2018 Mini Cooper S review

It’s midlife makeover time for Mini’s current range, and if you thought the iconic little hatch couldn’t wear its British heart on its sleeve any more proudly, just wait until you pull up behind the latest version.

The Union Jack is a readily identifiable symbol of all things British, and plenty of British brands like Mini, Jaguar and Land Rover deploy it in some form or another to signify their proud heritage – despite all three being owned by overseas parent companies.

In the past, you could order the United Kingdom’s ensign on the roof, mirrors, grille, or headrests of your Mini, should you feel the need to. Now, though, the Union Flag comes standard, and the next time you’re behind a Mini you won’t be able to miss it thanks to new LED tail-lights.

That’s just one of the visual upgrades to the updated Mini hatch (both three- and five-door) and convertible. There’s also newly available adaptive matrix LED lighting with technology taken from much more expensive cars, and new customisation options including the industry-first use of 3D printing (from a mainstream brand) to allow customers to add their own personal touch to elements like the side repeater lights and dash fascia.

Mechanically, the Mini range carries over its engines from before, meaning a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol in the Cooper producing 100kW, and a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol for the Cooper S with 141kW. Later, a high-output 170kW version of the 2.0-litre engine for the range-topping John Cooper Works version will also roll out.

The previous Cooper D diesel has quietly ridden off into the sunset for Australia, leaving the petrol range to open from $29,900 as a three-door hatch with a $10,000 step up to the Cooper S and another $10K again for the JCW. Five-door hatch versions are an extra $1250 on top in Cooper and Cooper S spec only.

The Convertible range starts at $40,900 for the Cooper, $47,900 for the Cooper S, and $57,900 for the JCW.

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While the engines may not have changed, the transmissions certainly have, with all models benefiting from new automatic transmissions taken from other products within the BMW Group’s range (Mini’s parent company).

Cooper and Cooper S models pick up a seven-speed Steptronic dual-clutch automatic, while the John Cooper Works moves to an eight-speed torque converter auto shared with JCW versions of the Countryman and Clubman. Previously, all variants featured a six-speed torque converter automatic.

At the international launch event held on the Spanish island of Mallorca, Mini made the new Cooper S the star with manual and auto versions of the three-door and convertible on hand to sample.

Obviously, the auto is the big story here as it's the most popular choice with buyers, and with no changes made to the manual version that keeps a firm notchy shift action and springy but easy to balance clutch.

Mini’s global press event also happened to coincide with the Mallorca 312 Cycle Race, which sees 7250 cyclists descend on the island to take part in a gruelling 312km event incorporating a 5050m elevation gain.

Normally that wouldn’t be significant, but it means as roving teams of up to a dozen riders at a time filled narrow hillside roads up to three-abreast, the Cooper S and its quick-burst acceleration were well and truly put to the test passing where safe opportunities allowed.

Strong torque is handy in such instances, but a responsive engine is nothing if the transmission lacks the wits to react quickly and seamlessly. It’s here the new dual-clutch really showed its worth.

Able to quickly and intuitively drop down to the correct gear and rattle off pauseless upshifts, the new seven-speed auto is a worthy choice, even in a sporty application like the Cooper S, despite Mini’s claims the new transmission was primarily tasked with improving efficiency.

To go with the slick-shifting auto, the carryover snap-crackle-pop exhaust sound effects seem to have been dialled up just a touch, adding plenty of aural excitement to go with the new auto option.

At a more relaxed clip, the wet clutch seven-speed Steptronic also keeps its cool shuffling in and out of tight spaces, without jittering or delays feeding in power from standstill.

When not pedalling hard, the new transmission (in its default Drive setting) can delay downshifts momentarily with a view to holding a taller, more efficient ratio, but selecting Sport mode soon fixes that. There’s also a slight rocking from the driveline as you step off the throttle to coast, where the transmission goes into an efficiency-enhancing ‘sailing mode’ (effectively disengaging the clutch) that some drivers might be particularly sensitive to at first.

Efficiency gains for the new automatic see official fuel consumption drop as low as 5.2L/100km for the hatch, previously rated at 5.5L/100km, while the convertible claims 5.5L/100km down from 5.8L/100km, although final Australian figures may differ slightly depending on specification.

Without changes to steering or suspension, the Cooper S still handles as it always has, delivering excellent road-holding with a firm wheel that offers plenty of info about the road below. While it isn’t as sharp as earlier-generation Minis, you won’t leave with a frown on your face after a spirited blat either.

The bigger news for buyers looking to squeeze a more premium experience out of their compact car is the latest round of changes made to infotainment and connectivity.

The base infotainment package coming to Australia starts at 6.5 inches, with the latest tech from BMW’s iDrive system integrated, like touchscreen functionality, and a new range of Mini Connected online services, voice control with natural speech recognition, emergency call, and three subscriptions to Apple CarPlay and real-time traffic info.

An optional 8.8-inch system is also available (standard on JCW) and adds a wireless charge pad and Mini Touch Controller in the centre console, and Mini Connected XL including two Find Mate tags that allow users to connect a tag to commonly used or forgotten items (maybe your house key, sunglasses case, luggage etc) and track them to their last known location using either your car’s navigation or a smartphone app.

Car-to-app functions have also been extended so you can check your fuel level, honk the horn, flash the lights, or remotely lock and unlock your car from your phone or smartwatch should you need to, with an in-car SIM connection giving around-the-clock access to a range of connected systems.

Other detail-driven changes include an optional Piano Black exterior pack that switches the headlight rings, tail-light surrounds and outer grille from chrome to gloss black. Of more interest to personalisation junkies will be the new 3D-printed parts for the dash and side repeaters and LED puddle lights with a custom message.

These subtle but significant parts can be customised with a texture and name or logo of your choice – customisable through a dedicated web portal. A little bit of harmless fun, or a tumble down the slippery slope of vanity? You decide, but our fleet of cars in Spain named Elizabeth, Victoria, Anne, Margaret, William, and Harry (as featured on the side indicators) seemed like a fun way to convey Mini’s thoroughly British message.

While you can achieve a similar 3D-printed effect on the dash fascia ahead of the passenger, the new Mini Yours Piano Black interior option adds another techy boost with an LED backlit image of (you guessed it) the Union Jack that changes hue with the ambient lighting when linked to the Excitement pack, cementing the Mini as a touch more premium than your typical city runabout.

There are also new leather colours and finishes (Chesterfield-inspired Chester leather trim in Malt Brown, anyone?) and one thing you won’t have to option, but probably won’t spend much time looking at, is a new carbon-fibre engine cover made from recycled materials left over from BMW i production.

Put all of this together and Mini continues to offer a premium light car that’s capable of expressing individuality in a way that its rivals just can’t match right now. In a way that’s always been the point of a modern Mini.

Beneath the surface, the fun to drive Cooper S keeps its sporty handling and rorty engine, and steps things up thanks to the new, slick and sophisticated seven-speed dual-clutch Steptronic automatic, which is sure to lead sales over the manual version in Australia.

Although pricing may not be as razor-sharp as that of mainstream offerings, the fashion-forward Mini range will find no shortage of discerning buyers with a penchant for luxury brands. And when you take into account slightly sharper pricing and improved ‘included value’, the updated Mini looks better still.

Of course, the options you add, and the final figure you land on – as always – will be entirely up to you. The updated Mini range goes on sale in Australia from July.

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