Driving a slow car fast is more fun than driving a fast car slow. It’s a mantra as old as the car itself, usually stated to make one feel better when you don’t have a fast car to drive.
Fun isn’t a very quantifiable measure, so the statement is highly subjective and very difficult to prove with science, but in the case of the 2016 Mini Cooper, it feels pretty jolly accurate.
Under the clamshell bonnet of the most basic Cooper is a little 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo which has a nice round 100kW and 220Nm available to shift its 1092kg mass around. And you know what, it’s enough.
Enough to zap about town, enough to overtake on a country run, enough to chew through fuel (more on that in a minute) and absolutely enough to keep you smiling.
In fact, the only thing that would make this car more fun is by way of making a $2350 saving and swapping a six-speed manual in place of the six-speed automatic transmission.
The Mini Cooper has been synonymous with enjoyable driving since it burst onto the scene originally in 1961, and again with the reborn BMW Mini in 2001. Yes, you can go faster in a Cooper S or save money on a lesser Mini, but the Cooper has the famous name and a solid whack of smiles-per-mile available on any drive.
Our test car is finished in Pepper White and features the $2000 Pepper Package (dual-zone climate control, ambient lighting, front armrest, clear indicators and puddle lamps), $1500 Multimedia Essentials Package (navigation, 8.8-inch LCD display, rear-view camera), 17-inch light alloy wheels ($1350), Anthracite roof liner ($300) and of course the stripes on the bonnet ($250).
Now I don’t know about you, but paying extra for an arm rest, navigation and climate control; equipment that in 2016, should be standard on a $29,000 hatchback, is bordering on what we Australians casually refer to as ‘taking the piss’.
It doesn’t end there either. The spec on our Mini is very very light. The seats for instance aren’t leather, heated, cooled or powered. There’s no digital radio, sunroof, automatic parking or driver assistance technology to mention.
Liberal box-ticking can see you easily add $20k to the list price of your Cooper. We laugh when you can double the price of a $120,000 Porsche with options, but on a sub-$30k city car, that’s pushing ‘personalisation’ to the extreme.
Mini really needs to streamline its option packages. Even a small/medium/large specification with then the ability to personalise thrown on top would be a nice step forward. Not everyone wants Union Jack mirror caps, but I’m pretty sure heated seats, a rear-view camera and navigation are considered ‘must-haves’ by many buyers in this segment.
With all this then, the Cooper isn’t exactly a cheap car. But conveniently, it doesn’t really feel like a cheap car either.
There is a solid ‘thunk’ from the doors when they close. The cabin, while mini, is very Mini – those cool toggle switches and the unmistakable circular centre display make the pint-sized hatchback just a little bit special.
The front cloth seats are comfortable and have height as well as rake and sliding rail adjustment. Get them set right though as the lever to adjust the angle is very awkward to reach, especially on the move.
That aside, there is good headroom and excellent visibility from the compact turret.
Switchgear is BMW familiar and for the most part very ergonomic. Skipping through display modes (via the button on the indicator stalk) on the instrument display screen can be a little bit annoying if you want to see more than one piece of info at once, but the digital speedo is welcomed all the same.
It’s all very ‘Mini’ specific, but it is a nice place to spend time.
As in the big-brother BMW range, the iDrive controller for the infotainment screen is very intuitive and easy to use. Mini’s own graphics make the menus more ‘fun’ than in a BMW but this doesn’t extend too deeply into the interface and there are some functions that are now starting to feel a bit basic and dated. There’s no provision for ConnectedDrive either.
Included with the Pepper Package is a fun ‘disco’ lighting feature that has a constantly changing coloured glow emanating from around the cabin, as well as contextually relevant lighting from the centre display. Rev the car higher and the light changes, get a navigation instruction or phone call, and the light changes again. File it under a fundamentally useless but enjoyable feature of the Mini.
Space wise, you get an extra 44mm of width over the previous R56 (second generation) Cooper hatch, but it is still pretty snug in there. Barely a day passes when you don’t curse having to pay extra for that center arm rest as you basically need to move it out of the way so that your elbow doesn’t knock it whenever you reach for the gear shift or grab the handbrake.
Strangely too in the mid-2016 update the second ‘hidden’ glovebox behind the black dash panel on the passenger side has been removed. The standard glovebox is a good size, but this was a handy feature of the Cooper that seems a shame to have taken away.
Getting in the back isn’t something you should attempt if you are old enough to be driving, but should you find your way in, it's comfortable providing your front-seat counterparts are short. Worth noting that even getting stuff in there (bags, dry cleaning, miniature daschsunds…) can be difficult due to the small gap between the seat back and B-pillar.
The 211-litre boot is very small, but there is a compartment below the floor which I find handy to keep those ‘always in the car’ items like an umbrella, camera tripod (you never know when you’ll need one) and a pack of nappy wipes. For context on size, a Smart ForTwo has a 340-litre boot… Mini by name, mini by nature.
You can fold the seats 60:40 to expand to 731-litres, but I’m going to assume that if a Mini is in your consideration set, then overall cargo volume isn’t a priority.
What is sure to be more important is what we touched on at the start of this review. The sheer joy of driving. And here, the Mini delivers in spades.
That little three-cylinder engine with its distinctive ‘thrum’ doesn’t hit peak power until 6000rpm, so you are encouraged to rev the little guy to get the most out of it.
Peak torque is available from just 1250rpm too, so you get a real sense of response from the Mini, regardless of where you are in the rev range.
Zapping through back streets and around roundabouts, you feel you are racing along much faster than you actually are thanks to the growing pitch of the engine note and that close-to-the-ground sensation of speed.
The six-speed automatic works well in its standard mode, but tends to hold gears just a little bit too long if you tip it across into sport and don’t make the changes yourself.
Higher rev gear changes can even encourage a subtle ‘raspberry’ from the exhaust too.
The Mini also rides well, and feels like a much larger car in the way it deals with bumps and imperfections in the road. There’s a solid ‘firmness’ to the Mini’s suspension, but it works in an enjoyable way rather than a crashy way.
You feel in command. It goes where you tell it to, when you tell it to. The steering is weighted just right, and gives good feedback as well as being easy to manage.
Best way to describe it? Fun.
It’s darty, zippy and a bunch of the other seven dwarfs, including thirsty…
The 40-litre petrol tank seems reasonable for such a small car with such a small engine, but given the Mini feels like a bigger car to sit in and drive, it seems only fair that it feels like a bigger car at the fuel pump too.
Actually that’s not true. There’s no fairness to how a 1.3-litre turbo consumes more fuel than something twice its size. My most recent fill showed the trip-computer at 11.5L/100km, which starts to hurt when you consider that I just squandered a full tank of high-octane in a BMW M4, in a driving environment that could be described as driving a fast car fast, and had just about the same consumption (11.8L/100km).
Mini claims just 6.1L/100km around town, which again, we’re sure you could manage… but not when you are channelling your inner Michael Caine (or Mark Whalberg depending on your age), and racing through the virtual streets of Turin (or LA) on your daily commute.
Fuel use and fun are a directly proportional relationship (can be written as fuel ∝ fun – the more you know!), but we really think the Cooper should be able to do better.
So do I like the Mini Cooper? Yes.
And in the case of our test car, I even put my money where my mouth is, as this one is mine.
I don’t drive it often but whenever I do I am reminded of just how much fun can be had in such a small package. And it is, a small package.
It’s entertaining, easy to live with and more than just a little bit cool.
That doesn’t make it a super sensible buy though, as those option packages and fuel use can turn what should be a cheap and cheerful premium car into a pretty expensive package.
My tip – buy a car already on the lot rather than ordering from an empty option list as it gives you a much better bargaining position. Even better, find one with plates on it, as it means the dealer has already ‘sold’ it and will be more encouraged to get it out the door quickly.
Or, hell, you could buy this one! It's time for a change in the Ward garage, and I'll even throw in the bulldog pillow. Email me!
Bottom line, if you want a Mini you’ll love a Mini, and in the case of the 2016 Mini Cooper, driving a slow car fast has never been more fun.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward