The third-gen (New) Mini goes a bit Rule, Britannia for its first major update. We drive the five-door Cooper S to find out whether that’s a good thing... or will buyers need to adopt a stiff upper lip?
Anglo-German relations are a bit tense with all the Brexit shenanigans going on right now. Thankfully, none of the painful politicking is having an adverse effect on the British-built, BMW-engineered Mini range.
To prove it, Munich has approved more flag-waving – quite literally – for the brand it acquired from its Rover-ownership mess in 2000.
The 2018 Mini Cooper features new Union Jack LED tail-lights – optional on the base Cooper and standard on the Cooper S (five-door) we’ve got here (as well as the JCW) – while an illuminated dash featuring the United Kingdom’s equally iconic, multi-nation banner is available as an option.
Of course, there’s more to the update of the third-generation Mini released in 2014, if not extensive changes.
The LED headlight design is revised, Mini Connected with 4G connectivity and wireless smartphone compatibility is introduced, and a new seven-speed dual-clutch auto replaces the conventional six-speeder as an extra-cost alternative to the standard six-speed manual.
The Cooper S five-door has increased only $200 on its previous positioning, though the $41,150 starting price is now $3100 higher than when the multi-doored variant debuted in 2015.
Cooper S buyers pay $2800 for the new auto, rather than the $2500 on the $31,150 base model, as the S adds paddle-shift levers.
We’re accustomed to premium pricing for a Mini by now, of course, and at least these days the interior exudes luxury levels of quality. The ratio of plastics is skewed heavily towards soft materials, and there’s lovely damping to the toggles, headlight switch, (one-touch) window buttons and rubberised heating/ventilation dials.
Thankfully, while the materials and fit have matured, the Mini’s innate sense of fun remains with the familiar ‘round’ theme applied to the shape of multiple elements from vents to door handle surrounds.
The biggest is the dinner-plate-sized central display, which houses the Mini’s infotainment touchscreen plus some corresponding buttons. It’s essentially BMW’s iDrive system with cooler graphics and colours, and can even be operated by a rotary controller/joystick – but there’s nothing wrong borrowing from a benchmark, especially when it’s from the same manufacturer.
What’s more galling is that the larger 8.8-inch display (with excellent voice control) isn’t standard in the Cooper S; it gets the same 6.5-inch version as the base Cooper. Upgrading is a $2200 cost as it forms part of the Multimedia Pro Package that also includes a 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio, head-up display, and a Find Mate tag. Find Mate is Mini’s answer to the Jaguar-Land Rover Tile technology introduced in 2016.
You simply attach the Find Mate tag to your keys or pop it in a bag and sync the tag with the associated smartphone app. Walk away from the car without those keys or that bag, for example, and your smartphone will let you know you’ve left them in the car.
It’s an extension of the new Mini Connected system standard on Minis, which comes with a 4G LTE SIM card and keeps you and your smartphone linked for various benefits: you can lock and unlock the doors remotely; it will help you find your car just in case you forgot where you left it; or even transferring route guidance from your phone to the car (or vice versa).
The Cooper S is standard with a front armrest featuring wireless smartphone charging (and another USB port). Not sure what Mini has against Android phones, though, as not only would the wireless section not fit a Samsung Galaxy Note 8, but there’s also a new Wireless Apple CarPlay feature that snubs Android Auto.
A Mini has always been about how it connects you with the road, of course, and it continues to offer drivers an engaging experience. The suspension has a firm foundation as per tradition. Yet, while its short travel will occasionally induce crashes and thumps, the damping ensures there are no nasty ‘oof’ moments.
That’s also in spite of our test car featuring bigger, lower-profile 18-inch wheels with run-flat tyres (in place of the standard 17s with regular tyres) as part of an optional Cooper S Works pack. The $3500 outlay also adds adaptive dampers, piano-black headlight/tail-light surrounds, anthracite roof-lining, sports pedals, and various JCW parts including rear spoiler, sill plates, bodykit, and (superbly comfortable and supportive) sports seats upholstered in a combination of leather and Dinamica fabric.
The JCW seats complement the JCW steering wheel that is standard. Turn the wheel and there’s noticeable electric assistance just off centre, so the Mini’s steering isn’t as crisp as it once was. It doesn’t improve if you switch the Mini Driving Modes from the 'Balanced setting' of Mid to the 'Dynamic' of Sport – just fairly meaningless weight is added.
While it means handling isn’t perfect, the Mini is still a hoot to drive. Turn the steering wheel and the front end responds with its trademark dartiness, as well as far better accuracy as more lock is wound on. It gives the driver all the confidence in the world to brake late and throw the Cooper S into corners.
And whether you choose to enter a corner on a trailing brake or trailing throttle, the Mini’s back end follows the front in obedient harmony. The 205/40R18 Pirelli Cinturato rubber provides excellent grip, too, even if it produces a fair bit of noise on coarse surfaces.
On the most demanding of roads, Dynamic Traction Control – essentially Mini’s equivalent of BMW’s MDM mode – needs to be engaged to prevent the stability-control system from zapping momentum. With DTC allowing more wheel slip, the Cooper S is significantly better at getting its power down across bumpy stretches and exiting tight corners. A mechanical limited-slip diff would still be welcome for more hardcore pedalling.
They might also prefer more enticing engine and exhaust sounds from the Cooper S’s 141kW/280Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. There’s an element of rortiness to the engine and the tailpipes will parp on fast upshifts, but everything could go up an octave or two when you’re burning the octane.
It’s a great drivetrain otherwise. The turbo four is fabulously flexible and has a healthy degree of mid-range mumbo, and the new seven-speed dual-clutch auto is a perfect partner. Flick the aesthetically brilliant gear lever left for the transmission’s Sport mode (the Driving Modes Sport setting isn’t enough) and throttle response quickens accordingly.
If we’re being finicky, downshifts could be a touch more aggressive under hard braking, but the Sport mode’s timing is sufficiently spot-on that you could leave the auto to sort gear changes. It’s a Mini, though, and the paddles are too tempting to use, especially as the response to flicks of the lever is impressively quick.
Return to the more mundane duties of trips to work or shopping centres and the auto continues to shine – missing the irks/quirks of dual-clutch transmissions offered by the likes of Volkswagen (DSG) and Renault (ECC). Such is its smoothness and responsiveness off the line, and its reactions to on/off throttle movements, that it could be easy to confuse it for a conventional torque converter auto.
The new auto doesn’t make the Cooper S any quicker. The 0–100km/h sprint is still covered in 6.8 seconds (or 6.9 seconds in the manual), continuing a healthy gap to the stock Cooper’s 8.1/8.2 seconds.
Technically, the Mini’s engines have been improved for efficiency, though officially – as a result of Europe’s switch to the new WLTP fuel testing cycle – the Cooper S’s consumption goes backwards: 5.5 to 5.6 litres per 100km for the manual; from 6.0 to 6.4 litres per 100km for the auto.
You’ll gain a tiny bit of extra speed and economy if you opt for the three-door Cooper S, though the five-door’s extra space is a bigger win – especially for friends/family.
Through a 72mm-longer wheelbase, the five-door increases rear leg room by nearly 4cm – sufficient for an average-height adult to sit relatively comfortably behind their front-seat position. An 11mm-higher roof brings a bit more head room, too. Ingress and egress would be aided by wider rear doors, mind you.
The rear bench is comfortable, but realistically a two-seater owing to the intrusive transmission tunnel. An optional dual-pane sunroof combines with the rear-three-quarter windows to provide good light in the rear.
The 278-litre boot provides an extra 67 litres over the three-door and is a decent size – particularly with an extra compartment beneath the removable cargo floor.
Ever since its 2001 debut, though, the New Mini has never been the packaging marvel the original was. A similarly priced Volkswagen Golf GTI is a more practical car while giving you more bang for your buck – in both performance and equipment. The GTI is also a five-star crash-rated car, whereas the Mini received four stars mainly due to a disappointing side-impact test result.
Driver aids? They cost extra, including autonomous emergency braking that can be found standard on sub-$20K cars these days.
Minis are very much a choice of the heart, though, and there’s still much to love about this cheeky compact. There’s still the grin-inducing dynamics, the distinctive, high-quality interior, and unrivalled customisation.
With the 2018 version bringing enhanced connectivity perfect for the car’s demographic, as well as an even better auto to pair with the enjoyable turbo engine, the Mini Cooper S still flies the flag for premium-priced pint-sized hatchbacks.