As a designer, I’m always very weary of pronouncing a final opinion on anything design related without seeing it in the flesh and getting to know it for at least a few weeks. Seeing anything (especially something like a car) in three dimensions and living with it day to day helps immeasurably in understanding the design and styling that has gone into it. So if anything, consider a “mini” analysis of the finished R56.
MINI designers had a tall order in incorporating new European pedestrian safety standards within the shape of the new MINI. The car had to protect pedestrians by allowing for a certain amount of crushable space above and in front of the engine. The problem with this change is that those are areas (especially the short front overhang) that were crafted exceptionally well with the R50/R53 and are major points of MINI and Mini character. The lack of front overhang and the bulldog stance were some of the key pieces of the design language that both hearkened back to the classic Mini and creating a hint of masculinity.
And it’s because of these new crash standards that the R56 simply cannot compete with the R50/R53 MINIs when it comes to that “wheels at the corner” stance. The designers have done an elegant job throughout the front of the car but the basic shape (while attractive) doesn’t convey what the R50 and R53 did so effortlessly.
MINI did, however, gives get a few things very right on both cars. The Cooper has a simple and effective design that give it a classic and simple feel. It’s a neat and tidy design that really doesn’t have a line wrong. The Cooper S, on the other hand, has an aggressive feel that is given a touch of English charm with the thin chrome trim running the length of both grilles. The all black grille has an air of modern aggressiveness where the chrome is a touch of heritage. A wonderful combination. And if you don’t like that MINI will be releasing an all black grille along with a JCW aero kit that will give the car a more aggressive look.
Around the side, the new bonnet design is responsible for one area that I feel will grow on me (and possible others): the front plastic fender arches. The arches are generally larger and seem to make front portion of the car visually taller. But in the end the look fits with the new nose and will probably fade into the collective consciousness of MINI enthusiasts.
The side vents have also grown in size and unfortunately lost a bit of subtlety in the process. Gone is the elegant shape that contoured to the surrounding seams and in its place is a piece of plastic that extends all the way into the bonnet; an obvious cost saving measure. It doesn’t look bad on the Cooper S and won’t be noticed by most, but it’s a detail that is unfortunate. On the Cooper I’m afraid it’s a different story. It does look bad and stands the chance of being seen as cheap by non-owners.
But all is not lost. Around the side, we see some real progress over the R50/R53. The beltline has been raised (especially in the rear) and the roof lowered. The result is a more aggressive look that suits the car very well. However the combination of larger plastic wheel arches and a higher beltline (like many current BMWs and new cars in general) mean that large diameter wheels will be more of a must with this new MINI.
I find the the rear portion of the car to be a bit of a mixed bag. The rear spoiler is smaller and less an extension of the roof with the R56. Now it’s very much an addition to the car. Whether aero work determined it’s shape or not, it’s simply not as pretty.
However the rest of the rear portion of the car (especially on the MCS) is masterful. The taillights fit the higher beltline well and the rear plate area has been tweaked in just the right ways. However it’s the rear valance (below the bumper) that is particular well conceived on the standard Cooper S. The small lip of chrome that mirrors the front of the car works very well here and sets off the dual rear fog-lights exceptionally well. It’s just unfortunate that the rear grille remains completely faux. Of course the current Cooper S survived six years with a faux rear grille without many people complaining so at least it’s nothing new.
The Cooper does without the fake grille but generally is less interesting in its rear design. The new version is very obviously just a new iteration of the same design we’ve seen on the current car. Not a bad thing but not quite as interesting as what is seen on the Cooper S.
Perhaps I’m going against the grain in saying this, but I believe the biggest success of the R56 design is the interior of the car. The basic layout remains the same but the shapes, textures and colors have been re-imagined. Where the old interior was bulbous and irreverent (in a good way) the new one is a bit more focused both visually and functionally.
Starting with the seats, it would seem that MINI has put some effort in addressing some of the shortcomings of the current car. The new seats look to give more bolstering and increased leg support for those of us over the 6′ barrier. They also look fantastic.
The new dash looks to be made of much higher grade materials and will allow for more customization. This includes real wood, aluminum, and a host of other high-gloss plastic trim. Big pluses for most MINI owners.
However it’s the center stack that seems to become a lightening rod for dislike. Where the current MINI has a very typical layout made of up of stacked components, the new MINI uses the components in a more integrated fashion. And it’s this sea change that will take some time to get used to. It’s similar to the difference between a simple beige box PC and a new all-in-one LCD iMac. MINI is doing what Apple does in it’s towers and iMac computers by hiding the various components and thus creating a simplier and (at least in theory) more elegant interface. Like the iMac, there’s a less is more feel to the new center stack in the 2007 MINI. But this is a drastic change to what has come before and what we’ve all known in cars for many years.
In the end I think many of us will warm up to the look. However there will be quite a few MINI owners that will continue to bemoan the loss of the older design and the loss of any ability to change components themselves like radio head-units.
Lost in much of this debate is the fact that the interface design is actually a nice improvement when you consider how the heating and cooling system actually operates.
One of the most successful changes inside the car is the new navigation system that will incorporate a simplified iDrive-like controller. The navigation will be integrated into the speedometer and will also house all controls for the sound system. There will be two ways to interface with the Nav and all of its functionality: the joystick controller behind the shifter and voice control. The joystick will be similar to the iDrive controller found in BMWs but will more “MINI like” in it’s design. The interface itself will not control the climate control, as in BMWs, but will instead leave that to the standard climate interface just below the CD player. A good move, we think.
The voice control will undoubtedly prove quite popular for those who learn to set up and use it. Being able to simply push a button and say what radio station you want or using it to call via your bluetooth phone is infinitely safer than either using the iDrive controller or the small buttons on the current head-unit.
One small but highly visible part of the interior is the glove-box opener. You may not see it right away because you’re so focused on trying to figure out what the heck that small chrome oval is to the right (or left in right-hand drive markets) of the speedo. Well that’s it. What MINI designers have done is repeat the general shape of the engine starter button area on the other side of the car and give the driver a easier way into the glove-box. It’s a nice touch in terms of design and functionality that subtly says that this is a driver focused car.
In the end, most non-owners would have a hard time even telling a 2006 and 2007 apart. In fact quite a few owners will have to do double takes to see the various differences. Nonetheless, there will be a wide ranging debate for many years to come about the merits of this redesign. We here at MotoringFile are happy to say that we’ve accepted the new MINI as well, a MINI. And we look forward to a growing admiration of both its design successes and its quirks. In the years ahead the R56 MINI (and the R55, R57 and R58) will become the heart, soul and face of the MINI brand. And it will undoubtedly tempt more drivers into MINI showrooms and grow the MINI brand in ways the R50 and R53 could not. We say, bring it on.