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MF Review: The 2007 MINI Cooper & Cooper S

MINI had a tough task following up the R50 and R53. To gain a larger audience, there’s little question the car had to become easier to live with. That meant, less rattles, less of a jarring ride, and a more refined engine. But the challenge (at least with the latter two) was to do all of this and retain the car’s charm and performance feel. Based on some early European reviews of the new car, indications were mixed. Could BMW possibly create a vehicle worthy enough to follow-up the incredibly successful R50 and R53? Apparently they could and they did. Not only is the new MINI has fun to drive on the road and track, it’s refined and effortless in many ways the previous car was not. It achieves a balance that the 2002-2006 MINIs simply never had.

Nothing exemplifies this balance more than the sport button. Driving in the Cooper and Cooper S with the sport button turned off (the default position) there’s little question the car is meant to be easier to drive for the masses. Its steering is lighter, the throttle response is more laid back, and the overall feeling is one of comfort compared to the previous car. One could easily be fooled (as some journalists have been) into thinking that BMW missed the mark with the new MINI with the sport button in the off position.

With the sport button on however, the car comes alive. In a fraction of a second it becomes a more refined version of the car that preceded it – the R50 and R53. In fact the steering felt weightier and the throttle response was noticeably sharper than the stock 2002-2006 Cooper S.

With the sport button (made possible by MINI’s new electronic steering and some clever ECU tuning) MINI is able to appeal to a larger base of customers while offering a car that retains the key attributes that have made the previous generation such a success. A classic case of a win-win.

The interior of the new car follows many of these same principles. The center stack has been thoroughly redesigned with an emphasis on reducing its width and giving both driver and passenger more legroom. A great improvement for long trips and track days alike for all of us over 6 feet tall.

However, in making this change, there were some design choices made that many current owners will surely lament. The biggest complaint seems to be the apparent cheapness of the center stack face plate. Because the climate controls, radio, and toggle bank are no longer separate components, they are all covered with a single piece of black textured plastic.

The effect in photos is not good. While in person (with more of a sense of dimension) the design work a little better, it’s not the strongest point of the interior design. It does get slightly better with auto heating and cooling controls though. And with the optional navigation system, so much of the plastic is taken up by the extra DVD slot-loading drive that you don’t have as much of an expanse of the face plate to stare at. Still, it’s something that will take time for most previous MINI owners to get used to.

Sitting in the R56 for the first time, you can’t help but be struck by the improvement in seat quality. BMW has gone with an entirely new supplier. It shows in a number of ways. Despite the sport seats looking like something out of a 60’s lounge, they have much improved side bolstering. The lower cushion is also much more comfortable and extends further towards the knees, giving better support. Finally, the mechanism to push the seat forward functions in a completely logical manner. In fact, the design is taken straight from the latest BMW 3 Series Coupe.

The Lounge Leather option (our test car came with the gorgeous Redwood Lounge Leather) had almost a “pillow-top” effect that gave the seats an extra layer of comfort, which I greatly appreciated throughout the day. The red-orange of the seats makes for what I believe is the best looking MINI interior yet.

Another big change made in conjunction with the slimmed center stack is the integrated radio/speedometer. The R56’s radio has gained quite a bit of functionality. It now has a more complex interface that contains optional bluetooth functionality, along with input selection and audio control. However, taken as a whole, the sound-system isn’t intuitive. The screen and button interface aren’t obvious at first and will surely be a step back for MINI owners who aren’t a tech savvy.

It’s also worth noting that there was some alarming panel gaps between the glossy piano dash and what MINI calls the “color-line” just below it. While we were reminded that these cars were essentially pre-production US-spec, it’s not as if they haven’t producing cars for the rest of the world for three months. We can only hope that this issue was only relevant to the US press cars and not to actual production units.

The digital read-out in the tachometer is one area that really stood out as a revelation. You our now able to have a digital display of your speed at three times the size on the previous car. A handy tool for those who like to challenge speed limits a little.

Speaking broadly, the interior of the R56 is a revelation. The design works very well in person. The fit and finish is unquestionably a step above what we all know well with the previous generation MINI. Most of the glaring issues have been resolved and the feel has taken on a fresh personality that helps give the R56 its own character.

But perhaps the biggest change BMW has given us with this new MINI is under the hood. The new 1.6L engines are more refined, produce more power, and have broader torque curves. This translates into a more comfortable road experience from stop and go city driving to highway cruising. More than once I found myself well into triple digit territory without realizing it. Something that is almost impossible with the previous MINI. With the R53, you not only heard, but felt triple digits. The R56 by contrast goes about high speed cruising much like a BMW, with a feeling of effortlessness.

So it may come as little surprise that BMW was solely responsible for the design of the new engines. In fact Erich Sonntag, who headed up development of MINI’s new engines, had previously been in a similar position working on BMW’s exceptional inline six cylinder power-plants. Mr. Sonntag (who was on hand for the US introduction) mentioned to me that he found the opportunity of incorporating BMW’s proven technology on such a fun car like the MINI hard as an exciting challenge and one that was hard to pass up. He also mentioned that there was some natural collaboration with the BMW engineers working on the 300hp 3.0L Turbo Inline Six recently introduced in several BMWs

But what about tuning the new MINI? I asked Mr. Sonntag what he thought might be an obvious area to start with. With a smile and a twinkle in his eye, he said that getting much more power out of these engines would be difficult without truly knowing every detail of their inner workings. It seems they are already very well optimized. However, he did mention that the first place to start (that wouldn’t be too expensive) would be a larger intercooler on the Cooper S.

Mr. Sonntag also delivered the bad news that the US market cars have indeed lost the exhaust burble so many of us have grown to love on the 2005 and 2006 cars. Apparently BMW was inundated with complaints from US customers about the sound so they decided to simply turn it off in the ECU programing. This is perhaps one off the biggest disappoints I found with the new car. Yes, it’s really not anything more than ear candy. Still, it was a great part of the 2005 and 2006’s character.

On the track, the eagerness to rev and the greater torque down low in the power band gives the R56 a very different character than the previous car. The power delivery is particularly smooth and powering out of low-speed corners is distinctly different from the R53. However, LSD still remains a must for any track work.

The new Getrag 6 speed manual is also an improvement over what was offered in the R53. It now feels a bit more BMW like in it’s execution and performance. The transmission’s slickness allows for quicker shifts without sacrificing feel.

The automatic Cooper and Cooper S I sampled have the same 6 speed auto unit featured in the R53. The software is new but the frustration of slow reactions are not. Like the R53 the auto continues to be a poor choice for those who want ultimate control and feel. However for the Cooper, the Aisin unit represents a huge upgrade from the CVT that was previously offered. All told, it’s a great commuting car that most enthusiasts will stay away from.

Over the course of two days, I grew to really enjoy the look of the new MINI. However, there’s little question that the taller bonnet and taller belt-line make 17″ wheels almost mandatory. 15″ wheels look especially awkward on the car. While I personally like the look of the larger wheels and smaller side-wall, I can’t help but feel a bit of the purity found on the R50 was lost in the new car because of the need to comply with Europe’s new pedestrian crash standards.

Another area that might disappoint; the panel gap between the front wheel arches and clamshell hood was still not totally rectified as it still appeared to be a little too healthy. I ask MINI USA Product Manager Jeff Stracco about the issue and he said that the Oxford Plant had been working hard to eliminate the issue over the last couple of months. He believed it had been fixed 11th or 12th production mold finally doing the trick. However he believed our press cars had been produced after the final changes were made.

I won’t go into any more details (especially since we posted an entire design analysis a few months ago) but I will say, as a whole, BMW has done an exceptional job of retaining the look and character of the original R50 despite the new safety challenges.

I had hoped that the R56 would not disappoint. To be truthful, I was quite concerned that the needs of the market would dictate a softer MINI and the focus on performance would erode. But, by the end of the weekend, with hours of track and road driving under my belt, there was little doubt in my mind that BMW nailed this car. The new MINI is a better MINI for both the enthusiast and the non-enthusiast alike. Some of the visceral character of the previous car has been lost. However, so much more has been gained in performance and livability.

As long as you remember to click that sport button.

Just an FYI for all you with questions about the R56 – we’re going to have an official R56 Q&A coming up later today or tomorrow. So if you have any questions about the new car you may want to hold off until then as having them all in one place will make it easier to answer. We’llattempt to answer them all with a post next Monday.

Written By: Gabe

  • http://www.myspace.com/jkjersey Jay K

    Gabe,

    I did get on my knees and saw what looked to be an intercooler beneath the radiator in the showroom but when I asked the rep she said no intercooler. If you are saying it has one then the rep has to do her homework better.

    As far as wheelbase goes I did look up the car’s track and saw it was the same I do not know about the width however. Being that the car is longer though with it’s exterior and other weight distributed along the chassis maybe that is the feel that I am getting when I drove it that the car seemed more oafy and less sharp.

    I do not possess a VW beetlesque attitude as far as what I expect of cars. Price set aside and it’s FWD layout I hold an extremely high esteem for the Mini Cooper S and higher trim models and I expect a LOT. Especially when I know how hard they try to up the ante.

    I hit the sport button. And you know what that is the minimum I expected of the car. It felt VERY similar to a tweaked out A3. It feels like the car is driving you more than you driving the car. The older generation models with less power gave me a wow factor that I compared to driving a mercedes SLK350. Whether it was around town, on a curvy road or on a autocross.

    I am involved heavily with tuners and the aftermarket industry. You mentioned a WRX fan boy. How can one not be though. The newer car looks less polished and less bulldog than the prev gen. The rear tailights look more chintzy. This takes the car down the totem pole by exterior alone and makes the playing field a much more harsher reality much to the 07s disadvantage.

    In my household one of our cars is a Subaru. I can compare the turbocharged 07 mini to my JDM Sti conversion EJ207 which can do 8250K redline all day long and can put buses on mini cooper 07 in long benders drifting out the corners or simply at the stoplight. That’s right I said buses. I was looking into buying a 07 to complement my fiance’s 05 she owned of which I drove to the dealership and back for a 30k service. I drove the 07 MCS and was let down hands down I am not impressed with whatever torque was gained because I own and have driven cars much faster. It did not put a grin on my face whatsoever. I was shocked when I actually yearned to get back in the 05′ MCS after the test drive and the car was serviced. Usually it is the other way around I get back in a car of an older model and am like wow that new one is really hot.

    They did their homework suspension wise but the end result that I came out with was on paper it may look the better but in feedback and “grin” factor it was much less.

    I wanted more. I wanted a car that would want me daydreaming of me getting the finances ready to acquire one. I am still optimistic and hope the JCW version will give me more as far as the “grin” factor.

  • http://www.motoringfile.com/ Gabe

    I am involved heavily with tuners and the aftermarket industry. You mentioned a WRX fan boy. How can one not be though.

    I’m a huge fan of the WRX but alas am no fan boy.

    I’m honestly find it hard to believe someone could compare a A3 and a MINI let alone feel that the new one has lost so much on the R53. Having driven both the new and the old on the track I can tell you the new one is not only faster but corners better and has better chasis dynamics.

  • http://www.jakeruttdesign.com Jake Rutter

    Ugh! I really dont like the center console, I think they ruined it. And the speedo is different too. I prefer the ’05 interior that I drive. Would be interested in test driving one to see how the car handles differently with turbo, but probably wont purchase another MINI. The price tag is just too high for such a small car.

  • Dorothy

    Is it recommended to get the Dynamic Stability Control and the Limited Slip Differntial for $500USD a piece? Is one more essential than the other? Or are both “needed” options? The car will be driven in northeastern US where we always get to drive in snow in the winter! Thanks!

  • Mike

    We went to the rollout and loved the 07’s! We were concerned about the design balance and proportions after reading so many negative comments. What we saw was the same goofball character with a series of significant improvements. Although I have to admit the size of the speedo is a bit startling, sort of like having a cyclops living in your dash.

    The seats are SOOOO much better than the earlier version. My 6′ 6″ frame is going to appreciate the improved support, and….ahh, cupholders that WORK! Living in Seattle, bad cupholders can cause ‘no’ votes on a vehicle.

    We wanted a throwback design, so we ordered both the wood dash and steering wheel combo. Alas, the Safety Police made Mini delete the wooden wheel; a crash-splintered wheel is apparently too prone to finding gaps in your rib cage.

    We were unable to drive an ’07 yet, so no comments there; although from Gabe’s detailed review, it sounds wonderful, other criticisms notwithstanding.

    Our Chili Red baby just rolled off the Titus in Port Hueneme today. Figure about 10 days before we get to take her home.

    Oh yeah, Gabe, thanks for the hard work and great write ups, but think twice before resorting to namecalling. The only person it diminishes is you.

    Dorothy, from my experience, you’ll need at least the Limited Slip to make snow navigation easier. Others may disagree, but adding the DSC option depends more on how hard you’ll push the car once underway.

  • lee

    i had the pleasure of driving an 07 cooper today as my 02mc has been written off. The new cooper was really good to drive it picks up from anywhere within the rev range whereas i found that with the old model the engine seemed to have to be above 3,000revs to have any go in it. i cannot comment on whether this car will be good to be with everyday but i’m sure that the new “comfy” interior will certainly help. needless to say i have put my order in for an 07 pepper white cooper. only thing is, does anyone know if the burble has dissapeared on the european version.

  • GLK

    I’ve already made up mt mind, bit it’s nice to stumble upon this string. Thank you all.

    I have wanted a MINI since I first saw the little square magazine inserts back in ’02, but never drove one until I hopped into a 2007 S last week. I loved it, and immediately plopped down a deposit and got into the queue. After reading all of your posts and recognizing the passion implicit in them, I must say that I am very glad to have neither driven nor owned one before. I have nothing previous to compare the 2007 S with. Ain’t I lucky? For 27 years I have been behind the wheel of a ’71 Chevelle SS, a 350 hp straight line ground-pounder. Compared this ancient (if beautiful) lug, the 2007 MCS is Olga Korbut, and my old timey Chev is Dick Butkus.

    I can’t wait.

  • Tony Belcher

    In September 2006 I ordered the new R56 CooperS to have it delivered in November 2006 so that I could have one of the first on the road, as I was so pleased with my current MCS.

    Luckly the car did not arrive on time owing to build quality problems.

    I was then able to test drive the new R56 CooperS and decided to cancel the order and keep my November 2007 MCS with it’s 28,000 miles on the clock.

    I was so disappointed with the R56 which has lost all it’s mininess and grin factor.

    I have decided to have the full JCW kit fitted to my current Mini including brakes, suspension and strut brace, to make it feel like a new car, a proper Mini.

    Why change from such a fun car to the R56 which is just a small one series BMW.

    Originally I changed to a Mini from a BMW545 sports as I felt that the latest 5 series had become too refined and boring.

    Unfortunately, the Mini has followed in the 5’s footsteps.

    I will keep my current MCS forever it is so much fun to drive.

    In my book it cannot be beaten.

  • Tony Belcher

    I’m from England and yes the 07 has lost the burble. When I asked my 18 year old son should I swop my R53 for the R56 he said” NO” the new mini “SCEAMS OLD MAN” So I’ve kept the old one

  • Tony Belcher

    I’m from England and yes the 07 has lost the burble. When I asked my 18 year old son should I swop my R53 for the R56 he said” NO” the new mini “SCREAMS OLD MAN” So I’ve kept the old one

  • M. Hall

    The accessories on the MINI configurator list optional chrome exhaust tips that “provide a distinct visual and auditory enhancement”. Has anyone seen/heard these and know if they bring the “burble” back? I’m wondering if the lost burble is just an exhaust configuration issue.

  • http://www.motoringfile.com/ Gabe

    The burble was/is created buy ECU software. An exhaust tip cannot create this effect.

  • Dave Mac Mini

    I have now put about 600 miles on my new R56 and I am loving every minute. I took the car back to the dealer today to get my iPod interface installed, and they gave me a 2006 MCS for a loaner. I was interested to see how it would feel after driveing the new one for a few weeks, as I previously had an ’05. Boy, what a difference. The old car feels crude in a direct comparison. I loved my ’05, and I was not sure if I wanted to trade it, but I did, and I am very happy. The new car feels faster, handles just as well, but is much more pleasant to live with. I do not think a car needs to ride rough, be noisy and full of rattles, and have a burbling exhaust to be fun! Being a baby BMW is not a bad thing, in my book. There are many little improvements, in addition to the major ones, and I do not miss my ’05 one bit.

  • http://www.realcaliforniapics.com Alden

    “…there’s little question the car is meant to be easier to drive for the masses.”

    What a bunch of crap! Who ever said I bought a 2006 Mini Cooper S because I wanted a car that was meant for the masses?!??! In fact, that’s the exact reason I DIDN’T buy a 3-series, or a Mazda, or Subaru or whatever other kind of car the un-educated, un-impassioned, “masses” who have no idea of the beauty or the history of Sir Alec’s Dream, and the subsequent worldwide success (notice I didn’t say “acceptance) of the Classic cars by Austin. Would any car these days go 30 years with virtually the same body style? To quote Wayne’s World: “Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs that people liked, they left that to the Beatles.” I am an extremely satisfied MINI owner, and if that means I drive a “performance all-the-time” car, that is ALWAYS in “Sport” mode, then so be it. THAT’S WHY I BOUGHT IT!!!!! Got it?

  • Turbo Lover

    My first MINI, the R56 w/spt pkg. at a young age of 18, (I might be the only under 20 MINI motorer) unless the young MINI drivers prove me wrong in a distasteful reply. But with 2000 miles on it… now I actually like driving it. P.S. there is actually a great sound to the exhaust. And you can hear the spooling turbo, w/ windows down.

  • Turbo Lover

    I bought the R56 over the VW GTI, i sort of regret that decision but now with 2000 miles on it, i see the MINI as a lighter (even better) GTI.

  • David Sinclair

    My new Mini Cooper S is now 2weeks old (this is my 3rd Mini) and the difference in the latest version is simply amazing. Of all its qualities it is the cars midrange punch which has the biggest advantage for me. The engine’s torque is incredibly effective in the 30-60mph in anything from 3rd to 6th gear (which in my opinion as a Motor Engineer underlines the fact that Torque is king). This new car is adept that I would consider it as good or even better than my outgoing Audi A3 3.2 Quattro it has replaced.

  • Michael Berliner

    I do not like the new car at all. I plan to buy a convertible S in 2008 – The old car has so much more style and class.

  • Michael Berliner

    I just read some of the negative comments above – I support all of them. The new car looks different immediately, the big speedo looks horrible. I drove one and it’s tight, like a proper car, but it is no longer a MINI – I’m buying an S convertible.

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MINI Model Cheat Sheet

1st Gen MINI
R50: One & MC Hatch
R52: All 1st Gen MINI Convt.
R53: MCS Hatch
2nd Gen MINI
R55: Clubman
R56: Hatch
R57: Convertible
R58: Coupe
R59: Roadster
R60: MINI Crossover
R61: MINI Crossover Coupe
3rd Gen MINI
F54: Clubman
F55: Five Door Hatch
F56: Hatch
F57: Convertible
F60: MINI Crossover
F58: Traveller

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