The last-generation cars, with their turbocharged engines, softer suspensions, duller steering and homelier looks are, in my mind, inferior to their 2002 to 2006 predecessors. As a car reviewer, though, I couldn't in good conscience argue the same point. The R56, as the last-gen cars were known internally and by enthusiasts, was a better-balanced vehicle that retained the lion's share of the abilities and character of the first-generation, R53 Cooper S, but they were better thought out, better designed, more livable, and felt like more complete products.
Before the third-generation of the reborn Mini Cooper S landed in my driveway, I couldn't help but wonder whether the model would continue its slide towards mass appeal, or if it would re-embrace the enthusiast realm with a stronger driver-focused mission. As I found out during my week with the car, it was a bit of both.
An immediate point of contention with this latest design is this car's appearance. I didn't much care for the F56, as this latest-generation is called, when it debuted ahead of the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show. As Senior Editor Ewing eloquently put it, the latest Mini looked like a "frightened goldfish." I'm still not crazy about its looks now that I've been so exposed to it. The front fascia, the design's most polarizing design aspect, does look better in Moonwalk Gray, but it still looks a bit startled.
The overall effect is of an out-of-proportion and nose-heavy look.
What I can't get over, though, is this Mini's newly enlarged front overhang in combination with its slightly longer wheelbase, which has grown from 97.1 inches in 2013 to 98.2 for 2014. Despite this small increase, the vehicle's overall length has jumped from 146.8 inches to 151.1 inches. With most of that increase ahead of the front axle, the overall effect is of an out-of-proportion and nose-heavy look.
There are plenty of other design aspects that work, though. The overlarge taillights contribute to the tail's tidy looks. The center-exit exhaust is still standard on the Cooper S, but it highlights a cleaner rear-bumper treatment. The side grilles have been given a minimalist makeover that works out nicely, providing a bit of brightwork to the car's profile.
A Mini's cabin is always going to be an interesting place, but few models before this one have felt so well built. While the cabin is predominantly plastic as you'd expect, it feels solid and durable. I enjoyed my tester's off-white trim pieces, which helped brighten up the overall look of the black interior, as they contrasted nicely with the chrome and piano black pieces. The upholstery, meanwhile, received near universal acclaim from anyone that came into contact with it. Called Black Pearl, it's a combination of black leather with an extremely high-quality gray fabric. White contrast stitching ties in nicely with the matching pieces of interior trim, complementing the entire affair.
It's like Mini has upped the size of all the cabin's styling elements without actually increasing the amount of space.
One of Mini's best tricks as a brand has been its ability to fit huge interiors into small footprints. There's a lot going on in this cabin, though, and much of it happens at the expense of the interior's sense of vastness. It's like Mini has upped the size of all the cabin's styling elements without actually increasing the amount of space. In a way, that's true, thanks to the larger instrument cluster, which is attached to the steering column, the oversized air vents and the dominant central display.
This reality is compounded by poor sight-lines all around, an affliction that makes it less of a sure-footed proposition in tight spaces. Perhaps that's why my tester was fitted with a rearview camera and fore and aft parking sensors. Visibility issues aside, this is still a nippy little handler with a tight turning circle.
The standard sport seats of the Cooper S are really excellent, with significant bolsters that cosset without constricting. My tester arrived fitted with the optional John Cooper Works steering wheel, which is finished in nice leather and sports contrasting red stitching. It's thick and significant, and is really a great item to interact with. The optional paddle shifters of this auto-equipped (more on that in a minute) Cooper S are sizable, and despite being crafted from plastic, they have a nice action and generally add to the driving experience. I did observe a small problem while working the paddles, though, and it relates to the tachometer. The new tach, which has been seemingly added to the column-mounted speedo as an afterthought, is wholly useless. I know Mini caught a lot of flack for the central speedo and the column-mounted tach in past cars, but for the business of driving, it was still better than this subpar setup.
The optional paddle shifters of this auto-equipped Cooper S have a nice action and generally add to the driving experience.
One of the new Mini's big selling points is the amount of tech that can be shoehorned into its little cabin. I already mentioned the park-distance control and rearview camera, but I also need to mention Mini Connected (Mini's version of BMW's iDrive), which is back and better than ever for 2014. LED headlamps, LED taillights, LED foglights, a head-up display, dual-zone climate control, panoramic sunroof, a BMW-derived display in the instrument cluster, adaptive dampers and heated, auto-dimming side mirrors round out the list of optional goodies.
Mini really went clean-sheet when designing the F56, making dramatic changes inside, outside and yes, underneath the skin. For the first time since it was reborn as a 2002 model, the Mini is without a 1.6-liter engine. In its place sits a gem of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, complete with a twin-scroll turbocharger. The result is 189 horsepower, a figure that matches up nicely with the 1.6-liter turbo from 2013. The BMW mill, which is becoming more common across the German manufacturer's range, trumps the old 1.6T on torque, though, with 207 pound-feet available from just 1,250 rpm. That number can increase to 221 lb-ft in short spurts via an overboost mode.
On the street, that power is plenty easy to access. BMW quotes the F56 Cooper S at 6.4 seconds to 60 when equipped with the six-speed automatic. I'd be willing to bet it's a tiny bit quicker than that, though. There's plenty of torque across the rev range, meaning you can dig into the floor-hinged gas pedal with aplomb. The torque curve is flat and predictable, while any additional needs can be met by tugging the downshift paddle. There's virtually no lag at all – this is a powerplant that can eagerly snap-to at most engine speeds.
The torque curve is flat and predictable, while any additional needs can be met by tugging the downshift paddle.
As is the going trend, the Mini offers three driving modes that can affect throttle inputs: Green, Mid and Sport. Predictably, the throttle response is sharpest in Sport mode, and boy, is it sharp. The Mini's responsiveness is amplified in this mode, with a sensitive throttle that will reward smooth inputs. Green, as usual, provides the dullest response, but it's perfectly usable in rush-hour traffic or around neighborhoods.
Offering up a rorty exhaust note all the way up to redline, the latest MCS delights with pops and cracks from its twin central exhausts on overrun. Step off the throttle and the 2.0T's blow-off valve lets loose with a tuner-pleasing whoosh. It's not the burbling symphony that is the Fiat 500 Abarth, but it's pretty darn good in its own right.
Now, let's address the elephant in the room – that lever sticking out of the floor between the seats. Yes, this Mini has an automatic transmission. But for the first time since the Cooper S reemerged into the automotive sphere at the dawn of the century, adding a slushbox doesn't disqualify it from being a real driver's car. This six-speed auto is excellent in Mid, and when left to its own devices, it snaps off upshifts and downshifts with the best of 'em. But the gearbox really comes into its own in Sport and when using the paddles.
I'd still prefer a manual, but there's certainly no shame in buying an automatic Mini anymore.
In this setting, it behaves almost like a dual-clutch unit, with rapid upshifts that are accompanied by an audible "blarp" from the exhaust. Tug the left paddle a couple of times, and downshifts are fired off easy and confidently. I'd still prefer a manual, but there's certainly no shame in buying an automatic Mini anymore.
Let's be honest, if you're looking at hot hatchbacks, you aren't going to buy a Mini based on its acceleration; you'll buy it based on the way it handles. Now, before I dig into the meat and potatoes, it's worth pointing out that this Cooper sports a totally basic S model suspension. Neither the Sport Suspension nor the Dynamic Damper Control (mutually exclusive $500 options) have been fitted here, so it's fair to say that my handling complaints could well be addressed pretty easily from the factory (and the Mini community's robust aftermarket will surely have a thing or two to say, as well).
Is this a sharp car? Yes. Is it significantly sharper than a Volkswagen GTI or Ford Fiesta ST? No. This Mini no longer sells itself solely based on how it takes a corner. It's duller on turn-in and roll is more noticeable than in past iterations, although when it does arrive, it comes on predictably and builds progressively. Still, this F56 doesn't feel as planted through corners as previous generations, despite having its front and rear track stretched by an inch. I'd blame the increased body roll, which contributes to a generally more ponderous handling character. At least Mini has been able to keep the weight gain for 2014 to less than 100 pounds over the 2013 (2,795 pounds on my tester versus 2,712 for a 2013 MCS automatic).
So, it's not as good in the bends, which is pretty un-Mini. Thankfully, it makes up for some of these shortcomings with excellent feedback, thanks in no small part to Mini's new sport seats. It's easy to sense grip levels and the weight balance through the seat of the pants, allowing the driver to smoothly steer through the corners with the throttle. Grip is adequate from the 205/45 Pirelli Cinturato P7 all-season rubber, although if you're really thinking of maximum grip, there are a number of more compelling options.
The new model feels like a car that's better balanced between comfort and sportiness.
Overall, the new model does – and this is perhaps the most important thing I'll say about the ride and handling – feel like a car that's better balanced between comfort and sportiness. It handles nearly as well as the R56 while delivering a far better ride. It's much more composed over bumps and imperfections and it doesn't shudder quite so much when you ding a pothole. Moreover, it feels more stable on uneven or washboard stretches of road.
Road noise, meanwhile, has been reduced for 2014. There's noticeably less tire roar from the Pirellis, and this latest Mini's upright face hasn't negatively affected the amount of wind noise. Despite a zesty exhaust note when ran hard, the Mini's 2.0-liter is subdued and well-mannered on the freeway cruise.
If a Mini's most important trait is its handling, the second most is its steering. After all, the well-worn idea of "go-kart handling" derives more from the Mini's steering rack than its actual handling prowess. Coopers need to feel sharp, darty and immediate. Yet conversely, the steering must help contribute to a stable freeway ride to make up for the car's inherently short wheelbase and firm suspension.
In this respect, the latest Cooper S fits the bill nicely. The steering is suitably hefty, particularly in Sport, yet it's not a chore (and if it ever starts to feel like one, Mid does a nice approximation of a normal steering weight). At speed, turn-in is a bit duller than in previous Minis, but it still offers a directness that few cars in this class can match. On-center feel is good and credible feedback carries through from lock to lock despite the use of an electric motor.
The steering is suitably hefty, yet it's not a chore.
Mini has fitted an ample set of brakes for its Cooper S, with 11.6-inch vented front discs and 10.2-inch rears, providing plenty suitable performance for a hot hatch. The pedal is easy to modulate and overall feel is good. I didn't have a chance to really heat the brakes up to the point that fade became an issue, so it's difficult to say what (if any) effect the Cooper S' standard front brake ducts have.
In today's economy-minded world, a car's fuel efficiency is more important than ever. Despite its hot-hatch reputation, the Mini delivers solid numbers, with 38 miles per gallon on the freeway and 27 mpg in the city, for a 31 mpg combined rating. I've no doubt that those numbers are achievable provided you don't drive you Cooper S like I drove my tester. I achieved 25.5 mpg while driving hard. Motor in a reasonable manner and take advantage of the Green mode (like BMW's Eco mode, it's an easy way to save fuel through smarter driving), and I've little doubt that 38 mpg is possible.
And now, we get to Mini's traditional Achilles' heel – the price. A base 2014 Cooper S is a mere $23,600 (that figure has climbed to $24,100 for the newly available 2015). Of course, no one will ever leave a dealer in a no-boxes-checked Cooper S. They'll dive into the Porsche-like options catalog, and before long, the result will be an eye-watering $36,895 delivered, just like this test car. Of course, for that amount of money, most customers will be very well catered to.
It's a hugely satisfying start to the reborn Mini Cooper's third act.
My tester offered up the Fully Loaded Package, a $4,500 equipment group that includes the $1,750 Premium (alarm, push-button start, panoramic sunroof and Harmon Kardon stereo), $1,250 Sport packages (LED headlights, 17-inch wheels and bonnet stripes) and $1,750 Wired Package (Mini Connected with navigation, rearview camera, park-distance control and a center armrest). This particular car was also fitted with the $600 Cold Weather Package (heated front seats and mirrors), $1,750 six-speed automatic with JCW steering wheel and paddle shifters and $500 head-up display. There were a few other, more affordable options here and there. And of course, that price can easily climb. My tester's upholstery is positively plebeian at $750 – there's an available $1,700 leather treatment, and a pair that run $1,500.
I didn't fall in love with the last-generation R56 Mini because it was too compromised. It sacrificed driving thrills and character in the name of comfort and refinement, but that balance hurt the enthusiast without adequately benefitting the general buying public – it was neither comfortable nor refined enough to be worth the performance trade-offs. With this latest generation, that balance has been altered to the point that the end product will be more pleasing to both groups. This is a genuinely fun and accessible performance car, but it's also a first-class commuter, offering all the abilities that make these cars so popular without any of the drawbacks. It's a hugely satisfying start to the reborn Mini Cooper's third act, and I can't wait to see where the brand goes from here.