2014 MINI Previewed: Engines & Transmissions

The secret has been out for years now that MINI and BMW will be introducing a new family if 1.5L three cylinder engines destined for small front wheel drive cars. But would MINI be replacing all four cylinders with equivalent 3 bangers? Our sources are now telling us that the three cylinders are just part of the story. According to people internal at MINI familiar with the matter, the next generation of Cooper S and JCW models will be powered by the entirely new 2.0L four cylinder that will be shared across all front wheel drive BMWs and MINIs. Power and MPG are expected to be up as well as potential for tuning. And while both engines represent big leaps for MINI, we believe it’s the the massively more capable 2.0L that will get enthusiasts salivating.

So one new car and two radically new engines. In fact one source has told us that spotting the differences is quite easy – even under the yellow and black swirled camouflage. If you see a MINI prototype with one exhaust pipe it has a three cylinder engine. If it has two in the center, it’s a MCS or JCW with a four.

MINI intends on spreading the three cylinders across the MINI One and Cooper models initially. Sources are telling us that power ratings should be slightly higher than the current range on both the three and four cylinder models. But it’s the efficiency gains and the weight losses that are the big story. We’ve been told to not be surprised to see US Spec Cooper achieve upper 40 mpg figures on the highway. Additionally the engines should be measurably lighter and allow for better weight distribution front to rear.

Ultimately we believe that the three cylinder engines will not only make their way to the hatch based models but also other MINIs as well. For instance don’t be surprised to see the base Cooper Countryman eventually get the ultra efficient power plant in a late cycle update.

Another update will be the packaging. In most markets MINI will be adding a hard plastic engine cover under the hood (or bonnet) designed to insulate the engine and make it cooler and more economically. How it works we don’t know but our sources were adamant that it could be a way for MINI to dress up the engine compartment while reducing noise and adding some level of efficiency.

The four cylinder will be shared across all front wheel drive BMWs and MINI with output ranging from 180 hp all the way near 300 hp in some future BMWs. Yes it will be that capable. Will MINI see those kind of figures? It’s too early to tell but we can expect top-line JCW models to be much more competitive when it comes to power output.

Transmissions

Through sources close to the development of the new MINI, we’ve heard rumors of two different transmissions under consideration. The first rumor points to an Getrag sourced 8-speed dual clutch transmission. The second points towards ZF sourced 8 or 9 speed conventional automatic. Either option would be a huge improvement but we have a hunch we know which it is.

First lets take a look at the rumored 8 speed DCT. For those who know the technology behind the DCT, this is a huge improvement. While the transmission will default to a fully automatic mode optimized for fuel efficiency and drivability, it’s better to think of a DCT unit more like a manual minus the clutch pedal. Gone is the torque converter — the “slush box” that can so readily suck the fun out of a car like the MINI while adding weight, dulling performance and penalizing gas mileage. Instead, a good DCT transmission can give you back some of the control and direct engagement of a manual, but with the convenience of flappy paddles behind the steering wheel.

Then there’s the rumored 8 or 9 speed auto. While this is a traditional auto in the sense that it has a torque converter, it’s much closer to a DCT in the way it changes gears and matches revs. If rumors are correct, this auto will be used for all front wheel and all wheel drive BMW and MINI products in the years ahead. It will likely feature (just like BMW’s similar 8 speed) a full lock-up and will shift as fast as a DCT while offering greater refinement and fuel economy. Given BMW’s reliance on ZF’s current 8 speed auto and the success it’s had not only in increasing performance and efficiency but cutting own on warranty claims, we’d guess that’s the way BMW will go with the new MINI.

Either option give MINI dramatically more gearing and a greater opportunity for efficiency. Depending on the final ratio, that many gears ought to both hold the power band in the lower gears and stretch the fuel economy in 7th and 8th (as is the case with BMW’s current 8 speed ZF automatic). In any case, the final experience will come down to the software than runs the unit. Will it be crisp, instantly responsive and predictable? We’re hoping and expecting so. The cryptic, inconsistent gear change responsiveness of the current unit is our biggest complaint by far.

Manual fans need not fret just yet, either. The F5X/F6X MINIs will still have manual transmissions as standard. Our information is that the changes will be incremental.

According to sources inside MINI familiar with future product features, the US market will finally see an auto start/stop system for both manual and automatic transmissions with the F56. The first version of auto start/stop made a European debut in 2007 and since then MINI USA has been interested in adding the feature to US bound cars.

The reason for the delay is two fold; there’s been little incentive since the EPA doesn’t recognize such systems in an overall efficiency index and the bigger concern is that the system isn’t free. Again, according to those same sources it adds over $200 per car, thanks to the beefier starter motor, the added electronics and programming. MINI USA couldn’t absorb that cost and didn’t want to pass it on to the consumer. But as BMW has moved to add the technology to almost it’s entire fleet, that price is rapidly decreasing as volume of the system is increasing. Likewise things are changing in the US that make the technology more relevant to the way the EPA measures efficiency- there is an added benefit to automatic transmissions with the current EPA test procedure. This makes a much stronger argument for bringing the system stateside.

We expect the system to debut with the next generation MINIs – the first (the F56 hatch) set to debut in the fall of 2013 as a 2014 model. After that MINI will roll-out other derivatives (the five door hatch, the convertible, Clubman etc) that will all share the technology. Other MINI models such as the Countryman should see the system added over the lifecycle as well.

The system will work identically to the current set-up, which is the second generation of the system. On the manual the Auto Start/Stop function switches the engine off automatically when the car comes to a stop, such as at intersections and in traffic when the car is placed in neutral. When the clutch is depressed to shift into a gear the engine reignites. The manual setup will also feature a shift point display in the cluster that advises the driver of the most efficiency-enhancing moment to change gear and the proper gear to be selected.

On the automatic, the system engages (ie the engine turns off) when the driver comes to a complete stop while in “D” and pressure is applied to and remains on the brake. To start the car again the driver simply lifts their foot off the brake (as they would normally) and the engine seamlessly engages.

The system protects the engine by not allowing the start/stop function until the car is up to proper operating temperature. Likewise it won’t engage if the ambient temperature is too hot or cold or if the demands of the climate control are not being met. The system is able to be turned off manually, detects stop and go traffic (disengages) and can be overridden by turning the steering wheel or relaxing pressure on the brake pedal.

It seems all a bit backward to US that the EPA hasn’t had the forsight to change it’s system of measuring to include such systems. It’s pretty clear that auto start/stop saves fuel (and potentially a lot of it) in commuting situations. It’s nice to know that MINI will finally be taking the initiative (as BMW has). We have long term experience with the European version of the system and have seen the fuel economy gains.

Power and MPG figures won’t be know for quite some time but expect modest increases in power and torque across the range. However in terms of efficiency MINI is ready to finally live up to its name with the new 3 cylinder.