The latest Mini Cooper is a very different hatchback to the original R50, but remains fun to drive and is more polished than ever
Since BMW brought the Mini brand back from the dead in 2001, the Mini Cooper has been a stalwart in the supermini class, combining funky looks and an entertaining driving experience with typically high quality German build and tech. The current third-generation model has been on sale since 2014, moving to a new set of underpinnings shared with other BMW models.
This decision to move the Mini onto a shared platform with other models within the BMW line-up was made to help spread costs and include high-specification technology, but in the process relegated the sophisticated, but expensive platform of the previous two generations of Mini to retirement.
As of 2018 the standard Mini hatch, along with its five-door hatch and Cabriolet variants, received a gentle update, upgrading tech, adding new LED lights front and rear (more on those later), as well as tweaked engines to further improve MPG and CO2 figures. Question is, does the new Mini Cooper address the issue we had with the pre-facelift model’s fairly staid driving experience?
Engine, gearbox and technical specs
Unsurprisingly, both the three- and five-door models share the same engine and gearbox choices. All are front-wheel drive, driven through either a six-speed manual or a new seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The manual is preferable, its shift quick and pleasingly accurate, while Mini’s pedal spacing is such that heel-and-toe accelerator-blipped downshifts are easy to master. The automatic’s swift enough, even if it’s prone to the odd bout of confusion, though you can always take over via wheel-mounted paddles if you want to get more involved.
The new Mini One now utilises the same 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine as the rest of the range, replacing the older 1.2-litre PSA-derived unit that underpinned the old Mini One. Despite the rise in capacity, the new engine’s lack of a turbocharger does soften mid-range performance slightly, not that the previous Mini One was a particularly high-performance model anyway.
The Cooper’s three-cylinder is a much more effective unit, but works best in the mid-range, as so many modern petrols do. This is not a powerplant that relishes revs, a fact compounded by the Cooper’s impressive refinement, but still makes decent enough progress when hustled. Vibrations are impressively suppressed, and the standard six-speed manual transmission is fast and accurate, even if the throw is a little long.
The four-cylinder in the Cooper S is substantially more powerful, producing 143kW with 282Nm of torque. In this application, the Mini’s thick spread of torque makes light work of the Cooper S’ 1235kg weight figure, although again, the engine’s lack of top-end pizzazz means the Cooper S is no longer the stand-out supermini hot hatch it used to be.
Performance and 0-100kmh time
With the standard Mini One’s move to a new 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine, the new Mini has now totally transferred across to BMW’s modular engine range. The 1.5 is hardly brisk, taking 10.1sec to get to 100km/h, but it’s fast enough in town to keep up with traffic, and impressively refined.
Next up is the Cooper, using the same 1.5-litre engine, but adding a turbocharger to the package, lifting power to 100kW, while torque is up, to 260Nm. The turbo is felt most in the mid-range, reducing the 0-100km/h time to 7.9sec. For some of the evo office it’s the most pleasant engine in the range to use, feeling more appropriate in its surroundings than the slightly pained-sounding 2-litre, though tall gearing blunts what could be an even more involving powertrain.
The sole diesel-powered Mini is the Cooper D, powered by a turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel engine. With 85kW and a stout 270Nm of torque, it manages the 0-100km/h sprint in 9.9sec.
Quicker still is the Cooper S. With a manual transmission, the three-door version dashes to 100km/h in 6.8sec and tops out at 234kmh. The John Cooper Works is even quicker, covering the same metric in 6.3sec. Top speed for the Works is 246kmh – more than enough for most, we suspect. It’s just a shame neither model sounds particularly joyful in getting there. The engine is fairly smooth, but the artificial parp it emits isn’t particularly sonorous and there’s little encouragement to push it to the red line.
Adding a pair of doors inevitably dampens things a bit, but it’s marginal, the five-door One adding around 0.3sec to the 0-100kmh time. The Coopers, whether petrol or diesel, add between 0.2- and 0.3sec to their sprint times, and the Cooper S a single tenth, but the reality is you’ll be hard pushed to notice on the road. The Coopers top out at 209km/h, though all will manage over 160km/h, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Ride and handling
When the first BMW-engineered ‘R53’ Mini hatch was launched in 2001, its nostalgic styling and clever detailing might have made it a hit on the sales charts, but its superb handling characteristics proved that BMW hadn’t cut corners on its first ever front-wheel chassis.
The bespoke platform was a great one, with a low centre of gravity and square stance on the road complemented by the unusual application of multi-link rear suspension. As a result, the Mini had real talent on the road, with a snappy front end complemented by sure-footed handling that always seemed to grip no matter the circumstance. The next-generation Mini, revealed in 2007, was built on this same platform, improving ride quality and refinement along the way. Both, in short, felt like proper “Minis”, even if they were significantly larger than the classics from which their name was derived.
Unfortunately, with BMW wanting to spread the development costs of the Mini’s front-wheel-drive platform, the third-generation F55 Mini moved over to a larger chassis shared with BMW’s 2-series Active Tourer and X1 crossover, changing not only the way the new model looked, but also softening its driving experience. It’s still very well sorted, and the Mini feels sophisticated underfoot like few, if any other superminis, but that pointed aggression has taken a step back over its predecessors.
The flip-side of this new platform has been a big jump in refinement, something that probably appeals to most buyers, but it has taken away some of the Mini’s USP against more mainstream rivals.
The steering, although sharp, doesn’t communicate much information about the road surface, nor how much the front tyres have to give. The seating position, although lower than most rivals, is at least a few centimetres taller than before, making you feel yet more removed from the action in comparison to previous Minis. The ride quality is very well judged, though, and even over rough surfaces maintains composure, whilst never deteriorating to the point of discomfort. There is no doubt that the Mini holds on to its dynamic edge over its more pedestrian rivals, but the distinction between settled premium hatch and hot hatch seems to be thinner than ever.
Push further up the range, and the John Cooper Works models increase roll stiffness, but the sophisticated damping rarely feels out of step, even if overall ride quality becomes a little more compromised. Body control, as a result, is improved, while any sign of traction deterioration is made up for by the stickier tyre compound.
Interior and tech
The interior has been just as much a part of the Mini’s retro design motif as its exterior, with each generation improving on quality and user-friendliness. The latest car brings with it a swathe of tech from BMW, including the same i-Drive system, only with re-formatted fonts and menus.
Build quality is impressive compared to many rivals, and although the interior doesn’t quite have the solidity of the Audi A1, its more joyful interior design is an important touch compared to the sometimes dour Audi. Centre to this is the large glowing roundel that sits in the centre of the dash. Now a home for the infotainment screen, the actual dials sit in front of the driver in a floating pod, with a central analogue speedo flanked by an offset rev counter.
Although the ergonomics have been much improved, it’s still got plenty of flair, while personalisation options have now been taken yet further, with buyers able to commission their own interior panels and kick plates with bespoke lettering or branding.
Space has also been improved dramatically over previous models, although the three-door is still only really a four-seater. Rear-seat and boot space are better, while storage in front is greater, also. The bluff, upright windscreen still informs the short dashboard (and means forward visibility is pretty good, the A-pillars minimal hindrance of your view out), but overall, the Mini feels like a much larger car inside than its predecessors. JORDAN KATSIANIS