By Jonathan Crouch
Third time round, BMW's modern era MINI turned out to be a much more sophisticated thing. This three-door Hatch version is slightly more practical than its R56-series predecessor and feels considerably better built. It's far more efficient too, with the bulk of the range using a punchier range of eager three cylinder engines. And its more sophisticated underpinnings are better suited to longer journeys. In short, this car came of age in third generation form. But does it make sense as a used buy?
'The MINI is a way of life. A friend. It holds a special place in our hearts'. We're quoting from BMW, who of course are makers of the modern era model, but the words could have come from Alec Issigonis, designer of the 1959 original. That car was never fundamentally changed in nearly half a century of production. This one, in contrast, reached its third generation quite quickly - in 2014 - and was first launched in the three-door Hatch F56 form we're going to look at here.
The MK3 MINI offered us a fresh chapter in a modern era success story. By the time of its introduction, over 2.4 million first and second generation versions of what we could call the 'Ger-MINI' had rolled out of the British Oxford factory gates since the day that this car was originally re-launched by BMW in 2001, before being thoroughly updated again in 2006 second generation modern form. These two initial BMW-funded designs proved just how much people were prepared to pay for a small, cute runabout with quality, style and its own cheeky brand of class. Inevitably, they also prompted a whole host of imitators, most with this three-door Hatch version firmly in their sights. Whether you're talking city scoots like the Fiat 500 or the Toyota iQ, smart superminis like the Citroen DS3 and the Alfa MiTo or even trendy small Crossovers like the Nissan Juke or Kia Soul, all claimed inspiration from this car and targeted much the same fashion-conscious customers.
People now wanting a bit more than simply trendy design and a bit of fun behind the wheel. By 2014, they were also people wanting a little more luxury, from a car more comfortable in venturing further afield. Driving efficiency and interior space also figured a little higher up customer wish lists than had been the case with previous generation MINI Hatch models. All of which, in developing the MK3 F56 model, left BMW needing to turn a fresh page in the colourful history of this iconic car. You might think that it looks much the same as the previous R56 version but in fact, almost everything was changed for the F56 - the platform, the engines, the technology: all was re-invented.
Impressively, the MINI makers managed to achieve all this while still retaining most of the same effervescent MINI character. A five-door F55 version of this design was launched in 2015 and both body styles sold steadily until MINI announced a light mid-term facelift in the Spring of 2018. It's the earlier pre-facelift three-door F56 Hatch model that we look at here as a used buy.
What You Get
It's hard to think of another car on sale today whose sales are influenced quite as directly by the way it looks as this one. Given that aesthetically, the worst mistake any MINI can make is to lose its 'MINI-ness', the job of re-interpreting this car for a fresh generation of buyers must always be a thankless one. Was it successfully carried through here? Inevitably, not everyone thinks so. The need for things like a higher bonnet line to meet modern era pedestrian safety legislation is one of the reasons why it's certainly not as cute, either as the original Issigonis design or the earliest turn of the century Frank Stephenson-styled BMW version. But that said, there's quite enough brand DNA here to make this car as instantly recognisable as anything on the road.
The reason why is that all the visual cues you'd expect to see have been perfectly preserved in the move to modernity: the circular headlights (offered with lovely optional LED rings), the clamshell bonnet, the upright windscreen, the blacked-out pillars that create the 'floating' roof and the continuous band of chrome at the base of the glasshouse. All of it's present and correct. The Cooper S version even has the potent bonnet scoop of its predecessors, though MINI will quietly admit that this styling flourish hasn't been functional since the old supercharged car bit the dust in 2006. Just think of it as a way of telling the flagship models apart from the rest at a glance.
This MK3 'F56' 3-door Hatch model is a fair bit bigger than its MK2 ''R56' predecessor, a car which still had its roots in the Munich maker's original 2001 'R50' MINI. It's 44mm wider and 7mm taller than before: and 98mm longer too, though unfortunately most of that length gain has been swallowed up by the lengthier front overhang needed to meet the tougher pedestrian impact standards we mentioned earlier. Still a 28mm-longer wheelbase means that the passenger compartment is usefully bigger than before. Access to the rear is easier is certainly easier than it was previously and once you get there, you'll find that the cabin gained some much needed head and legroom in MK3 form. There's more room for shoulders too, though still not enough to make it feasible for MINI to fit more than a couple of seatbelts on the rear bench. No, despite the welcome reclining function for the backrest, you still wouldn't want to be stuck in the back for a long journey but yes, it is a big improvement and kids will be more than happy. One six-footer could here sit behind another with genuinely passable comfort. So in this form, at last, this MINI can be seen, for short trips at least, as a genuine four-seater, rather than a 2+2. That's a big change over what went before.
As is the boot capacity, the aspect that, more than any other, MINI owners previously most moaned about. With this F56 model, you get one of those clever moveable floors that can be set at two separate heights (though the downside to that is the lack of a proper spare wheel). Plus the room available increased by more than 30% to 211-litres. OK, so that's still not what you'd call huge and is still miles behind what you'd get in a more practically-shaped trendy rival like a Volkswagen Beetle or a Citroen DS3, let alone an ordinary Fiesta-sized supermini. But the changes made here at least elevated this space beyond the 'Point And Laugh' category. It's certainly a lot bigger than you'd get in a rival Fiat 500 and not too far of the kind of room delivered by potential competitors like Alfa's MiTo and Nissan's Juke. In fact, there's actually more room than you'd get in either of those two models if you push forward the rear bench. Plus it helps that the angle of the backrest can be altered and that it splits 60:40, rather than 50:50: which makes it easier to get awkwardly-shaped items like pushchairs in. With everything flat, a surprisingly large 731-litre load capacity reveals itself.
But you don't buy this car for its practicality. Or if you do, then you don't buy this three-door Hatch version anyway. No, what you probably want is a more mature interpretation of 'MINI-ness' - which this MK3 model perfectly delivers. It's easy to forget quite how flimsy a lot of the fittings on the early BMW MINIs were. Remember those indicator stalks that felt like snapping biros? Or the second generation car's feeble little plastic joystick that was used to enter sat nav instructions? Everything feels a good deal more substantial in this car, a good deal more grown up.
To that end, you get much more supportive seats with a wider adjustment range and a base lengthened by 23mm for additional comfort and support. There's a proper rotary controller for the lights. Electric window switches re-located to the doors where everyone else puts them. More interior stowage space, with two gloveboxes, additional cup holders and space in the seatbacks and front passenger foot well for the storage of bottles and maps. Oh and a whole series of lovely touches. Like the way the start/stop tab features a heartbeat illumination which pulses before the engine is started. Or the LED perimeter lights of the central display that progressively light up the perimeter of the screen as you switch driving modes, engage the engine stop/start, cope with parking or count down to your next sat nav turn off.
That huge display here no longer functions as a speedo - less characterfully but more practically, the speedometer gauge for MK 3 models was re-located to a pod in front of the steering wheel where it's flanked with a crescent-moon rev counter and fuel gauge. All of this freed the central dash area up for much more infotainical trickery, marshalled via optional 6.5 or 8.8-inch multifunction colour displays that most original owners tried to find the extra for since the alternative was a cheapskate-looking four-line TFT read-out. Though crying out for touch screen functionality, the colour layouts are actually marshalled by a classy, effective iDrive-style controller down by the (thankfully conventional) handbrake.
What to Look For
There aren't many reported issues with this F56-series MINI Hatch mechanically. The only one we came across related to a batch of cars with the 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine that suffered from oil leaks. This came from the rocker-cover gasket which in the case of these rogue models, had somehow managed to bulge out from between its mating surfaces, spraying oil everywhere. If the car you're looking at had such a leak, tell-tale signs include rough running and a poor idle. A new gasket is the ultimate fix.
We also came across a few 2.0-litre cars experiencing the odd clutch problem. The torque of the engine seems to be part of the problem, but some owners have reported that their clutch is slipping quite early in the car's life. Even then, it wasn't that straightforward. Apparently, the on-board sensor designed to be an early-warning system of clutch failure proved in some cases to be just too sensitive for its own good, throwing up a false warnings on the dashboard when there was actually no problem at all. Dealerships have tackled this by taking any car in question out on to the road and performing a series of full-throttle acceleration tests in both second and fourth gear. Any clutch slip meant a new clutch was needed, but if there was no slip, the software was recalibrated to prevent the false alarms. Either way, the acceleration test is one you should perform when test-driving any Cooper S with a manual gearbox.
The other thing to watch is for a car that has had skipped oil changes. Check the service handbook for any missed scheduled services and ensure the oil on the dipstick is relatively clean. The problem with skipped oil changes is most likely to show up in the variable valve-timing system these engines use, and dirty oil will foul the small oilways and filters quick smart. At which point, it's a pricey, expensive fix.
(approx based on a 2015 MINI One 1.2 excl. VAT) A front brake pad set costs about £32. Front brake discs start in the £57 bracket - it's around £68 for a rear one. Oil filters cost around £16. A wiper blade costs between £18 and £25. A headlight bulb is around £3. And an ignition coil is about £77.
On the Road
So. What's it like? Slip behind the wheel and at first glance, if you're familiar with the old R56 MK2 Mini Hatch, you might think that quite a lot seems to have changed. The driving position feels a bit less upright, the dashboard is smarter and you aren't faced with quite so many obvious attention-seeking gimmicks. That massive dinner plate display that used to house an almost indecipherable speedometer is still there, but it's here simply used for infotainment, the speedo re-located to a pod above the steering wheel. The same wheel that used to completely obscure the slot into which you had to press your ignition key to start the thing. That silly slot's now gone too, replaced instead by a neat starter switch in the middle of the familiar row of toggle controls that have survived at the bottom of the centre stack.
On the move, your first impressions should be good. At the foot of the range, there's a choice between various three cylinder engines - a 1.2-litre unit in the MINI One, a 1.5-litre petrol in the Cooper and a 1.5-litre diesel in the Cooper D. A range of 2.0-litre four cylinder powerplants feature further up the range, in the Cooper SD diesel and in the petrol-powered Cooper S and JCW variants. But let's say you're shopping further down the line-up and find yourself trying a three cylinder derivative. Triples always sound good at start-up, even if in other cars, a lot of them create quite a din when you get up to speed. This one doesn't: you'd really have to know your engines to realise that this wasn't a conventional four cylinder unit but because it isn't, the burbling soundtrack delivered is so much more interesting: so much more MINI. Which is an important part of the kind of cheeky, involving driving experience upon which this car's appeal stands or falls. Yes, people love the styling and the image, but one of these just has to put a smile on your face when you drive it. If the overall feeling you're going to get is of just another supermini wearing a cute suit, you'd have to question this car's place in the overall scheme of things.
We'd worried about this before driving it. The MINI marketing people continually talk about 'go-kart handling' but that seems to be at odds with this MK3 model's longer wheelbase and wider track. On top of that, until this car's launch in 2014, you had front-driven MINIs and rear-driven BMWs, so MINIs were different and technically unique. But since Munich awoke to the benefits of the front-driven layout, that's no longer true. Given that in MK3 form, this model shares the same so-called 'UKL' platform and basically the same engines as a volume BMW model (the 2 Series Active Tourer), you have to wonder whether it might lose a bit of its unique MINI-ness. But it doesn't. Driving this car still delivers same infectious naughtiness that loyal owners love so much. There's still the same darty steering, the same quick-fire throttle. And, yes, in top Cooper S and JCW versions at least, still the same unyieldingly bumpy ride over poor surfaces.
Fortunately, with the F56 series MK3 MINI range, you don't have to have it. In fact, one of the most appealing things about this MK3 MINI is the way the new-found suppleness of its redesigned chassis makes this car a happier long journeying companion if you buy it in its humbler forms. That's something further aided by the much improved levels of refinement that are such a feature of this third generation model: MINI reckons it's up to 4db quieter than its predecessor. Indeed, in most guises, this is one of the few small cars in this fashion-conscious class that really are comfortable venturing further afield. It's only when you go for the sportiest 2.0-litre turbo models, like the Cooper S, that the ride firmness takes a turn towards the old days with a set-up that's great when you're giving the car a good flogging, but tedious the rest of the time when you're stuck with suspension settings that give you all the compliance of a Halfords trolley jack.
Even here though, help is at hand thanks to an extra cost box that many original Cooper S owners decided to tick. Namely that for the Variable Damper Control set-up. This enables you to switch the ride to suit the mood you're in and the road you're on and works through the 'MINI Driving Modes' system you get as part of the 'CHILLI' pack - which was another option at original point of purchase. Here, a rather hidden selector at the base of the gearstick enables you to choose settings that tweak throttle, steering and (on automatic models) gear change response between 'MID' and 'Green' settings for efficient, comfort-orientated motoring. And 'Sport' for when the road opens up and the red mist begins to fall, something echoed appropriately by a red glow around the central display and, less subtly, by a little picture of a go-kart and the phrase 'maximum go kart feel' . Quite. You certainly get that with the unyielding day-to-day ride of the Cooper S if you don't get yourself a car with the Variable Damper Control package fitted. Check out the more supplely suspended models further down the range though and this additional feature may not be necessary. Try before you decide is our advice.
We've talked about different models: let's get a bit more specific. Essentially, there are four kinds of MINI three cylinder three-door Hatch you can buy and, unlike say a rival entry-level Fiat 500, all put out a decent level of poke. After all, even the base 1.2-litre petrol MINI One manages rest to 62mph in 9.9s en route to 121mph. Next up are the MINI One D and MINI Cooper D diesel options, with a 1.5-litre unit respectively putting out either 95 or 136bhp. In the lower-powered unit of the One D, that means 62mph in 11s on the way to 118mph, while the more eager Cooper D improves those figures to 9.2s and 127mph.
Perhaps the sweet spot in the range though, is represented by the variant that'll deservedly be the best-seller, the petrol-powered Cooper model. Here again, the engine on offer is 1.5-litres in size - actually basically the same unit that assists the electric motor in BMW's i8 supercar. Here, as there, it punches well above its weight, enabling the performance of this third generation version Cooper to aspire to the lower-rungs of the hot hatch ladder: 62mph can be dispatched in just 7.2s en route to 130mph, which, we think, will be quite as fast as most will really want to go in this car. To go quicker than this, you have to get your MINI with much firmer suspension and a much larger 2.0-litre four cylinder engine up-front: either the 170bhp diesel unit of the Cooper SD, the 192bhp petrol unit in the Cooper S, or the same engine tuned-up to around 215bhp in the more extreme John Cooper Works version. Either way, the performance gains over the standard 1.5-litre Cooper model with its much friendlier ride and handling balance aren't massive: the Cooper S manages 62mph in 6.8s on the way to 146mph. Still, that's enough to punt it into contention with supermini hot hatch benchmarks like Ford's Fiesta ST, Peugeot's 208 GTi and the Renaultsport Clio 200.
Like the Fiesta and the Renault, the joy this Cooper S brings to driving when you're in the mood for it is in its place as one of those cars that feels faster than it actually is - a very good thing in our book. To better get you through the twisty stuff, there's a Performance Control system which electronically duplicates the kind of functionality you'd normally get from a heavier, more complicated mechanical locking differential. So it works through the turns to counter both understeer and wheelspin by lightly micro-braking whichever front wheel is threatening to lose grip. As a result, the car's kept planted through the tightest corner and you're fired on from bend to bend. Oh and on the subject of brakes, they're really very good indeed, as befits a potential trackday car, large and extremely effective. Brilliant.
The S really is a very fast car in this form. Slot it into fourth gear at a pedestrian 30mph then floor the throttle and it'll arrive at 70mph quicker than a 280bhp-worth of Vauxhall Astra VXR. But even lesser MINIs have plenty to offer the owner who likes his or her driving. We've already talked about the way you can tailor the steering and suspension to your taste and the six-speed gearchange is a huge improvement on baulky old 'box of the previous generation R56 model. Not only because the throw's shorter, the redesigned stick's nicer to use and the snickety action's more satisfying but also thanks to clever gearbox software that even instructs the engine to blip the throttle on the downchange, so it sounds as if you've mastered the perfect heel and toe technique and your friends will think you're the next Lewis Hamilton. If you can't be bothered with all of that, there are two 6-speed auto transmission options on offer, the more desirable 'sports' set-up featuring shorter shift times and steering wheel paddles.
You wanted more MINI? Well this F56-series 3-door Hatch version delivers it. It's more refined than the previous R56 car. Plus it's more spacious, more up-market and it makes better economic sense. In short, in this guise, this car grew up and faced its responsibilities, like all of us have to. That doesn't sound much fun does it, the very thing that's supposed to make you want a MINI in the first place. But don't worry. Unlike most brands who re-invent their best sellers in this way, the original character and joie de vivre that attracted buyers in the first place weren't surgically removed in this case.
In some ways indeed, quite the opposite happened here. This car is still just as much of an entertainer as previous versions, particularly in Cooper and Cooper S guises that proved to be much quicker than before. But this MK3 version has a broader range of charm, thanks to the improved ride quality and better everyday usability. It also feels twice as expensive, which is never a bad thing.
Of course, not everyone is MINI-minded. Some don't like the way the looks evolved here. Others still think this car isn't big enough. And this model can certainly be expensive if you're looking at one loaded with essential options. But these are things the creators of this third generation version never set out to change. The improvements they did make though, proved to be resoundingly successful. Though the endearing raw edges that characterised older versions of this car may now be distant memories, added maturity brings many compensations.
Which leaves us with a British-built benchmark in the premium small car segment from this era. And a car that, though easy to imitate, is difficult to beat as a used buy in its segment. Others may be more stylish and slightly larger but none can beat its fun factor and everyday running cost affordability, both still crucial considerations in buying a car of this kind. Back in 1959 when he created the British original, Sir Alec Issigonis knew that. We think he'd have been pleased at how his creation's turned out.