Puerto Rico certainly counts as a destination off the beaten path to many a Malaysian.
It’s exotic enough to have me scrambling to do a Google search on its whereabouts.
Hokay! There it is - 1,800km south-east of Florida in the Caribbean and about as close to South America as Haiti or the Dominican Republic.
It looks small compared with other islands and land masses around but it’s a sizeable place as I soon discovered. In fact, at 9,104 sq km, it’s bigger than Selangor but smaller than Kedah.
I was there in February to try out the latest MINI. It was at the tail end of a month-long international media drive, based out of the swanky Dorado Beach Resort where rooms are US$1,700 (RM5,539) a night.
The Ritz-Carlton-owned property is a sprawling resort occupying a former grapefruit and coconut plantation with rooms overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, a stone’s throw away.
So imagine the magnificent view as you step out onto the balcony to welcome the breeze, inhale deeply the salt air and feel the calming effect of surf breaking onto shore.
It’s a delightful experience – and an agreeable setting for the third-generation MINI.
On drive day, keys were handed to the media crowd but not before they were treated to an opening act by US artiste Onita Boone, beachside, to mark the MINI introduction.
Singing “I Was Made in England”, Onita tailored the song to the occasion, delivering an entertaining performance that served to pump up the MINI hype.
During the day-long drive, I had the chance to sample the Cooper and the more powerful Cooper S.
They come with all-new engines that include a three-cylinder mill for the cheaper Cooper. A diesel MINI was also available but it will not be selling in Malaysia, as Euro IV-grade fuel is the minimum requirement.
To give a three-door hatch a little more practicality, the car has grown bigger this round, with wheelbase extended to expand rear seating and boot space.
The cabin shows substantially more changes than the outside, and there’s enough tech advancements in the car for MINI to ask for a price hike.
At a glance, the exterior may seemed to have changed little save for LED daytime driving lights, more prominent tail lamps and tweaks to the grille and other detailing updates.
One could be excused for mistaking this as a special edition of the outgoing R56 stock. But no sir, it ain’t.
This is the F56 MINI, built on a new front-wheel drive platform.
The so-called UKL (for unter klasse or entry level) will be the basis for MINI to roll out up to 10 new models in future.
UKL will also be used to build (horror of horrors but get used to it, people) front-wheel drive BMWs, the first of which was the recently announced 2 Series Active Tourer.
While the car’s façade and BMW’s formidable marketing machinery want you to think MINI is as British as Yorkshire pudding, it’s German precision engineering and innovations that have whipped this little car into shape and expand its iconic status into the 21st Century.
The interior simply bristles with change.
First off, driver and front passenger will immediately feel more headroom and elbow room on stepping inside. There’s a little more space for rear occupants but it’s still not the place to sit for long journeys. Seats are otherwise comfortable and supportive.
Things have been re-arranged and more features have been added to give a more premium feel.
The Start/Stop system is now a red toggle on the centre dash in the middle of the toggle bar, so you can’t miss it. Window controls are relocated to the doors.
Road speed and engine speed along with other key driving-related information is shown in the newly designed instrument cluster on the steering column as it should be.
The characteristic central instrument with an optional colour display of up to 8.8 inches in size provides feedback on operations performed using a meaty MINI Controller, which now looks like the BMW iDrive, in the centre console.
The previous one was a fragile-looking little stalk that jutted up.
The infotainment display is almost encircled by an LED strip that changes colour in response to tasks such as when starting the engine or when changing to one of three drive modes.
Unnecessary but a nice touch.
The new MINI Driving Modes allow an individual set-up involving not just the characteristic curve of the accelerator and steering but also engine acoustics, and in the Cooper S - where the relevant features are fitted - ambient lighting, the displays in the central instrument, the shift times of the automatic transmission and the characteristics of Dynamic Damper Control, the latter system being optionally available for the first time.
The modes SPORT and GREEN can be activated, via a rotary switch at the base of the gear or selector lever, in addition to the standard MID mode.
In conjunction with an automatic transmission, the efficiency-oriented GREEN mode also features a coasting function with decoupled drivetrain.
The range of optional driver assist systems has been expanded.
For the first time, there is an extendible Head-Up Display above the steering column, camera-based active cruise control, collision and pedestrian warning, high beam assistant and road sign detection, and also a parking assistant and a rear view camera.
The Cooper is powered by a new 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder petrol engine with a peak output of 136bhp/220Nm.
The Cooper S has a new 4-cylinder petrol engine that produces 192bhp/280Nm.
Both include turbocharging, direct fuel injection and variable camshaft control on the intake and exhaust side.
Puerto Rico offers a mix of expressways and narrow, winding and rutty roads that are similar to those in Malaysia.
While one expects the Cooper S to be smoother, quicker and more powerful, the 3-cylinder Cooper did a decent job at the business of driving.
Both cars offer seamless acceleration and are rev-happy.
The six-speed manual Cooper shifts fluidly through the gears and delivers enough power on level roads.
Torque peaks early from 1,250rpm and the engine never sounds harsh at higher speeds.
But with one cylinder less, the mill needs to be worked much harder to make the car climb mountain roads; the emphasis in this model is on fuel efficiency instead of outright performance.
I was told the Cooper will be specified with the 6-speed automatic, just like the Cooper S, for the Malaysian market when they arrive soon.
Handling, as in the Cooper S, is praiseworthy as poise and high mechanical grip attest to the MINI’s much ballyhooed go-kart reputation.
The bottom line: the MINI has grown up. It hasn’t lost its way despite the elaborate refinements that attempt to make it a better ride while calling out to a broader clientele.
And that is the way to go as far as MINI, or its parent company, is concerned.