The latest MINI Cooper reprises an old theme but adds polish. Can it still play the entertainer? Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
For an object lesson in how to improve a model, look no further than this latest MINI Cooper. Bigger, more powerful, more economical, cleaner, better value, sharper to drive, packed with more technology; what more could you ask for? Prettier styling? It's good to know that MINI isn't utterly infallible.
Following a vehicle as successful and as adored as the original Mini Cooper was always going to be a tough task but judged in terms of sales, BMW's rebooted MINI Cooper has to be judged a success. We've rapidly evolved to the third generation and while it's gradually become bigger and slicker, the Cooper can't afford to lose any of its likeability. As a warmish sports hatch, this one ought to be able to shift stock purely on the way it drives, but let's get real. This car's as much about design as dynamics.
With that in mind, MINI could be excused for diverting a huge share of the development budget at glitzy styling, confident that sales would stand up even if the chassis and powertrain were less than top notch. It's to their credit that the company has done quite the opposite. This Cooper has grown a bit but doesn't look wildly different to its predecessor. Everything under the skin, however, is different. Substance over style? Bet you never saw that one coming.
The petrol Cooper variant we're looking at here ditches the old four-cylinder 1.6-litre unit for a three-cylinder 1.5-litre engine. Smaller really is better here because the news is all good. Power rises from 118 to 136bhp and 15 kilos is shaved off this engine's weight. More notably, the torque figure has increased by a hefty 60Nm. Where the old Cooper needed you to kick it to 4,250rpm before it gave of its best there, this latest car is doing the business from just 1,250rpm, helped by a tiny turbocharger. It even sounds better than the old model and BMW's engineers have worked at giving this version the sort of throttle response that you'd expect of a normally-aspirated engine.
Performance has been transformed as a result of this more urgent motor. The sprint from zero to 62mph drops to 7.9 seconds in the manual car compared to a leisurely 9.1 seconds before. Choose the six-speed auto and you'll stop the clock even sooner; 7.8 seconds as opposed to a yawnsome 10.4 seconds in its predecessor. The manual has a neat trick up its sleeve though, namely automatic rev matching for smoother downshifting. The multilink rear suspension has had a complete redesign, while up front there are some trick aluminium steering knuckles. The suspension achieves both better bump absorption and improved body control, thanks to a layout that helped ride compliance without sacrificing roll stiffness. That's a win-win for the keen driver.
Design and Build
The MINI Cooper Hatch rides on some quite dinky little 15-inch forged alloy wheels, which have low weight and excellent aerodynamics. If you think that is entirely too much tyre sidewall to be going on with, you can specify rims of up to 18 inches in diameter as options, but do bear in mind that the car's ride will suffer as a result. As we touched on before, this is a bigger car than its predecessor. The body is 3,821mm long, 1,727mm wide and 1,414mm tall. This makes it 98mm longer, 44mm wider and 7mm taller than its predecessor. The wheelbase has been extended by 28mm, while the track width has been enlarged at the front by 42mm and at the rear by 34mm.
The longer, wider and only a little bit taller proportions give it a squatter, more purposeful look, helped by the more tapered glasshouse. LED headlights are offered as an option for both main and dipped beam and they're surrounded by an LED daylight driving ring. Roof rails are available for the MINI hatch for the first time. As you might expect given the more generous cut of its cloth, it's a good deal more spacious inside. There's a lot more shoulder room across the back and bigger footwells. The front seats have been given a wider adjustment range and the base has been lengthened by 23mm for additional comfort and support. Access to the rear is easier and the rear bench seat splits 60:40. Boot volume has been increased by more than 30 per cent to 211-litres. There's also more interior stowage space, with additional cupholders and storage cubbies. The big centrally mounted circular speedometer has been ditched in favour of a more sophisticated multi function display with a more conventional speedo flanked with a crescent-moon rev counter in the main instrument binnacle.
Market and Model
You'll pay from just over £15,000 for the MINI Cooper hatch - essentially, in comparison with the previous generation version, we're talking of a price hike of about 2.5% or £400. That wouldn't be a bad deal if all you got was the power increase from 118 to 134bhp. That you're getting a bigger car that's better finished inside and comes with additional gear like adjustable exterior mirrors, air-conditioning, front fog lamps, onboard computer, MINI Radio including aux-in, USB interface and Bluetooth all as standard means it's hard to grumble about price inflation. If you drive 10,000 miles a year, you'll save more than the £400 price increase within 18 months in reduced fuel bills alone.
The MINI hatch has always been about tailoring the car to your personal tastes, so you might well indulge in body stripes, a John Cooper Works spoiler, contrasting mirrors and those LED headlights. You can also choose from technology such as a head-up display, MINI Navigation System, MINI Connect and traffic sign recognition. Standard safety fittings include front and side airbags as well as curtain airbags for the front and rear seats, automatic passenger airbag deactivation and front and rear ISOFIX child seat mounts.
Cost of Ownership
The latest MINI Cooper improves quite markedly on its predecessor's efficiency figures, which is impressive given that it's a bigger, heavier and more powerful car. The manual version enjoys a 10.5mpg improvement in economy, registering a respectable 62.8mpg figure, while the auto model's fuel economy improves by a huge 15.9mpg. Emissions are rated at 105g/km, which is again an excellent figure for a car this quick.
The MINIMALISM suite of environmental technologies continue to feature on the Cooper. Designed to reduce fuel consumption, the suite of standard features includes a shift-point display function on manual cars. Brake energy recuperation and need-oriented control of the fuel pump, coolant pump and other ancillary units feature on all models.
Although there have been some low-level grousing about the styling direction taken by this third generation MINI, to us it just looks like a natural evolution of the theme. It's bigger, slicker and more efficient, with more of the juvenile design elements removed as the car matures. So has it lost some of its cheekiness and charisma? Maybe. The MINI is no longer a car that seems to occupy its own niche. It's been too profitable for that and many others have muscled in as a result.
This Cooper model more than makes up the difference with an engine that is hugely better than that of its predecessor. Couple that with a commensurate climb in efficiency, a sharper chassis and a welcome boost in practicality and it's hard to argue that this latest Cooper hasn't improved by an enormous degree. Its rivals have played a high stakes game but MINI has just laid down some aces.