Cynical ruse or deft reinterpretation of an iconic classic? That's the question facing BMW's modern-day MINI brand.
Whatever you think about modern MINIs, one thing is for sure: MINI Connected is one of the very best infotainment systems currently available on any car at any price.
Yes, it really is that good. OK, much of it is derived from parent company BMW's iDrive platform. But it's much more than just a parred down, cheapo version of iDrive. It's much better than that. In fact, when it comes to things like apps and iPhone integration, it's just about impossible to beat.
What is MINI Connected?
MINIs are best known for two things: style and peppy driving dynamics. But here's the thing: the modern MINI's strongest feature might just be its infotainment system.
Intriguingly, the system BMW has cooked up for MINI runs iDrive very close indeed. MINI Connected isn't quite as sophisticated as the very latest fully featured iDrive implementations but it's still a very powerful system, and what it certainly does do is capitalise on BMW's know how while adding a very particular MINI-themed twist – it's all about seamlessly integrating your car with your smartphone.
So, what do you get with MINI Connected and how much does it all cost? The basic system costs just £210. Exactly what you get with this solution, we're not sure, since it doesn't include the large central LCD display, the navigation or Bluetooth and USB connectivity.
In any case, to that you can typically add £1,345 for navigation, and anywhere from around £400 to £700 for full Bluetooth and USB connections, depending on the MINI model in question. Features such as voice control and DAB can add even more. If that sounds steep for cars with a base prices that start around £11,000, fortunately, one thing the modern MINI brand is big on is feature packs. For £1,300 to 1,700 - again model-dependent - the Media Pack gives you all of the above and more.
In the context of the £1,345 usually charged for just the nav, it makes no sense at all. But ours and yours is not to reason why. Just tick the box and ignore the madness. Compared to what's available elsewhere on the market, it's decent value, even if it looks pricey compared to most examples of contemporary consumer electronics.
Still, all of that makes MINI Connected sound like most other car infotainment platforms. But it's not. Central to MINI Connected is the idea of tight, seamless smartphone integration. Actually, we should be a bit more specific, because when it comes to MINIs, there's really only one smartphone - Apple's iPhone. Other brands and smartphone operating systems don't get nearly as much love from MINI Connected.
While that's restrictive, it does allow MINI to concentrate on honing and polishing the user experience. And anyway, iPhone and MINI is a natural fit. Highlights include piggybacking on the iPhone's internet connection in order to provide a number of online apps and services including internet radio, social networking and navigation send-to-car, as well as the ability to pipe parts of the iPhone interface directly onto the MINI's main LCD display.
What's MINI Connected like to use?
Part of the set up process involves downloading and installing the MINI Connected app for iPhone. Currently it's compatible with iPhones 3GS, 4 and 4S. So, one of the central ideas here is a system that's not stand-alone, but rather augmented by your phone. That's interesting, because in theory it means your car's infotainment system gets an automatic upgrade every time you buy a new phone.
If you're familiar with BMW's iDrive, you won't struggle to find your way around MINI Connected. It shares the same basic principle of twiddling a wheel to navigate the main interface. But instead of a large wheel, MINI Connected features a smaller control stick.
Just like the iDrive wheel, you can rotate the stick to scroll through menus, tilt side to side to move around the interface and press to select items. Just ahead of the stick are a pair of shortcut keys, one for Home and another to quick-jump between the three main interface sections – navigation, communication and entertainment.
As for the interface itself, well, it's pretty gorgeous. The screen is essentially a high resolution widescreen LCD mounted in the central speedo with graphics tuned to hug the speedo's inner circumference.
In terms of logic, it's pretty similar to BMW iDrive. You scroll around menus in much the same fashion. But it has its own unique graphical character. It's much more slick and polished than the competition at this end of the market, and we reckon it'll take a fair few years before it looks dated.
Is the navigation any good?
Now, when it comes to factory-fit navigation, everything is relative. On the one hand, MINI's official navigation system blows most built-in car navs out of the water. You get crisp, easy to read map rendering thanks to support from parent company BMW and a quality, high-resolution LCD display. You also get full postcode support for the UK. Hallelujah.
Our only serious functionality beef with the built-in navigation involves route planning. We did some pretty extensive driving across both Europe and the UK in tandem with a TomTom stand alone sat nav unit. As a general rule, the TomTom was better at adjusting to routing changes on the move and tended to deliver routes with shorter overall durations.
On occasion, the MINI's nav system refused to pick up on what was a fairly obvious – and crucially, quicker - route alternative offered by the TomTom. Intriguingly, it almost always chose at least a slightly different route from the TomTom, too, which just goes to show there's plenty of value to be added when it comes to navigation.
The navigation system also has support for Google-powered local searching, assuming you have an iPhone wired up (more on connecting a iPhone in the next section). It's definitely preferable to an old fashioned built-in POI database, but our impression of this particular Google service is that it's heavily filtered to the point where things you're looking for go missing. It's certainly early days for this kind of Google service.
Another handy connected service (again, dependent on the presence of a connected iPhone) is Google Send to Car. As we explained on our BMW iDrive page, the drill here is plotting a route on your PC or Mac using Google Maps and then firing it over the ether to your car via the internet. It's a seriously convenient way of planning routes.
One thing you don't get with MINI Connected's navigation, however, is really detailed traffic information. You'd think MINI would capitalise on tight iPhone integration to pipe over traffic data from Google maps. Sadly not – it's the same old RDS-TMC based low res traffic data that's been around for yonks and was never much use.
You also miss out on a database of speed cameras. For now, then, MINI's nav still lags well behind the best after market system. That said, it's definitely one of the best factory-fit systems and probably sufficient for everyone - short of road warriors who clock up major miles and demand the very best features.
What about smartphone integration and Bluetooth?
If MINI Connected's interface and navigation is top notch, the connectivity is even better. For starters, there's a Bluetooth interface in A2DP trim enabling a wide range of mobile handsets to sync for both voice calls and music streaming.
However, iPhone 3GS, 4 and 4S owners have another option. They can connect physically, either via a special Y-cable to the USB and 3.5mm jack in the centre console or a docking bay in the centre arm rest. The latter is one part of the MINI Connected setup we haven't quite got to grips with. How or if it differs from the Y-cable connection, we're not sure, since our test car was not fitted with the required adaptor.
What we can say for sure is that the Y-cable enables the full range of functionality and keeps your iPhone charging, too. It's also worth noting that you can't stream music via Bluetooth when you have your iPhone physically connected. That's a shame, because it tends to kill the sense of seamless integration. In an ideal world, you'd have the option of streaming even if the handset is physically connected.
Internet connectivity and apps
Again, this part of MINI Connected feeds off an iPhone. Once connected, you must ensure your iPhone's MINI Connected app is running. With that enabled, you unlock the MINI apps. The current list varies from the mundane and not terribly useful to the intriguing and essential. Here's a quick tour the most prominent apps:
Does what it says on the tin. If you like web radio, you'll love MINI Connected
Configurable RSS-based news feed. Sounds interesting in theory, but we're not convinced we'd make much use of it. You won't be reading news on the move, and when stationary you'd probably rather pick up your handset. The system can read to news to you via the voice control feature, but it's not a terribly natural or pleasant way to keep up with the news.
Twitter and Facebook apps
These are pretty rudimentary and more tilted towards keeping up with friends' and contacts' status updates rather than posting your own. Currently, you can only post pre-baked updatesanyway. However, it is possible to edit the pre-baked update options so you can post something specific. It's just so fiddly, you may as well use your smartphone.
Eco driving is all the rage and MINIMALISM is a data logger than will help you tune your skills. It logs all kinds of info including fuel consumption and emissions, speeds, gear change points and all that jazz. It's similar to Fiat's eco:Drive.
Google Send to Car
As per our overview of the nav system, Send to Car enables you to plan routes on Mac or PC and ping them via the internet straight into the MINI's nav system. Bloody useful.
Happiness is driving a MINI. So says Mission Control. Literally. If you're being fancy, you'd describe it as a context- aware audio information system. In practice it bleats out initially amusing but rapidly tiresome quips about fuel levels, outside temperatures and more. Check out this Mission Control video for a flavour.
The idea here is to select music from your iPhone's music library based on prevailing driving conditions and styles. Does it work? Unfortunately, we can't comment, since this was one of the few features we didn't fully use.
In many ways, PlugIn is one of the most intriguing and yet disappointing MINI Connected features. On paper, it enables your iPhone to fully drive the MINI Connected display. Currently, it actually involves showing an old-school iPod interface for music playback. It's not pretty (believe it or not, the signal is analogue) and navigating your music collection using MINI Connected's own interface makes much more sense. However, the potential for piping all kinds of apps onto the MINI's display is very interesting indeed.
And what about the ents?
Beyond the iPhone-enabled media functions, DAB radio is either optional or available as standard on certain models. Our car wasn't fitted with the optional Harmon Kardon sound system, but the standard system will be punchy and powerful enough for most owners. In audiophile terms, the bass extension isn't terribly rich or detailed and the sound stage is pretty flat. But in this market segment, it compares well.
Verdict: Do we rate MINI Connected?
Put simply, MINI Connected is industry-leading in terms of iPhone integration and offers a prescient alternative to the monolithic, factory-fit systems offered by many car makers. In some ways, that includes BMW's own iDrive. Shifting some of the onus of feature and app provision onto smartphones makes an awful lot of sense.
Of course, MINI Connected ain't perfect. The social networking apps, for instance, feel like checkbox features rather than something actually useful. It's also limited by the fact that smartphone support is focused on Apple's iPhone to the detriment of Android and Windows Phone users - although if you had to pick one smartphone platfrom for the typical MINI buyer, we suspect iPhone is bang on.
More irritating is the slightly bonkers pricing. Bought in constituent parts, it's offensively pricey. Pick up the media pack and it's merely expensive.
In fairness, punitive pricing for in-car tech is an industry-wide problem. In comparative terms, what matters is that MINI Connected is well ahead of the curve. If you're in the market, for instance, for a MINI Coupé and you compared the Peugeot RCZ for similar technology, you'd be shocked just how rudimentary the French car is. What's more, as good as MINI Connected is, we reckon it's going to get better and better as the updates roll out. Watch this space.