Say hello to the latest addition to the Auto Express fleet: our new MINI Cooper 5-Door. I’ll be spending the next six months getting to grips with the hatch, and learning what the current-generation MINI has to offer as it enters the second part of its lifetime following its recent facelift.
Those Union flag tail-lights are the dead giveaway that this is the updated model. However, infotainment and technology updates aside, there’s one thing in particular that interests me about this refreshed MINI.
Announced late last year, the MINI Yours Customised programme is the brand’s latest customisation service. Although it arrives virtually in sync with the updated model, all of the parts can be fitted to any third-generation car, even one made before the facelift.
For now, MINI offers customised 3D-printed side scuttles and dashboard facias, plus you can personalise illuminated LED doorsills and puddle lights. Just how expressive can you be? The truth is that it’s a mixed bag.
Customising 3D-printed parts such as the side scuttles and dashboard piece leaves you limited to the box of tools issued by MINI. That means a choice of five colours and five background patterns, a handful of icons and logos you can superimpose on top – plus, of course, the ability to enter text.
You can’t have any rude words printed on your parts, but the puddle lights and doorsills can be customised with a freehand signature. Still, with the tools MINI gives you, I managed to get creative, and before I knew it I had come up with a decent set of designs.
Our car has been kitted out with personalised versions of what we’re told will be the two most popular parts for customisation. Inside, you’ll spot a red 3D-printed dashboard, unashamedly branded with an Auto Express design.
Being a Sheffield United fan exiled in London, I managed to express some local pride in the side scuttles. And most excitingly of all, I visited MINI HQ in Munich to see our parts being made in a surprisingly intimate production process.
Project manager Thomas Schmitz told me that this is something MINI has wanted to offer its customers since 2010, although it can only be a small-scale operation for now, even eight years later than first planned. Just 15 people work in the 3D printing facility producing the custom parts. It’ll be difficult to make the department any larger in the brand’s current facilities, but a new, bigger home for the project is opening in 2019.
Producing the side scuttles requires a surprising amount of craftsmanship; your design isn’t just spat out by a computer in an afternoon.
There are seven major steps. Firstly, your design is reviewed by a human to ensure it doesn’t break any rules. Once signed off, the printing process begins. The parts are made of a powder-based nylon, thinly clumped and glued into shape. This leaves the parts encased, requiring a brushing down by hand, followed by a spin in an air blaster.
They are then passed on to the paint workshop, where they’re sanded smooth, again by hand, and painted. Once they are dry, final assembly takes place.
Understandably, the whole process can take days. It’s completely separate from the production line, which is why you can’t have the parts fitted from the factory; you have to sort it out yourself at home after buying them online.
Is it idiot proof? Not entirely. Swapping out the scuttles is a little fiddly, and it’s vital that you make sure the rain cover goes back in place perfectly, which is a bit awkward. The dashboard piece pops in and out with one tool and is overall very simple, and although we don’t have the doorsills, we did have a go fitting them on a car in Germany; they stick on top of the old ones with strong adhesive, so it’s best to take your time lining them up.
*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.