By Jonathan Crouch
The third generation MINI Cooper S is a properly credible hot hatch in its 'F56' (3-Door) and 'F55' (5-Door) Hatch forms, which we first saw in 2014. With these cars, we realised that this model could be more than merely a very quick but fashionable urban trinket. Its bigger, harder-hitting 2.0-litre engine and a more talented chassis deliver plenty of fun as you power to 62mph in 6.8 seconds to the tune of a blissfully cheeky exhaust note. This design proved to be a more mature thing too, better built than any of its rivals and with more sophisticated underpinnings that are better suited to longer journeys. In short, this car came of age in this form. But how does it stack up as a used buy?
The MINI Cooper S has long been an exercise in artful compromise, looking to occupy that sweet spot between the warm-ish Cooper and the wild race-inspired John Cooper Works model. As a result, it's often been the best pick for those who aren't likely to subject their car to a race circuit and instead just want a MINI that's entertainingly quick without incurring huge running costs in the process.
That didn't change too much with this third generation F56/F55-series model, but what lies beneath the skin did. Under the bonnet, you'll find a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine that may only have three cylinders but puts out a 192hp total that was 8hp up on what went before. More importantly perhaps, it's a bigger, better finished car than before, yet one that still seems well priced against comparably performing hot hatch rivals from this era like Peugeot's 208 GTI, Ford's Fiesta ST and the Renaultsport Clio 200.
This car was launched in 2014 in 3-Door Hatch 'F56'-series form, then an 'F55'-series 5-Door Hatch version followed a year later. Both variants were thoroughly revised in mid-2108, but it's the earlier 2014-2018 models we look at here. This ought to be many people's ideal expression of go kart-inspired MINI-ness? Is it? And would you want a used one? Let's find out.
What You Get
So what's included for the money being asked for an 'F56 or F55-series Cooper S? Well, for this kind of cash, you'd expect the basics - things like 16-inch alloys, front fog lamps, air conditioning, Bluetooth and a DAB stereo. Beyond that, MINI threw in a lovely bonnet scoop, a set of chrome-finished exhaust pipes, a chrome-plated honeycomb radiator grille and a three-spoke sport leather steering wheel. Most original buyers paid extra for the 'CHILI' pack. That meant inclusion of the MINI Driving Modes system that enables you to select between 'MID', Sport' or 'Green' settings, depending on how efficient you want your journey to be.
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. As we said, this 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.
The 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. If you want more, the slightly lengthened wheelbase of the 5-Door Hatch 'F55'-series model will be a better fit for you.
As is the boot capacity, the aspect that, more than any other, MINI owners previously most moaned about. With both hatch variants, 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 over the previous generation design; even in the 3-Door, it's 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 perkier Volkswagen Beetle or a Citroen DS3 Performance, let alone say, a Fiesta ST. 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 Abarth 500 and not too far of the kind of room delivered by potential competitors like Alfa's MiTo Quadrifoglio and Nissan's Juke Nismo. 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 in the 3-Door model.
But you don't buy this car for its practicality. Or if you do, then you don't buy the 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 than the previous generation model offered, 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 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
What to Look For
There aren't many reported issues with this 'F56'/'F55'-series MINI Hatch Cooper S mechanically. We came across a few 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 was 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 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 Cooper S excl. VAT) Front brake pads start at around £25, though you can pay around £90 for pricier brands. Rear brake pads start at around £30, though you can pay around £60 for pricier brands. Front brake discs start in the £6 bracket - it's around £40-£75 for rears. Oil filters cost around £9-£25. A wiper blade costs between £5 and £12. A headlight bulb is around £3. And a radiator is about £133.
On the Road
This F56/F55-series MK3 Cooper S Hatch used a 2.0-litre four cylinder 192hp engine and manages 62mph in 6.8s on the way to 146mph. That's enough to punt it into contention with supermini hot hatch benchmarks from this era 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 track day 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. You can tailor the steering and suspension to your taste via the 'MOINI Modes' drive settings system and the six-speed gear change too is a huge improvement on the baulky old 'box of the previous generation 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.
We can all argue about whether this generation F56/F55-series Cooper S Hatch is as pretty a car as its predecessor, but there can be no doubt that it was a better all-rounder. It's more spacious, better built, features some fascinating technical features and seems to have been engineered to offer more driving fun on one hand and lower bills on the other.
Just make sure you get a car whose original owner specced it right, with extras like the Driving Modes system and the Variable damping. You might want to avoid examples fitted with larger wheels that bring a crashy ride and automatic gearboxes that detract from the connected feel.
Yes, you could pay the same kind of money and buy a more conventional supermini-based hot hatch. Perhaps the purer, more focused Fiesta ST. Or the more comfortable and relaxing Peugeot 208 GTI. This Cooper S though, arguably delivers an appealing compromise between the two - and feels much more special while it's doing it. It's a MINI to the max. And that's always a tempting thing.