Mini Cooper S review - more dynamic than the Fiesta ST?

The third-gen Mini Cooper S is now in the UK. Can it compete with the best small hot hatchbacks?

Evo rating
Price
from £18,840
  • Punchy engine, mature chassis, still fun to drive
  • Doesn't look as good as the old car

What is it?

The all-new, third-generation Mini Cooper S. It looks chubbier than either of its predecessors, and has gained some serious front overhang. The upshot is that it’s also become more usable than the last hatch, with a noticeable improvement in rear seat space and a boot that’s either slightly larger, or no longer so comically small, depending on your point of view.

BMW’s latest Mini sits on an all-new platform and is both bigger and lighter than its predecessors. All versions are turbocharged, and while more basic versions now use a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine, the full-on Cooper S has an equally fresh 2-litre four-cylinder turbo engine, producing 189bhp and 206 lb ft of torque. Prices for this start at £18,650.

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Technical highlights?

Mechanically, the new Mini breaks little new ground, sticking closely to the recipe established by its predecessor. Suspension is still by struts at the front and a proper multi-link at the rear instead of the far simpler beam axles fitted to rivals. Everything has been firmed up, with the links front and rear using more high-strength steel, and there’s also slightly more suspension travel than before. Switchable active dampers have become an option for the first time, and although the Cooper S does without a limited-slip differential, it does try to replicate locking by using the ABS system when the front struggles for traction.   

As you’d expect, the new Mini is considerably greener than its predecessor – the Cooper S’s CO2 emissions have fallen to just 125 g/km with the optional six-speed automatic gearbox (133g/km with the standard six-speed manual). It’s also cleverer, with Mini making great play of the number of BMW active safety systems that can be fitted to the car, and a high level of interactivity including various apps and even – sigh - the ability to integrate with social media.

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The whole interior is fun, and with the new, more supportive seats (the seats were always a let-down in previous generations) and fantastic NVH levels, it feels like a lovely place on a long journey. But then it oversteps the mark. Turn the collar at the base of the gearlever (an excellent idea that saves you hunting for a button in the heat of battle) to select Sport and the screen in the circle displays the words ‘Maximum go-kart feel’. It’s patronising towards both the driver and the car.

Find a used Mini Cooper S for sale on the Classic and Performance Car site

What's it like to drive?

It’s a good job, then, that the Mini is largely best left in its Normal setting. The car that we drove on the launch was fitted with the standard passive dampers, but this UK car has the optional (£375) variable dampers, which would seem like an option worth speccing. Sometimes the differences between variable damper settings can be fairly minimal, but the Cooper S’s demeanour changes markedly. In its standard setting the car feels much more supple, particularly in its secondary ride, and as a result copes far better with bumpy UK B-roads (and general everyday driving). On smoother terrain you get a little extra precision from the steering in Sport mode, but the car feels happier as a whole in its more relaxed setting because it breathes with the road rather than fighting it. The standard 16in wheels (our car is on 17s, a £450 option) might change things, so it would be interesting to try a car with a bit more sidewall, unfashionable though that might be. 

Sport mode is more enjoyable for what it does to the engine, sharpening the throttle response and allowing some exuberant pops from the exhaust on a trailing throttle. The Mini also has a rev-matching system on the manual gearbox (effectively heel-and-toeing for you when you downchange) and this seems to improve in Sport mode, although it is disabled if you turn off the DSC. Mini claims 189bhp and 206lb ft of torque, up 8bhp and 29lb ft on the previous generation car, but the new 2-litre turbo engine doesn’t feel like it has quite the eagerness and enthusiasm of the old 1.6 turbo (which frequently felt much more potent than its official figures). However, the Cooper S remains a very quick little car and you still need to be careful how you ladle on the power out of tighter corners if you don’t want to find the DSC cutting in as it tries to curb the wheelspin.

The new car’s electric power steering system is quicker to react than the old one’s, and there’s a noticeable increase in front-end grip, but the keen responses stay the same, as does the nicely-poised balance between the grip offered by the front and rear ends. Find a wide corner and turn the stability control off and the Mini can still be persuaded to tighten its line aggressively on a lifted throttle. It’s not as hard-edged as some of its hot hatch rivals, and ultimately the lack of a proper limited-slip diff at the front limits traction. But it’s certainly a very strong base for the John Cooper Works and Works GP versions that will follow to build on.

Avoid the automatic gearbox, though. It’s slow to respond to manual over-rides and defaults to changing up as soon as possible in ‘Drive’, or trying to buzz the engine if switched to ‘Sport’. The manual box is definitely the one to have.

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How does it compare?

Extremely well, whatever you compare it to. The manual-gearbox Cooper S costs £18,840 – over £600 more than the old car, but considerably cheaper than either the Renault Clio 200 Turbo or Peugeot 208 GTI. The Ford Fiesta ST is cheaper, but has less power in standard form, and is unlikely to be able to match the Mini’s appeal to the fashionistas. But by the same margin that the Cooper S is arguably the nicer day-to-day car, the Fiesta remains the more fun drivers’ car.

Kia has recently tweaked its Pro_Cee'd GT with new chassis settings and torque vectoring. This could bring the Kia's performance closer into line with the Mini, though a £23,105 starting price makes the more chic Mini look like a bit of bargain. Then again, the Kia is arguably the more practicle proposition.

Of course, being a BMW product, it’s possible to spec the new Mini to bizarre heights. Tick too many options and you can get the price north of £30K.

Anything else I need to know?

The quality of interior trim has been improved markedly over the outgoing ‘R56’ Mini, and the new car’s cabin ergonomics are far better – the speedometer now sits behind the steering wheel in all versions (and you can have a head-up display, too), and the electric window switches are on the doors rather than the centre console. The ring of lights around the huge central display illuminates in various ways and colours depending on the function being performed: call someone via Bluetooth and some blue dashes chase each other round the circle; with the satnav engaged, a semicircle lights up and then diminishes as you near the next junction or turning; select the ‘Green’ driving mode and it glows… well, guess.

Specifications

EngineIn-line 4-cyl, 1998cc, turbo
Max power189bhp @ 4700-6000rpm
Max torque206lb ft @ 1250rpm
0-606.8sec (claimed 0-62mph)
Top speed146mph (claimed)
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