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Mini Cooper 1.5 Review: A peppy little thing

Mini's new Cooper has gained a turbocharger and gave away a cylinder compared to the previous generation. We drive it to find out whether it is still a true Mini.
OneShift Editorial Team
OneShift Editorial Team
09 Jul 2014

I always have had great experiences driving a Mini. It may be tempting to reduce the company's marketing claims as mere spiel, but Minis are truly unique, especially in the way they can go down a good road. The short wheelbase, low centre of gravity and light weight ensures that great handling remains a stronghold of Mini ownership. Mini themselves know this, which is why their Spcenterde has been described as giving a maximum go-kart feel' on the all-new infotainment system, and why they have a graphic of a Mini floating above a go-kart in their brochure.

However, while drivers may have it good in a Mini, passengers may think otherwise. Previous generations under the stewardship of BMW Group, the R53 and R56, were hard riding cars, aggravated by their small size. Passengers felt every bump on the road and those relegated to the rear grieved more, coping with limited legroom.

Now, the new Mini has grown, measuring 3.82 metres (3.85 metres for the Cooper S) bumper to bumper. This means more interior space, including a whopping increase of 51 litres in the boot size to 211 litres. It's without a doubt that the F56 Mini has grown up, especially when you compare its size to its forebears. Can we still recognise it as a typical Mini behind the wheel?

Certainly, from the outside the Mini still has distinct design features that are familiar, such as the 'floating roof' illusion, the circular headlights and wheels pushed out to the edges of the body to minimise front and rear overhangs. However, there is something amiss with the front-end design that was not there before in previous generations. The big headlights make the car look cartoonish, while the bonnet has been swept back slightly, probably a bad side-effect of stricter pedestrian crash regulations. The rear tail lights also look oversized, making the Mini look more comical than stylish as an unintended effect. Although I personally feel the design is a step-back compared to previous models, it is still eye-catching, distinctive and recognisable.

Central to the new Mini's interior is the infotainment system, which is where you will control almost all functions of the car. Graphics are wonderful, having just the right amount of fun to make your day happier and light-hearted. A lot of this has to do with the semi-circle light band round the screen which reacts and changes according to what you input into the system. And, commendably, the Mini is also a car where Green mode is as enjoyable or even more so than other modes - the car will rate your acceleration and road anticipation in saving-the-world terms.

Contrary to most of my peers, I rather like the centrally-located speedometer of the previous car, although the new position behind the steering wheel is far more logical. Power window controls are now on the doors, which is another convention that the Mini turned to - no bad thing, but I never had a problem with the previous arrangement. The Start/Stop button is right in the centre of the key controls, which is novel but may be forebodingly attractive to the curious young. Bluetooth and audio integration with my iPhone 5S is seamless and slick.

Material quality has been notably improved, now being as good as any equivalent BMW. Soft plastics abound wherever it matters, and the doors still close with a resounding clunk. Mood lighting gives a night ambience that can vary from a nightclub to a warm winter lodge. It feels posh, chic and an inviting place to be in - exactly what BMW intended a Mini should feel like.

Equipped with a whole new chassis that will underpin all future Mini models and small front-driven BMW models, the F56 Mini Cooper is a crucial barometer of what to expect in the future. I'm happy to report that it's an excellent steer. That distinctive Mini handling is still in place, giving the car an agility that you just do not find in more conventional rivals that ride higher and are bigger. It is highly resistant to understeer, keenly gathering grip from all four wheels as the car leans ever so slightly in a corner. Helping install confidence is the steering, which feels natural in every mode but Sport, when it becomes a tad too heavy. A keen driver will adore the Mini, even in basic Cooper guise.

Now, what about for passengers? The suspension is still stiff, but less so than before, so you could genuinely ride on the highway for a few hours without feeling like your back has become wooden. Throughout my test drive, passengers still commented that the suspension feels rigid and sometimes unforgiving, but it is entirely easy to live with in most situations. The car is also quiet too, thanks to a Cd value of just 0.28 in the Cooper (you'll have more air resistance in the Cooper S, at 0.31).

Core to the whole driving experience is the new 3-cylinder turbocharged engine. While the previous Cooper was equipped with an anaemic 1.6-litre engine that paled in comparison to the turbocharged S, the entire Mini Cooper range is now turbocharged, which has narrowed the gap considerably between the Cooper and Cooper S.

Built on a modular concept, the engine is in effect three cylinders of 500cc, and is only 500cc (and therefore one cylinder) less than the Cooper S. The great news is that the 3-cylinder configuration is always interesting, one less seen in cars than in bikes. It has a staggeringly good low-end, feeling like it's supercharged, while being extremely eager to rev to its redline. This is one engine that, strangely enough, feels smoother the more it edges to the top of its rev range. It's lovely for someone with a heavy foot, as the engine will gleefully submit to any command for committed driving. A minor drawback of the 3 pot engine is that at low revolutions, you can feel more vibrations than in a 4-cylinder engine, but it's a small compromise for what you get in return. I will go as far to say that I am not sure the 4-cylinder in the Cooper S can feel as characterful as this.

The engine is so good, that even in Green mode, I felt entirely satisfied with the power delivery despite a supposedly pared down throttle response. There is absolutely no flat spot anywhere in the rev range as far as I can tell; it is a fizzing, delightful thing to enjoy. And best of all, it's frugal too - I averaged 11.5km/l on my test drive.

A surprise is how good the 6-speed automatic gearbox is as well. Although initially disappointed that Mini stuck to the same number of gears as in previous generations, in practice the gearbox is appreciably quicker and more intuitive than ever before. Its spread of ratios is fantastic, allowing you to enjoy cruising in refinement yet showering you with great response when you require a kickdown. There are no paddle shifters, which would be an annoyance if not for the excellent gearbox which predicts what gear you need very well. It also has a coasting function, which contributes to the most fun Green mode you'll ever experience, probably in any car.

What we like:
More interior space and toys as standard means this is an easier car to live with day-to-day
It's youthful but not juvenile
What we dislike:
The engine can be slightly harsh at low revolutions
You can't help but feel a manual gearbox will suit this car better still; lack of paddle shifters a glaring omission
The car's looks will divide opinion more than the previous generation.

Minis of today have grown bigger, safer and more equipped than ever before, risking their characteristically fun driving experience. But we need not have worried. The new Cooper is inextricably fun, and thanks to its groundbreaking engine, the Cooper S will now break out in sweat alongside it. It’s still the peppy little thing we have always known and loved.

Credits: Wong C W

Mini Cooper 1.5
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