2019 Mini Cooper review – retro supermini as polished as ever

The latest Mini Cooper is a very different hatchback to the original R50, but remains fun to drive and is more polished than ever

PRICE: From $23,000 (Cooper Classic)

Rating
star-4
Pro
Excellent body control, polished dynamics, well judged ride and lots of big-car tech
Con
Outright handling lacks the edge of previous models, larger than it should be, challenging-looking five-door

Since BMW brought the Mini brand back from the dead in 2001, the Mini Cooper has been a stalwart in the supermini class, combining funky looks and an entertaining driving experience with typically high quality German build and tech. The current third-generation model has been on sale since 2014, moving to a new set of underpinnings shared with other BMW models.

This decision to move the Mini onto a shared platform with other models within the BMW line-up was made to help spread costs and include high-specification technology, but in the process relegated the sophisticated, but expensive platform of the previous two generations of Mini to retirement.

As of 2018 the standard Mini hatch, along with its five-door hatch and Cabriolet variants, received a gentle update, upgrading tech, adding new LED lights front and rear (more on those later), as well as tweaked engines to further improve L/100km and CO2 figures. Question is, does the new Mini Cooper address the issue we had with the pre-facelift model’s fairly staid driving experience?

MY18 Mini Cooper hatch - headlights

Prices, specs and rivals

Prices start at $21,045 for the basic Mini One Classic hatch, opening up the range with a naturally aspirated 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine with 101bhp. Standard equipment has been improved over the previous model, with those distinctive LED lights at the front and rear now standard. Mini now also fits a 6.5-inch colour screen across the range, replacing the previous car’s old dot-matrix screen.

Next step up is the standard Mini Cooper Classic, adding a turbocharger to the three-cylinder engine for a more lively 134bhp. At $23,000, the Cooper’s pricing puts it at around the same as an equivalent Audi A1, but thanks to its recent upgrade in standard equipment, has the edge in value terms. Look outside the premium sector, and the Mini’s pricing also looks favourable next to cars like the Suzuki Swift Sport, although the Ford Fiesta ST’s aggressive $25,341 will be a consideration for those craving great-value performance.

Above this you’ll find the Cooper S Classic at $27,193. 2019 pricing hasn’t yet been announced for the Cooper S Works, nor the Cooper D, pending WLTP changes. Those prices are all for the three-door variants too, of course. Five-door models cost $900 more, respectively, and dual-clutch automatic models are a further $1800, which does mean a basic $23,000 Cooper Classic can start to look quite expensive if you need more doors and want to dispense with the left-hand pedal. More still if you want to drop the roof – the Mini Cooper Classic Convertible begins at $26,000, or $3200 more than the three-door hatch.

MY18 Mini Cooper hatch - rear lights

As mentioned previously, all Minis come with full LED lights front and rear and a 6.5-inch colour display, while keyless push-button start, climate control, DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB connection are all standard fit, too. You’ll need to option alloy wheels for the One, but the Cooper gets 16-inch items as standard, and as always, the choices for personalisation are nearly endless on any Mini.

Engine, gearbox and technical specs

Unsurprisingly, both the three- and five-door models share the same engine and gearbox choices. All are front-wheel drive, driven through either a six-speed manual or a new seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The manual is preferable, its shift quick and pleasingly accurate, while Mini’s pedal spacing is such that heel-and-toe accelerator-blipped downshifts are easy to master. The automatic’s swift enough, even if it’s prone to the odd bout of confusion, though you can always take over via wheel-mounted paddles if you want to get more involved.

The new Mini One now utilises the same 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine as the rest of the range, replacing the older 1.2-litre PSA-derived unit that underpinned the old Mini One. Despite the rise in capacity, the new engine’s lack of a turbocharger does soften mid-range performance slightly, not that the previous Mini One was a particularly high-performance model anyway.

The Cooper’s three-cylinder is a much more effective unit, but works best in the mid-range, as so many modern petrols do. This is not a powerplant that relishes revs, a fact compounded by the Cooper’s impressive refinement, but still makes decent enough progress when hustled. Vibrations are impressively suppressed, and the standard six-speed manual transmission is fast and accurate, even if the throw is a little long.

The four-cylinder in the Cooper S is substantially more powerful, producing 192bhp with 208lb ft of torque. In this application, the Mini’s thick spread of torque makes light work of the Cooper S’ 1235kg weight figure, although again, the engine’s lack of top-end pizzazz means the Cooper S is no longer the stand-out supermini hot hatch it used to be.

Performance and 0-100kph time

With the standard Mini One’s move to a new 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine, the new Mini has now totally transferred across to BMW’s modular engine range. The 1.5 is hardly brisk, taking 10.1sec to get to 100kph, but it’s fast enough in town to keep up with traffic, and impressively refined.

Next up is the Cooper, using the same 1.5-litre engine, but adding a turbocharger to the package, lifting power to 134bhp, while torque is up, to 162lb ft. The turbo is felt most in the mid-range, reducing the 0-100kph time to 7.9sec. For some of the evo office it’s the most pleasant engine in the range to use, feeling more appropriate in its surroundings than the slightly pained-sounding 2-litre, though tall gearing blunts what could be an even more involving powertrain.

The sole diesel-powered Mini is the Cooper D, powered by a turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel engine. With 115bhp and a stout 199lb ft of torque, it manages the 0-100kph sprint in 9.9sec.

MY18 Mini Cooper hatch - profile

Quicker still is the Cooper S. With a manual transmission, the three-door version dashes to 100kph in 6.8sec and tops out at 235kph. The John Cooper Works is even quicker, covering the same metric in 6.3sec. Top speed for the Works is 246kph – more than enough for most, we suspect. It’s just a shame neither model sounds particularly joyful in getting there. The engine is fairly smooth, but the artificial parp it emits isn’t particularly sonorous and there’s little encouragement to push it to the red line.

Adding a pair of doors inevitably dampens things a bit, but it’s marginal, the five-door One adding around 0.3sec to the 0-100kph time. The Coopers, whether petrol or diesel, add between 0.2- and 0.3sec to their sprint times, and the Cooper S a single tenth, but the reality is you’ll be hard pushed to notice on the road. The Coopers top out at 209kph, though all will manage over 160kph, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Ride and handling

When the first BMW-engineered ‘R53’ Mini hatch was launched in 2001, its nostalgic styling and clever detailing might have made it a hit on the sales charts, but its superb handling characteristics proved that BMW hadn’t cut corners on its first ever front-wheel chassis.

The bespoke platform was a great one, with a low centre of gravity and square stance on the road complemented by the unusual application of multi-link rear suspension. As a result, the Mini had real talent on the road, with a snappy front end complemented by sure-footed handling that always seemed to grip no matter the circumstance. The next-generation Mini, revealed in 2007, was built on this same platform, improving ride quality and refinement along the way. Both, in short, felt like proper “Minis”, even if they were significantly larger than the classics from which their name was derived.

Unfortunately, with BMW wanting to spread the development costs of the Mini’s front-wheel-drive platform, the third-generation F55 Mini moved over to a larger chassis shared with BMW’s 2-series Active Tourer and X1 crossover, changing not only the way the new model looked, but also softening its driving experience. It’s still very well sorted, and the Mini feels sophisticated underfoot like few, if any other superminis, but that pointed aggression has taken a step back over its predecessors.

MY18 Mini Cooper hatch - front

The flip-side of this new platform has been a big jump in refinement, something that probably appeals to most buyers, but it has taken away some of the Mini’s USP against more mainstream rivals.

The steering, although sharp, doesn’t communicate much information about the road surface, nor how much the front tyres have to give. The seating position, although lower than most rivals, is at least a few centimetres taller than before, making you feel yet more removed from the action in comparison to previous Minis. The ride quality is very well judged, though, and even over rough surfaces maintains composure, whilst never deteriorating to the point of discomfort. There is no doubt that the Mini holds on to its dynamic edge over its more pedestrian rivals, but the distinction between settled premium hatch and hot hatch seems to be thinner than ever.

Push further up the range, and the John Cooper Works models increase roll stiffness, but the sophisticated damping rarely feels out of step, even if overall ride quality becomes a little more compromised. Body control, as a result, is improved, while any sign of traction deterioration is made up for by the stickier tyre compound.

evo Tip

Don’t ignore the non-Cooper Mini models. The Mini One is most definitely worth considering, not lacking in any sort of fun factor behind the wheel despite being down on power compared to the rest of the model range. The entire line-up of engines deliver fairly feisty performance and also offer a decent level of economy. You’ve got low running costs, thanks in part to excellent retained values and the option of Mini’s useful TLC servicing packs.

The five-door version loses little to its three-door relation on the road, while the extra practicality it brings is useful, but it’s still not quite as spacious or useful as some less glamorous mainstream supermini rivals. Plentiful option choices allow unrivalled personalisation, but watch those tick boxes; if you get carried away the price heads upwards alarmingly quickly – it’s easy to spend a lot more on a Mini than intended.

L/100km and running costs

Given the Mini was originally conceived as a solution for an oil crisis, the current car really should be a frugal proposition. It proves so, too, as all feature stop-start to cut out any unnecessary idling when stood still. Mini benefits from all of BMW’s EfficientDynamics technology and turbocharging expertise. The result is a choice of cars that avoid the pumps commendably.

No surprises that the Cooper D is the economy champion, achieving a highly impressive 3.9 L/100km on the old NEDC cycle, that backed with an emissions figure of just 102g/km.

Don’t rule out the petrol models on economy grounds, either, as the diesels’ benefits are only really useful on longer runs, while the price differential buys a decent amount of fuel, too. The One achieves 5.4 L/100km and emissions of 122g/km – identical figures to the turbocharged Cooper. Even the four-cylinder Cooper S manages 6.4 L/100km as a three-door – on paper, at least. Opting for the automatic or five-door in all worsens these figures slightly, so if you’re watching the pennies – and trying to lesson your tax burden – choose wisely.

Mini pioneered fixed-price servicing packages and the TLC pack remains a popular and cost-efficient way of running the Mini, with five years or 80,000 kilometres of servicing. Add high residual values and sensible insurance costs and the Mini can be run for comparatively little money, particularly when you take into account its premium positioning.

Interior and tech

The interior has been just as much a part of the Mini’s retro design motif as its exterior, with each generation improving on quality and user-friendliness. The latest car brings with it a swathe of tech from BMW, including the same i-Drive system, only with re-formatted fonts and menus.

MY18 Mini Cooper hatch - dash

Build quality is impressive compared to many rivals, and although the interior doesn’t quite have the solidity of the Audi A1, its more joyful interior design is an important touch compared to the sometimes dour Audi. Centre to this is the large glowing roundel that sits in the centre of the dash. Now a home for the infotainment screen, the actual dials sit in front of the driver in a floating pod, with a central analogue speedo flanked by an offset rev counter.

Although the ergonomics have been much improved, it’s still got plenty of flair, while personalisation options have now been taken yet further, with buyers able to commission their own interior panels and kick plates with bespoke lettering or branding.

Space has also been improved dramatically over previous models, although the three-door is still only really a four-seater. Rear-seat and boot space are better, while storage in front is greater, also. The bluff, upright windscreen still informs the short dashboard (and means forward visibility is pretty good, the A-pillars minimal hindrance of your view out), but overall, the Mini feels like a much larger car inside than its predecessors.

Design

Where the interior design has held on to much of the original Mini’s character, the exterior design has been heavily affected by the current-generation R55 model’s move to a shared BMW platform. The place this is most obviously seen is in the extended front overhang, an element that defined the previous Mini’s bluff retro design.

MY18 Mini Cooper hatch - front quarter

To try to offset this dramatic change in proportion, Mini’s designers applied a large amount of curve at the front of the car, pulling the ends of the headlights and front intakes as far back as possible to try to hide the bulky front end. You can make your own mind up whether you think it’s successful or not, but to some eyes it almost looks like a knock-off of the original, rather than the next-generation model.

To further offset these new proportions, most of the design details that have come to define the modern Mini have been applied, but on a much larger scale. The rear lights have grown in size compared to previous models, something only accentuated by the ‘distinctive’ new rear lights fitted at the facelift.

Made worse is the 5-door model, as Mini’s designers have not only given it a certain rake on the rear screen to try to distinguish it from the Clubman estate, but also fitted framed doors in contrast to the three-door’s frameless units. The result is that on top of an already weird profile, the door frame’s questionable execution leaves much to be desired in the design department.

Love it or loathe it, the new Mini definitely makes a statement, but with the new Audi A1 striking a better balance between aggression, nostalgia and the need to place these new motifs on shared architecture, the Mini treads a fine line between purpose and pastiche. We can’t be the only people wondering how BMW plans to update the car for the next generation without skewing its features even more.

This article originally appeared at evo.co.uk

Copyright © evo UK, Dennis Publishing

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