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Take a quick look and you may think there’s little new about the third-generation Mini Cooper.
The latest iteration of the iconic British city car follows a familiar formula, inheriting the signature shape made famous by the 1959 original and the cartoon styling that’s a trademark of the modern-day BMW-owned brand.
But scratch below the surface and the third-gen Mini proves it’s matured in more ways than one.
Perhaps most significantly for customers is its pricing. Mini has slashed $5000 from the standard Cooper, cutting its price to $26,650 (and an even cheaper Mini One is on its way later this year).
The diesel-powered Cooper D that arrives next month is also $3000 cheaper, now $31,800, while the sporty Cooper S falls from its previous price of more than $40K to $36,950. Each comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, while the optional six-speed automatic adds $2350.
The pricing places the Mini Cooper unashamedly close to popular five-door family hatchbacks like the Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf. The Cooper S now slots in below more powerful European hot-hatch rivals (Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST) and traditional rival, the Audi A1, but just above contenders from South Korea (Hyundai Veloster SR Turbo, Kia Pro_cee’d GT).
The pint-sized Mini can’t rival larger hatchbacks for practicality, however. While it’s grown in all directions – 3821mm long (+98mm), 1727mm wide (+44mm), 1414mm tall (+77mm), 2495mm wheelbase (+28mm) – it’s still a four seater, still awkward for rear passengers to get in and out of, and still tight for rear legroom, despite bettering its predecessor in this department.
Boot capacity is up 30 per cent, though it’s still only 211L – still tiny compared with most hatches.
But Mini has never claimed to be the king of convenience. Rather it says the Cooper’s improvements in this area enhance the appeal of the new model that claims to have matured its trademark qualities: introducing new technology to add substance to the style, delivering better performance and economy from a range of characterful engines, and offering a more refined ride without sacrificing its signature ‘go-kart’ handling.
The new Mini Cooper has taken big strides forward on the technology front, though as we’ve grown accustomed to from European brands the best stuff comes at a cost.
The Cooper is sparsely equipped. Auto headlights and wipers, 15-inch alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, leather steering wheel and a keyless engine start toggle are standard, but it misses out on climate control, a proper colour infotainment screen and Bluetooth audio streaming.
For those, you have to step up to the Cooper D, though even it, at more than $34K in auto spec, still requires you to spend another $1100 for satellite navigation, which is only standard in the Cooper S.
Cabin quality and ergonomics are improved, however, thanks to the addition of more soft-touch materials, a better feel to dials and toggle switches, and a more conventional placement of instruments and controls.
New options across the range include a reverse-view camera ($470), head-up display ($700), dynamic dampers ($700), panoramic sunroof ($1900), adaptive LED headlights with DRLs ($1800), and a driver assistance package with adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and high beam assist ($1350). When combined with leather upholstery ($2400-$2700) and metallic paint ($400-$800) they can add more than $10K to the price. (Read our 2014 Mini Cooper pricing and specifications breakout story here.)
One of the highlights is the Mini Cooper’s new turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine. Up 10kW/60Nm from the old model’s non-turbo 1.6-litre four-cylinder, it produces 100kW and 220Nm, the former between 4500-6000rpm, the latter across a tremendously broad 1250-4000rpm range. Both manual and auto versions claim less than 5.0 litres of fuel per 100km on the combined cycle and accelerate to 100km/h in less than 8.0 seconds (manual 7.9sec, auto 7.8sec).
The little triple emits a distinctive offbeat thrum down low, settles into a smooth rhythm in its mid-range and remains refined at high revs. The versatile engine forms a sweet combination with the six-speed automatic transmission, delivering its torque generously to support the gearbox’s preference for higher ratios and allowing it to propel the 1085-1115kg hatch with ease.
Turning the downsizing trend on its head is the Cooper S, which upgrades from a 1.6- to a 2.0-litre turbo. Power rises 6kW to 141kW (from 4700-6000rpm) while torque climbs 40Nm to 280Nm, produced across an even wider 1250-4750rpm band. While not great numbers from a 2.0-litre, it helps cut half a second from its predecessor’s sprint time (6.7sec auto, 6.8sec manual) while combined consumption is impressive at 5.5L/100km auto and 5.9L/100km manual.
Unlike the chirpy three-pot, the Cooper S’s turbo-four sounds meatier – particularly with the drive mode selector nudged left into Sport mode, which adds decibels to the engine note and elicits intoxicating crackles and parps from the exhaust. It’s a great sports car engine, accelerating enthusiastically and effortlessly across almost the entire rev range, only running out of steam slightly as its approaches its 6500rpm redline.
Its short-throw six-speed manual is also a delight, feeling direct in your hand as it clicks confidently into gear. It also features an excellent rev-matching function, which effectively performs the task of heel-and-toeing by automatically raising the revs before lower gears are engaged.
Matching its confident feel is the Cooper’s steering, which is sharp and accurate, allowing you to turn it in to corners with precision. The standard Cooper has a nice mid-weighting that lightens up at lower speeds, while the Sport mode in the Cooper S beefs it up to give you nice, substantial weighting that avoids feeling unnecessarily heavy.
The standard suspension tune provides greater comfort than before over urban streets and patchy back roads, smoothing out bumps and dulling sharp edges. The optional sports tune ($440) fitted to our Cooper S felt much firmer, picking up more bumps around town, but it corrected quicker without being harsh or jarring, allowing it to sit flatter and remain composed on enthusiastic spurts.
Detracting slightly was road noise from our test cars’ 16- and 17-inch tyres, which was intrusive on coarse surfaces and at highway speeds. There were also plastic rattles present in the cabins of both cars.
And as for that go-kart handling? The new Mini feels more agile and planted than ever, thanks in part to the standard inclusion of an electronic differential lock and a dynamic traction control feature – both of which have only previously been offered in JCW variants. The latter is expertly tuned, permitting a little tyre squeal while interceding just enough to let you know it’s got your back.
So while it may look like little more than a facelift at first glance, the third-generation Mini Cooper has grown up in almost every way, and in most respects for the better. It’s still not cheap or overly practical, but for a smile-inducing city car that’s equal parts fashion accessory and driver’s car it’s hard to go past, particularly in sub-$30K Cooper spec.