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.