Review: sizing up the new Mini Cooper

14 May 2014

F56 Mini Cooper front view

Mini Cooper (F56)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: go-kart handling, economical, appealing interior
Bad: go-kart ride, pokey boot, options can add up
Price: from £15,300
First things first: the new Mini is not quite as mini as before. The petrol-powered Cooper model I’ve borrowed extends to just over 3.8 metres in length or about 10cm longer than before, with much of the extra measurement in the nose. Only about 3cm of stretch has occurred between the wheels.

The new Mini is also about 4cm wider, but roughly the same height as before.

Anyone who thinks the new car has ballooned excessively should probably get a grip. Existing competitors like the Audi A1, Alfa Mito and Citroen DS3 remain noticeably bigger. This is still a compact car, although there’s now a better chance of being able to squeeze into the back without needing to adopt the lotus position. At 5 feet 10 I can now sit behind my own driving seat without recourse to a saw.

F56 Mini Cooper interior

There’s also a welcome improvement in elbow room up front, though you still sit low and feel fairly snug. Visibility is good, though. The windscreen remains unfashionably upright and the screen pillars are still remarkably slim and easy to peer around by current standards. The windscreen does seem further away, perhaps because it wraps around in more of a curve than before. The raised bonnet line means I can now see the gentle curves of the wings, which were hidden before, helping to place the car while parking.

The Cooper’s base price of £15,300 buys a cabin that feels convincingly classy, and where movable things glide with silky precision. The dashboard panel in front of the passenger slides up and out to reveal a flock-lined, phone-sized cubby, for example. And the lid doesn’t rattle when closed.

F56 Mini Cooper green mode

The new interior feels a little more grown up and logical than the last one, especially now that the central dish contains an interactive screen by default rather than a dinner-plate speedo. The neat instrument cluster is clamped to the steering column, moving in tandem with the wheel as it’s adjusted for reach or rake.

A toggle-style red start button has also arrived in the centre console, and is less of a fiddle than the old business of slotting a big keyfob into the dashboard. The window switches have migrated to the doors, where they belong.

On the move, the ride is still recognisably Mini, complete with go-kart feel. And that’s not meant as a compliment. Today’s test vehicle has been saddled with 17-inch alloys, a £970 option box that might have been better left unticked. Together with 45-profile tyres, the big rims provide such a jangling response to every lump and bump that I worry my eyeballs might rattle out onto my lap. Variable damper control, a £375 option, seems to provide a choice among different grades of concrete.

F56 Mini Cooper side view

So if you’re ordering a Cooper and thinking of maxing up from the standard 15-inch wheels, I’d strongly urge you to try before you buy. I suspect the biggest wheels alter much more than the car’s stance.

Shod with 205/45 Pirelli P-Zero tyres, the wheels do provide astonishing levels of wet-road grip. The direct, quick steering turns the car as if it’s just dug a crowbar into the road, letting the Cooper whip through corners with a cat-burglar’s agility. As long as the bend isn’t bumpy, that is. Throw in a few ruts and ridges and the stiff suspension will send you bouncing through chunks of understeer, because even wide tyres can’t grip when they’re airborne.

The optional head-up display is a fabulous new addition, with crisp and colourful graphics, focused at arm’s length to help reduce eyestrain. You can flick your gaze away from the road ahead, take in directions or check your speed, and have an eye back on the road in an instant. The little smoked screen folds neatly away at the end of each journey, to keep itself clean and dust free.

F56 Mini Cooper HUD

The head-up option is by no means cheap, however, costing £375 but also requiring a £1,575 media upgrade pack, plus auto lights and wipers at £90. Why the head-up display needs auto wipers is anyone’s guess.

Alas the boot remains cramped compared to competitors, holding only 211 litres with the seats raised. That is 50 litres bigger than before, plus there’s a handy flip-up floor that clips into place when raised. I don’t imagine you’d easily squash a baby buggy or bag of golf clubs aboard without first folding a rear seat. Helpfully, the seatback is now split 60:40 rather than 50:50.

My particular Mini Cooper features a six-speed automatic gearbox, a £1,270 option. It’s a torque converter design but thankfully one with relatively little slur, capable of locking up for slush-free progress from just 1,100rpm. It also seems confident in making reasonably quick-witted changes on the move, apparently helped by satnav knowledge of upcoming bends.

The auto box comes complete with engine stop-start and can also be fully decoupled from the engine to save fuel. To enable this coasting capability, flip the car into Green mode using the control ring that encircles the gearstick, ahead of the BMW-style multimedia controller. The other modes are Mid and Sport, which collectively govern the various settings that can be beefed up or eased off, including shift patterns, suspension damping, throttle response and steering weight.

F56 Mini Cooper mode selector

An automatic transmission is not quite in keeping with this particular Mini’s manic ride. On the flipside, the six-speed manual box I sampled in the more powerful new Mini Cooper S would not be in keeping either. Perhaps it was a dud rather than the norm, but a stiff, plasticky action and numb clutch made it difficult to slot home quick changes and robbed confidence in brisk getaways. The Mini now blips its throttle to aid downchanges, but I'd be happier if the gears felt less like a tub full of rubber bands.

A new three-cylinder, 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine is one of the more impressive parts of the new Cooper. It’s not quiet, but the noises it barks out slide cleanly from throaty growls to melodious howls, without seeming to linger on any dreary drones in the middle.

Power peaks at 136bhp, although there’s a decent spread of puff throughout the rev range. Weight is up only 10kg over the old Cooper while there’s 10% more power at 1,500 fewer revs, resulting in a much more athletic feel. The dash to 62mph can be completed in a very swift 7.9 seconds with manual gears, a full 2.2 seconds brisker than before. Surprisingly, the auto is a tenth quicker again than the manual, by virtue of shorter gearing.

F56 Mini Cooper rear view

Official consumption for the manual car is 62.8mpg on the combined cycle test with 105g/km of CO2, while my automatic scores 60.1mpg and 109g/km in its exams. Again these represent significant improvements over the outgoing Cooper hatchback. I haven’t yet driven far enough to know what kind of economy to expect in the real world. For lower CO2, one of the new diesel Mini hatchbacks would be a better bet in any case, with the Cooper D rated at 92g/km and the slower Mini One D turning in just 89g/km. All new Mini engines are Euro 6 rated for emissions.

The new Mini offers an interesting mix of the new and the familiar, to anyone who’s used to the outgoing Mini. I like the increased size – it’s a sensible compromise given the swelling size of other cars on the road, and even opens up the possibility of a new micro Mini model in the style of the 2011 Rocketman concept.

For now, the upgraded Mini offers an appealing mix of speed, agility, quality and economy – as long as you can afford the pricey options and don’t mind the rattling ride.

F56 Mini Cooper front view

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