellent and pot-holes are barely felt inside the cabin. Audi, it seems, is bent on setting new benchmarks as far as making you feel good is concerned.

For R32.80 lakh (Mini Cooper Countryman) what you get is a terrific roller-coaster on wheels that attracts so many eyeballs that, beyond a point, you might feel odd about the way people look at your car. What you wont get is supreme luxury and space, though. From R27.85 lakh to R39.80 lakh (Audi A4) what you get is a product that is among the finest small saloons ever made. What you wont get is exclusivity, though. At the end of the day, this comparison gets reduced from being the one between a small car and a saloon to the one between heart and mind. Which do you answer first