These Minis will talk back to you

Minis have always been cars with personality. The 2010 Mini 50 Mayfair and Mini 50 Camden special edition models go one step further, with multiple personalities — three “people” that talk to the driver. The personalities will either put a smile on your face or make you want to rip their cute little tongues out. Either way, it’s an entertaining way to ride.

The Camden isn’t the first car to talk to the driver. Previous attempts have consisted of statements such as “Seat belt off” or “Hand brake on.”

The Mini’s three — a personable “coach” and two assistants, might convey the same information, but in the most amusing way. Called Mission Control, the three will audibly perform a vehicle system check, fuel level check, comment on the outside temperature, engine temperature, dispense advice on driving style or just exclaim “Let’s Miniiiii…..”

Mini says there are up to 40 different statements based on 120 different driving situations, but drivers will probably just hear a dozen or so most frequently. The information is encoded on an SD memory card in the upper glove box. A button disables the system once a driver finds the system has worn out its welcome. At this point the system, with its one female and two male voices — all with an English accent — is only available in English. In the future new languages, or different sets of statements, could be as easy as a computer download away.

Mini calls the system an entertainment system and entertaining it certainly is.

Based on regular production models, the Mini 50 Mayfair and Mini 50 Camden packages add between $4,500 and $5,000 to the cost of a Mini coupe (the package is not available on the convertible or Clubman). The silver Camden has such niceties as B-Xenon headlights, sunroof, Harman/Kardon audio system and two-tone cloth/leather seats. The chocolate-coloured Mayfair has warm (Mini calls the colour Toffy) coloured full leather seats, auxiliary lights and some of the same options as the Camden. Both are available in the regular Cooper or the more powerful Cooper S.

My tester was a Camden model equipped with an automatic transmission.

Apart from the equipment package, the special-edition cars are like any other production Mini. Our car was powered by a 118 horsepower four-cylinder with 114 lb.-ft. of torque. This engine may not be the choice for those wishing to eke the most performance out of the regular Cooper. Acceleration and performance was decent but not memorable. It was entertaining holding the transmission in manual mode but it got noisy real fast. It’s main forte is excellent fuel economy, with 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway and 7.9 in the city. Power hungry drivers should opt for the Cooper S with its 172 h.p instead.

Our tester had the six-speed automatic. Steering wheel shifter paddles are an extra $100. Like the rest of the BMW line, the driver needs to pull back when in manual mode to shift up, as opposed to the more common push forward to upshift. When left in manual mode, the transmission automatically shifts up when it reaches redline.

Due to the modest power, I used the manual mode on my backroads test. The problem was that the car always shifted up just when things got fun. Mission control sent mixed messages. One voice went “Wheee” and the other constantly admonished me to shift up for fuel economy but adding “That does sound good” or words to that effect.

I never talked back but the drive got me thinking — imagine eventually being able to record your own voice and program the Mini to tell your teenage driver to slow down or remind them when curfew time is approaching. Priceless.

Not that one would lend the Camden to a teenager willingly. With it’s dual sunroof, creature comforts and upgraded audio system, it’s a keeper for most adults. The only caution would be the covers for the large sunroof are only screens, not shades. They will let in light — and heat — on a sunny day.

Seats are comfy and well bolstered. The dash is grossly over-styled — especially the grandfather-clock sized speedometer sitting at the centre of the dash, but that’s become part of the Mini’s charm. There is no centre armrest. The audio-in and USB socket are located at the bottom of the centre stack.

The Mini is a 2+2. Leg and headroom are tight in the rear and the usual contortions are required to get in the seats. The seat backs fold 50/50 and the resultant floor is not flat. The rear seats can only be folded down from the trunk, giving the cargo an extra bit of security. The cargo cavity is small but boxy and easy to load.

Mission Control won’t launch rockets but showcases how far audio interaction has progressed. Although only available in the two special edition models for now, their inclusion in other models — and other cars — is likely as the system’s vocabulary increases from the 40-odd quotes now available. It may be just for entertainment today but perhaps one day it can be interactive and voice-activated. Imagine speaking a command and the system acknowledging it audibly — shades of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For now Mission Control is mission accomplished for Mini if it gets enough tongues wagging and chequebooks open.


Type: Compact two-door hatchback, front engine, front-wheel-drive

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine, generating 118 h.p at 6,000 r.p.m., 114 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,250.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Dimensions (mm): Length, 3,699; width, 1,683; height, 1,407; wheelbase, 2,467

Price (base/as tested): $24,000/$32,835 (includes $1,695 freight and PDI)

Options: Camden package (includes leather, sunroof, upgraded audio, 17-inch alloys and tires, Mission Control, etc.) $4,850, automatic transmission $1,390

Tires: 205/45 R17 performance run-flat tires on alloy wheels

Fuel economy (L/100km): 5.7 highway/ 7.9 city; regular gas

Warranty: Four-years/80,000 km and roadside assistance

Photograph by: Handout, Times Colonist