Reinventing an icon isn’t a walk in the park. Instead of simply writing a new book, you effectively take an existing book, study the earlier and later chapters, and then come up with a new way to bridge the gap, such that it appeals to as many readers of all ages as possible.
If we consider that analogy, when the good folk at BMW were developing the all-new R50 MINI a-decade-and-a-half ago, the scale of the task must’ve been akin to reworking Wuthering Heights for the 21st century – and it wasn’t even written in their own language to begin with!
But the many, many nights sustained by tea instead of the usual coffee paid off. In spite of teething issues in the early models, the MINI marque is arguably the most successful reincarnated car brand of our time; amidst its reborn Volkswagen Beetle and Fiat 500 contemporaries, the driving force behind it all that is the MINI Hatch has made a significant mark worldwide.
We arrive now at the F56 MINI – “the new original.” Assuming “original” refers to Issigonis’ genesis, this seems an injustice, given that the new MINI is more of a Maxi than ever before. But surely we’re past the point wondering if Sir Alex is turning over in his grave; this is already the third iteration of BMW’s MINI, and a model in its own right. At least we don’t have to worry about water seeping into the distributor.
So, if it doesn’t quite hark back to its plebeian economy car origins, what does it achieve? Quite a lot, as a day of driving the Cooper and Cooper S in sunny and sandy Puerto Rico revealed. Is it a better car than its acclaimed R56 predecessor? Join us as we attempt to find out.
Sitting on a new UKL (Unter Klasse) platform that also underpins the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer, it’s bigger all-round than before – although it may not look so at first. Length, width and height are up by 98, 44 and seven mm to 3,821, 1,727 and 1,414 mm respectively, while the wheelbase has jumped 28 mm to 2,495 mm. Front and rear tracks are now the same width at 1,501 mm, representing an increase of 42 mm up front and 34 mm out back.
The Cooper S is the only Hatch model to have a different length and track – at 3,850 and 1,485 mm respectively, it’s longer and has a narrower track than the rest. The performance-oriented model’s extra length comes from those jut-out chins at both ends, resulting in overhangs of 757 mm front and 598 mm rear – respectively eight and 21 mm longer than the Cooper’s overhangs.
Telling them apart is pretty easy – the Cooper S has the aforementioned jut-out chins, central twin tailpipes and a bonnet scoop. There are also differences in the grille treatment (Cooper triple chrome bars, Cooper S black honeycomb), front bumper, side indicator ‘gills’, strip above number plate (Cooper chrome, Cooper S gloss black) and fuel flap (Cooper plain, Cooper S racing-style chrome).
This is MINI’s most radical nose job yet; and yet, you wouldn’t mistake it as belonging to any other brand – surely that’s an achievement in itself. That wide-eyed look comes courtesy of those optional LED headlamps encircled by thick light rings (split into DRLs on top and indicators on the bottom), and while there were already signs of the chin forming on the R56 facelift Cooper S, the new one unashamedly sticks it out like a stubborn child would its tongue.
I awake some mornings thinking it looks refreshingly cheeky; on others just looking surprised. What hasn’t been able to escape me is how the very busy front (even busier on the Cooper S) seems to be at odds with the rest of the body, which is a lot cleaner-looking in comparison. Certainly draws a whole lot of attention to that face. In terms of looks, the more classic-looking Cooper is my preference.
The side profile remains unsullied by strips or mouldings, but gains a discreet crease at the bottom of the doors. There’s still a ‘floating’ tapered roof, a chrome-underlined glasshouse and black-framed rear windows, although due to shoulder and sill lines that are more parallel to the ground, the new car eschews the point-and-squirt stance of its predecessor for a more ‘grounded’ look.
Wheels on the global menu are 15- to 18-inches in diameter. These include three JCW items. You’d want a minimum of 17s (as fitted on the cars I drove, wrapped in 205/45 Pirelli P-Zero rubber) to properly visually offset the bulk though, and in the past, this would’ve meant frequent visits to your chiropractor, but with the F56… let’s just say you won’t be needing his telephone number.
Now let’s check out that rump. The changes here are subtle – the LED tail lamps (fitted in conjunction with LED headlamps) are enlarged, such that they now encroach into the tailgate. The MINI logo now sits on a fatter strip above the number plate, and of course the rear bumper is new. The fuel flap is now on the right of the vehicle and the Cooper’s solitary tailpipe on the left – on the R56 it was the other way round.
No more having to squeeze the latch behind the door handle; the handle now fully pulls out, releasing the frameless door. Slide into those body-hugging sport seats (standard on Cooper S, optional on the rest) and you face a familiar, but not so familiar cockpit. The speedo now resides in a less prominent but more prosaic location behind the steering wheel (test cars were fitted with JCW items), where it’s disproportionately flanked by a crescent-shaped rev counter and an LED bar-type fuel gauge.
Look ahead and you’ll see a first-for-MINI retractable head-up display that shows vehicle speed, navigation instructions and speed limits in full colour. In place of the old car’s big central speedo sits an infotainment screen, surrounded by an LED ring and radio buttons. The central air vents are no longer circular, while the climate controls – now dual-zone – have been simplified into a more ergonomic triple-knob affair, their classy black faces displaying temperature, blower speed and air flow.
The row of centre stack toggles remain, now with an engine start flap that pulses red (full keyless entry and start means you don’t have to slide the key into the slot like you used to). Like on the Countryman and Paceman, the window and door lock switches are now on the doors. The light switch, previously located on the stalk, is now a knob on the driver’s side, and you used to press a shiny oval button on the passenger-side dashboard to open the glovebox; now you pull a more conventional flap latch.
You would’ve surmised by now that where the interior is concerned, the new car has lost quite a bit of its dad’s retro cool, taking away with it playfulness, innocence, quirkiness and old-world charm – they’ve even taken away the cute little blob-like button on the dashboard top that operated the hazards! Also, the speedo numbers are no longer aligned to the meter curvature, and they’re now white-on-black – like on almost every other car on the road.
However, there exist some interesting interior elements that liven things up, and none more so than the LED ring around the central infotainment screen, which is actually animated. The LEDs illuminate in six colours according to lots of vehicle functions, including engine and road speed (light impulses mirror the movements of the instrument dial pointers) and climate control temperature (blue and red).
Quite a spectacle for passengers, but hardly informative to the driver, who is unlikely to constantly pay attention to it, let alone work out what all the different colour sequences mean! As if that wasn’t enough, for the full Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you can specify a Lighting Package, which provides more interior LEDs and orange ambient lighting.
There are also new manual and auto gear levers with funny-shaped knobs. Push the passenger-side dashboard and it flips open to reveal a cubbyhole big enough for perhaps a wallet, a phone and a bunch of keys, due to its tapered shape. The MINI Controller, essentially the new iDrive with the touch-sensitive knob face, is much more intuitive to use than the previous miniscule conical knob.
More room inside, as you’d expect – even if it isn’t immediately obvious. All four seats have more spatial comfort; the front seats have a bigger adjustment range. Crucially, the rear quarters are considerably more habitable – the back seat surface is longer and there’s more shoulder and foot space. Three cupholders in the rear and two up front make five in total. Opening the top of the front armrest reveals an iPhone dock, and the whole thing can be tilted backwards for rear passengers’ use.
The 60:40-split rear seats have two seat back angles to choose from, and boot volume has jumped an impressive 51 litres to 211 litres. Our cars had the optional storage package, which gives you a double load floor, a luggage compartment net and front seat back pouches. With this, there are many possible storage configurations to make the most of that load space – you can trade seat back angle for more luggage and vice versa. You can have a tall, or long and flat load area. Pretty clever.
To sum up the interior: it’s a more comfortable, user-friendly, high-tech, premium and practical place to be in. But the fact that MINI has never taken itself more seriously than this suggests it really wants to leave the ‘niche’ tag behind for a bigger slice of the global market. I always thought of the German-owned British brand as a Peter Pan, but I guess we all have to grow up someday.
Goodbye Prince powerplants – the F56 MINI’s engines are newly and solely developed by BMW. They’re all turbocharged, direct-injected and Euro 6-compliant, featuring variable camshaft control on the intake and exhaust side, and, in the case of the Cooper and Cooper S, fully variable valves as well. The mills are connected to either a six-speed manual, six-speed auto or six-speed sports auto (optional for Cooper S).
I tried the Cooper S first. Immediately I noted the more forgiving ride, bearing in mind Puerto Rican roads aren’t exactly the world’s best. While not what you’d call supple, it clearly doesn’t crash into holes and jolt over bumps the way the old car did. Largely, we have the optional Dynamic Damper Control to thank for that. A first for MINI, the system switches between two damper setups – comfort or sporty – depending on the driving condition.
Suspension is taken care of by single-joint MacPherson struts up front (now with aluminium swivel bearings) and a multi-link axle out back. The modified front axle kinematics serve to quicken turn-in and heighten steering response, while tube-shaped front and rear stabilisers contribute to weight reduction.
Another first for MINI is selectable driving modes – that’s the rotary switch at the base of the gear lever. Sport, Mid and Green settings influence throttle response, steering assistance and gearchange points for the auto gearbox. The differences between the modes are quite discernible. Green mode works just like BMW’s Eco Pro – lift off the throttle anywhere between 50 and 160 km/h and the engine and gearbox are decoupled to enable coasting, while the instrument panel display shows you the range you’re saving in this mode.
A new 2.0 litre B48 four-cylinder turbo engine resides under the clamshell bonnet – the biggest engine ever fitted to a production MINI. It delivers 192 hp between 4,700 and 6,000 rpm and 280 Nm of twist between 1,250 and 4,750 rpm, with 300 Nm on overboost. That’s 11 hp and 30 Nm more than the previous 1.6 litre turbo could give, over a significantly wider rev range.
The Cooper S we drove was fitted with the quick-shifting sports auto and shift paddles. Where navigation is fitted, this gearbox can select a suitable gear based on the conditions of the road ahead, using GPS data. At low speeds, gearchanges are not truly imperceptible outside of Green mode, but neither are they intrusive.
Kickdown is near-immediate, and the following punch enough to surprise, particularly upon first experience. And there’s no sign of it waning as you approach the redline. Equipped with this gearbox, the car hits the century from rest in 6.7 seconds before topping out at 233 km/h (manual 6.8 seconds, 235 km/h). It’s rapid.
But less raw and with less roar – the new engine spins more smoothly and readily, and remains somewhat muted from inside unless you give it the beans, when it emits a clean, mechanical crescendo. More sophisticated and civilised road manners on the whole mean the new car is less of a hooligan than the old car – good or bad depends on how you look at it. Is it nice to drive, at the end of the day? Well, it’s a MINI – ’nuff said.
Crucially, the more matured, sure-footed character inspires more driver confidence, as does the electromechanical power steering (now with speed-sensitive Servotronic as standard) which, if anything, is even more direct, accurate and responsive than before. Torque steer compensation adds to the overall feeling of stability and security already afforded by lots of lateral grip and tight body control. Basically, you tackle twisties with more aplomb and less drama.
Also, the Cooper S now cuts through the air more easily, with a 0.31 Cd compared to 0.36 before. Factor in a weight reduction and you can appreciate how the new car can claim a combined fuel consumption of 5.7-5.8 litres per 100 km for the manual and 5.2-5.4 for the auto (previously 5.8 and 6.4 respectively).
But despite the much softer edge, it was the Cooper that impressed me most. Sure, you won’t be able to dart in and out of corners and tear down a country lane the way you can in the Cooper S, but ladies and gentlemen, this is a little engine that doesn’t know it’s a little engine. The Cooper’s new 1.5 litre B38 three-cylinder unit has on offer 136 hp between 4,500 and 6,000 rpm and 220 Nm of torque between 1,250 and 4,000 rpm, with 230 Nm on overboost.
Firstly, these numbers represent a big jump from the old Cooper’s free-breathing 1.6 – there’s 15 more hp and a significant 60 Nm more torque; again, sustained for far longer. Plus, the shedding of weight and the reduction in Cd from 0.32 to 0.28 allows the new car to claim a combined fuel consumption of 4.5-4.8 litres per 100 km (depending on gearbox), where the old car declared a much less frugal 5.4-6.4.
Secondly, it does not behave like you’d expect a triple to; operation is smooth-sounding, quiet and vibration-free. It even sounds pretty sporty, encouraging you to pile on the revs, and you can still do 0-100 km/h in a not-slow 7.9 seconds and max out at 210 km/h. That’s over a second down on the old Cooper, by the way.
Joy of joys, this one had three pedals. The gear lever has a shorter throw and a smaller knob, so you can snatch-and-slot more quickly and easily. Thanks to carbon friction linings for the synchro rings, the shift action is more fluid and cushioned than before, with a lighter spring bias than the R56’s notchy setup and without being any less positive.
As long as you’re in the right gear, the previously sedate Cooper will – after a short delay – turn into a wonderfully lively machine, when you step on it. This is in contrast with the Cooper S, which, although more of a gentleman than the lad it replaces, still strains at the leash to be rocketed towards the horizon. On the public roads, the Cooper’s talents are eminently more exploitable.
Finally, gadgetry. The MINI Connected system now has Journey Mate as an option (networked navigation with real-time traffic info), there are Driving Excitement and Minimalism Analysers (showing you how ‘exciting’ or fuel-efficient your driving is through fun graphics), and a reverse camera and parking assistant (full self-parking) are available for the first time. A Driving Assistant option brings in camera-based active cruise control, collision prevention, road sign detection and high beam assist.
As I sign off here, the car has just enjoyed a speedy launch in Malaysia – less than four months after its world debut. The Cooper is priced at RM178,888; the Cooper S at RM228,888. The former can be upgraded with the Chilli pack, and the latter with the Wired pack – each a RM20k premium. See our local launch report for full details of the Malaysian range.
And there you have it – the new MINI Hatch. Better in just about all aspects at being a car. As a timeless icon, though… well, we’ll have to let time tell.
The F56 MINI has been launched in Malaysia – read the launch report on the Cooper and Cooper S here.