R50 vs R56 Reader Review

MotoringFile reader and dual MINI owner Wayne Dyer has written an excellent comparison of his two MINIs: a 2004 MINI Cooper and the other a 2007 Cooper S. It’s both an excellent review of the new car and a great analysis of what has evolved from the R50 to the R56. The entire piece is a very worthwhile read for any MINI fan in that it’s both unbiased and real-world. And thankfully Wayne has gratiously allowed us to re-post the entire review on MotoringFile. Enjoy:

We just recently became a two-MINI family (actually an all-MINI family), so that put me in a special position to compare the first and second generation MINI Coopers side by side. They’re both daily drivers, neither will see a rally or a track. Just spirited in-town and highway driving.

Her’s is a 2004 MINI Cooper (R50), CVT transmission, in Solid Gold and black top. It sports the Premium and Sport packages. Cordoba beige “soft” leather interior, HK HiFi, sport suspension, performance runflats on 16″ 5-stars and some other options. Mine is a 2007 Mini Cooper S (R56), Dark Silver with black top. It’s equipped with the Premium, Convenience, and Sport packages, Lounge leather interior, HiFi, LSD, sport suspension, and performance runflats on 17″ web spokes, and some other options. The driving lights on mine have yet to be fitted, and I didn’t get a chance to wash it before I took these photos. I’m just lazy that way.

For all pictures taken shown here and a few more (all shots taken for comparison, not artistic value), please visit my SmugMug gallery.

I realize this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Yes, it would have been a fairer comparsion if her car was an MCS, or even a manual and not a CVT. I realize the MC here is a pre-refresh 2004 as well. And although I’ve driven a 1st generation MCS, I’m not going to try making that apples-to-apples comparison.

However, I believe much of the comparison is valid. After all, the R56 isn’t really getting complaints about performance relative to the 1st generation MCS so much as the styling differences and allegations of a “softer” ride.

My goal here is not to detail the differences, but to highlight a few of them and share our overall impressions based on driving both cars.

Exterior

In the photo above, you can clearly see the major styling differences between the generations. The 2007 looks larger overall, but has the same stance and aspect. As this is a pre-2005 Cooper, it doesn’t have the refreshed front-end, and if it was an S with the aero kit, the differences would still be significant, but not as stark. Do a Google image search if you don’t believe me.

In the photo below, you can see that I got the white turn signals on the R56. But in the photo above, why do they look orange? Well, the bulb inside is orange of course, and head-on, the front turn signals do look orange, because there aren’t as many diffractive surfaces on the lens as there are on the rear so the front lights look more orange as you move towards the front. Off-axis, it’s easier to see it’s an orange bulb and a clear lens.

In my opinion, the changes to the rear of the car are less strking than the front. Moving the back-up lights to the tail-light cluster is a good thing, as the R50’s backup light is nearly useless for illumination. The 2005-2006 MINIs do have the backup lights in the cluster, and I can’t compare the difference in illumination, but the difference with the two cars above is significant. Still, the output is rather low and I’m glad I opted for the parking distance control on the new car.

Another item you can see in the rear-shot above is that the side mirrors are a different shape. They measure to be the same width, but the R56 has oblong (sort of rounded-triangluar) mirrors that measure a half-inch higher at their thickest point.

In both views, you can easily see that the R56 rides higher, but how how high, exactly? I made a few (approximate) measurements that you won’t find on the offical specs:

Measurement R50 R56
Body clearance behind front wheel 7″ 7.5″
Body clearance ahead of rear wheel 8.5″ 8.5″
Height to belt line at door handle 37″ 38″
Height to belt line at center boot 39.5″ 40.5″

Here’s a side shot for context:

I think there may actually be a tad more ground clearance on the R56, maybe a half-inch to an inch depending on where you measure. The front air dam complicates that as well. It’s clear though that the new car’s belt line sits about a full inch higher, compressing the window space a bit, as the height (as reported elsewhere) is nearly the same. The visual effect is stronger here because the MC has window tint and the MCS doesn’t yet. Nevertheless, as others have reported, the MINI designers did a great job keeping the overall proportions consistent.

So is it bigger? Yes. Is it huge? Is it the over-bloating of the MINI Cooper? Hardly. The numbers don’t lie — the car is only marginally larger. It all adds up though to the perception of a larger, and more substantial car.

Much has been said about the R56’s “snout” as well. Here we have something of an extreme comparison, because the hood on the R50 Cooper is lower than the hood on the supercharged R53 Cooper S, but this gives a good “before and after” comparison. Taken individually, each car looks balanced and properly proportioned. It’s only when you see them together that the differences become obvious. Looking at the picture above, I almost think the R56 would look more in line with the R50 if they’d stretched the hood a tad, maybe by about another inch, but then the car would look even bigger.

Above you can also see the differences in the wheel well trim, which measures a half-inch thicker on the R56. (4 inches vs 3.5 inches) I believe if they’d shaved that down on the R56, the R56 would look even larger.

Another exterior feature that’s changed significantly is the area where the wipers mount. In my opinion, the R50 outclasses the R56 here by far when you look at the car from the side. From the front, the R56 looks a little cleaner there, but from the side, it looks clunky and it’s going to fill up with leaves. (By the way, those aren’t stock wipers on the R50, they’re the curved Valeo wipers, which are great wipers.)

Interior

There are so many photos of the new and old interior on the web already, that I thought it would be a waste of time to chronicle every little difference. However there are a few details that I think are worth pointing out that aren’t as obvious in the photos I’ve seen. In the photgraphs below, the R50 Cooper is on the left, the R56 Cooper S is on the right.

Boot volume has increased a hair, in part due to the loss of this bulky bit. You can also see that the latches to fold down the seats have moved to the opposite side.

The boot hinges are different, and the tubing holding the electrical wiring is on the other side.

However, the door itself looks pretty much the same.

The stalk controls for turn signals and wipers are no longer “bent”, they’re straight. But from the driver’s perspective, they’re in the same place. The action (ignoring the different way the turn signals work — you can read about that elsewhere) is slightly different though, as the levers pivot on a different axis.

Note that the button for the onboard computer is no longer on the top, where you can accidentally hit it, but on the end.

Sound

There have been claims that the R56 is quieter than the previous generation. This may be true when comparing the R56 MCS to the 1st gen MINI Cooper S (R53), but the sound levels are comparable when comparing these two cars. I used a SPL meter to measure the levels on the outside and the inside of both cars (A-weighted, for measurement geeks). Ambient noise wouldn’t measure on my meter, which bottoms out at 50 dB.

Measurement R50 R56
Exhaust at idle, waist-high about 3 feet away 60 dB 64 dB
Exhaust at 2500 RPM, waist-high about 3 feet away 67 dB 71 dB
Interior at idle, from passeneger seat 50 dB* 55 dB
Interior at 60 MPH, from passenger seat 72 dB 73 dB

* the meter can’t measure anything less than 50 dB

So is it quieter? Maybe than the 1st gen MCS as there’s no supercharger whine, but overall, it’s about the same, maybe even louder inside the 2nd gen at least at idle.

We also observed that the sound of the door lock on the R56 is a lower pitch than the sound of the door lock on the R50, but the sound is the same.

Ride and Handling

Both cars have the sport suspension, so this is a relatively fair comparison. The R56 is supposedly tuned for runflats though, and sports the 2nd gen runflat technology that supposedly gives a smoother ride.

Our verdict? The ride is the same. I perceive a slight bit more of a jarring ride on some surfaces on the R50, but it’s subtle. If we had 17″ rims on the R50, it might be more of a difference.

Both cars handle similarly, and I’ve driven the R56 with the sport mode on and off. I do agree with reports that the 1st gen is a bit more “tossable”, and that the 2nd gen has a bit more of a disconnected feel. It still goes where you point it, especially with the sport mode engaged, but there’s a bit less feedback through the steering wheel, which contributes to the driver feeling like it’s riding a bit softer. I believe that’s where most of the “softer ride” perceptions are coming from.

The steering on the R56 also feels heavier, more weighted. This is a feel I prefer. Some will prefer a lighter, twitchier wheel, but I like the solid feel. This does contribute to the sense that the car is heavier and less tossable than the previous generation, though.

Transmissions? I can’t compare the CVT to the Getrag 6-speed at all, even in the M/S position. It’s beyond apples and oranges there, we’re into apples and zucchini. Driving the CVT aggressively is a struggle. The engine wants to go, the CVT isn’t so sure.

Miscellany

In comparing the ride, we also thought the seats might be making a difference. The seats on the R50 are the Gravity Leather sport seats, which to my rear-end, feel harder and more fatiguing than the Lounge Leather sport seats.

The differences in the sunroof operation and screen have been the subject of some discussion online.

The operation on the R50 is:

  • Auto open to tilt
  • Auto open (second press)
  • Auto close to tilted position
  • Hold switch to close from tilted position

The operation on the R56 is:

  • Auto open to tilt
  • Hold switch to open fully
  • Hold switch to close to tilted position, but be careful or you’ll start to close it
  • Hold switch to close from tilted position

The operation on the R50 is superior. The screen on the R50 is spring-loaded, which is much nicer but the screen in the R56 is in a frame, so that the sides are not floppy. Of all the differences between the cars, the sunroof screen is the one thing that my wife found genuinely annoying. The new screen design just feels cheap. They both have a light gap at the front when the roof is completely open, but you don’t notice it on the R50, because it has a hard-plastic deflector that pops up when you open the roof. The R56 has a mesh screen deflector that of course doesn’t block light.

Wind noise on both was comparable, although some report that the closed-position on the R56 has unacceptable levels of wind noise. I believe this to be a fitting problem, as not all are reporting this, and I’m getting zero noise while closed. It’s similar to the panel gaps that have been reported on the bonnet. My R56 has very tight gaps.

Shoulder room is the same in both cars. We ride elbow-to-elbow.

My wife preferred the steering wheel cover on the R56 to the R50.

Acceleration on the MCS is superior to the MC. That’s not news, but this is the first MCS my wife has driven, and she made several positive exclamations while driving it.

I also can’t really compare torque steer on these cars, because frankly there’s much less low-end torque on the R50 Cooper, and the CVT is in there spoiling the party. That being said, in spirited street driving, I find the torque steer to be acceptable. That is, no more or less than I expect from a powerful front-wheel-drive car.

The hood (OK, OK, I’ll comply with MINI marketing directive #2 — it’s a “bonnet”) doesn’t feel as flimsy as some people have said. Comparing the two, the R50 bonnet does feel sturdier, because it’s heavier due to the lights being mounted in the hood. The allegations that it’s like tin foil are greatly exaggerated. If you removed the lights from the Cooper, I believe the feel would be the same.

Panel gaps between the bonnet and body — on my car they’re fine. They look like any other two body panels meeting, nice and tight.

Both cars really could use auto-up on the driver’s side window. This is more of a lack with a manual transmission than an automatic. You can’t speed away from the toll booth and roll up the window at the same time.

Summary

Overall, we really like both cars.

The R50’s clear weak spot is the CVT, which is remedied in later years when the CVT was dropped. Even with its lower power, it’s a blast to drive.

The R56’s weak spots (if you consider the car by itself and not in comparison) are in the details, and ironically, its refinement. The cheap-feeling sunroof screen, the little annoying things like the speedometer that’s just a little too big, the radio that you have to read a manual to even turn on the first time, the genuinely goofy aesthetics of the center control stack under the speedometer, and a few more little details like that end up being the R56’s biggest problems. That’s a good place for a car to be.

It’s clear the R56 is a bit more refined and more BMW-like than the Rover-initiated 1st gen “new MINI”. There’s no Rover left. For those that relished in the rough edges of the R50 and R53, that’s a loss. For them, the new car will feel a bit more sterile. I don’t think that will be the general impression. If people want to say that means BMW is appealing to the masses, that’s fine. It’s a very good car.

The loss of the easy mods to the supercharger, and the lack of aftermarket performance parts for the new car due to the redesign that changed everything just enough (even the stubby antennas don’t fit!), means that enthusiasts who plan on extensive mods probably should stay with the 1st gen platform for now, as there’s a ready supply of parts, and very few for the R56. I don’t think that situation will last very long, though, and I don’t think it will hurt sales at all. The vast majority of MINIs see some customization, but the demand for aftermarket parts is not driven by the vast majority of buyers.

I can’t see any changes I’d classify as “blatant cost-cutting measures by BMW”, except for two: the sunroof screen and the missing wrap-around glass on the rear. The R50’s wrap-around glass is a nice touch, but it’s a small one. Otherwise, if the manufacture of the car is less expensive, that’s fine, but I’m not left with the impression that corners have been cut, making the car “cheaper” in feel or performance.

The MINI is still the best-looking and most fun car in its class.

  • rhawth99

    Nice review – thanks for taking the time to write all of this up!

  • Brian

    Excellent, thank you.

  • Nick

    Excellent. Thanks for taking the time and effort. Forward it to Car and Driver–better yet to Newseek–whose article spoke of the R56 and its’ Supercharger! Nick

  • Excellent comparative study. Very clear, factual and well executed.

  • Scott

    Thanks for the review. Where did you get the black bumper guards on the r50?

  • Shooler

    Very well written. Thanks!

  • prkali

    I love the fact that this was an “owner review”!!! Well done. (insert clapping emoticon here)

  • Jon

    Excellent comparative review Wayne, and a fun read as well. I concur with you analysis as well, it’s a different car that the previous but one that honors the R53. The fact is there are no perfect cars, and to me this is a great thing. The mini community strives for individuality on our cars, so having a less than perfect car allows us all to make the changes to our cars to make them our version of perfection.

  • David

    Thanks for the comparo, very relavent to my situation, owning an ’04 R50, and viewing (but not driving) the new R56 models at the auto show yesterday. I came away with the feeling that the R56 is very much still a MINI. The centre stack that is much discussed is not as abysmal as some would make it out to be, from a styling standpoint. The tactile feel of these controls however, are less good than the R50’s – the toggle switches are too closely spaced, the temperature and fan controls being of the thumb-wheel variety can not be as easy to use. Agree that the cowl area of the R50 is the nicer looking of the two designs. Wheel designs of the R56 are lacklustre compared to the current OEM crop. The cars I saw were equipped with 16″ and 17″ tires, and even with the Sport package they were of an all-season design, the ContiProContact’s that come on 3 series BMW’s. I wonder if MINI will offer summer performance tires? I especially liked the aluminum rear suspension components that are visible through the wheels – very impressive. Minor pet peeve – I would prefer to see a more substantial sized Sport button, maybe the size of the engine start button, and put it on the dash were it belongs, the current location is not good and feels cheap. (rant over) Overall the R56 is still MINI and most folks in the current buying market won’t tell the difference.

  • Nathaniel Salzman

    I especially like seeing the comparison photos. Kudos for that!

  • Vanwall

    Excellent write-up! Nothin’ more need be said.

    BCNU, Rob in Dago

  • FrankInMiami

    Nice write up. But I would have liked to see a comparo between a 2005+ post-facelift R50/53 MINI versus the R56.

  • FrankInMiami

    When I test drove the R56 I hated the new electronic turn signals. Also the stalks look and feel cheap in comparison to those of the old car. And the fanny in the R56 is way too high for my taste.

  • Mr. Miagawi

    Well get crackin’ Frank! 🙂 Or are you offering to loan Wayne your Mini in order for him to do the comparison? I am under the impression he may be a ways away from Miami though!

    In the meantime, I’m not an owner of ANY version yet, but my R56 is going through quality control today, and I’m very excited to get such a highly-regarded car. Great work, Wayne!

  • Interesting write-up, thanks very much. I just dropped my R53 at Morristown MINI and took a quick glance at the R56 and I didn’t make my heart go nuts like my ride did when I first saw it. Perhaps its an unfair comparison given that my car has been lowered, has BBS RGR anthracite wheels, Aerokit plus other goodies. Still not for me, feels more like a great buy for a more conservative crowd. One thing I quickly noticed was the HUGE mirrors…overall it feels over scaled. One thing I really liked was the wiper mount area because it has a nice texture to it. Great job on the write up…that must have taken some time to compile.

  • O(=^=)O Capn

    Thank you, I could actually smell the new car R56 while I was reading this.

  • ejkd

    Thank you very much…..it trully helps for us who are considering buying the 2007 model.

    🙂

  • Where did you get the black bumper guards on the r50?

    They were an option on 2004 Coopers.

  • It’s already been said, but thank you again for the writeup! I found it very informative! I loved that you measured things that the official MINI documentation does such as the sound levels inside and outside and the exhaust sound. Thanks as well for pointing out where the increased space came from in the boot! The comparison about the sunroof button was also helpful as I didn’t realize the operation when you press it vs. holding it changed. This review really helps me out as I work at a MINI dealership and I have an R53 but it’s hard to find out things like the sunroof button without having an R56 for a few days and playing around with it.

    🙂

  • Stellar write-up, the comparison photographs help IMMENSELY in showcasing the changes.

  • bart5467

    WOW very detailed Great Job!!!

  • AlwaysOpenCharlie05

    Excellent- just made my choice that much clearer.

    The Chili Red R56 order goes down today @ Mini of Peabody.

  • Very good comparison en nice pictures! Thanks.

  • GZ

    Good work! Now we need someone to do the same on the two MCSs for a true apples to apples.

  • R50

    Thanks for the review. Where did you get the black bumper guards on the r50?

    In 03, you could either get black, chrome, or no bumper covers. We didn’t get any on our gold car and regretted it. Purchased chrome covers from Classic Mini and added them later.

  • Pretzel Logic

    Nice work on the photos and descriptions — now all that’s left is to take that first test drive!

  • michael

    Hopefully the derelict engineers have designed better coffee cup holders this time around. I’m sure that there is more than a full cup of coffee in my CD player/rqadio/controls due to the ridiculous location of the optional cup holder…and, the one that resides between the seats make a cup of brew prone to anything flying off the rear seat during a panic stop – two or three cups there as well. Simply priceless engieering.

    The mini is nothing more than a two seat driver’s car. BMW had better keep a keen eye on ‘driver’s’ car because from an ergonomic and reliability perspective, it is far behind.

  • TomMINI

    The cooper s R56 is fantastic! I love it! perfect comparison

  • LL

    I’ve all variants of MINI at one point or another. Now, the R56 as well.. Great write up. Some additional comments, if I may add…

    My impression, when I first got my R56, was how much higher it was — even though in reality, as this write up pointed out, is pretty much the same. Part of the problem was that the rear suspension arms are much more visible than R53 or the R50, giving the impression that it rides higher.

    Driving wise, the R56 feels calmer and more stable than the R53. However, because of the flat torque from 2k rpm on, the R56 felt more controlled — the acceleration seemed more effortless, but at the same time, throttle response has less character, less of the vibrations and noises that has come to define the MINI Cooper driving experience.

    I must say, though, I haven’t really driven the R56 that hard yet, since it’s still in its break-in period — I’m lifting my heavy foot quite a bit. So, perhaps when the car is driven the way it’s supposed to be driven, it would feel a lot different than my impressions.

    My R56 was orded with LSD, sports package and sport suspension. My impressions of its ride, compared to the R53, is that it is definitely an improvement. Just to be clear, I’m comparing R56 with performance runflat (since I’m in CA) with R53 and non-runflat tires. Both cars have 17″ rims. It feels, that the R56’s suspension tuning does a better job at high-frequency damping than the R53, in that you still feel the rough road, but not in a way that you’d feel the whole car jolting. Nonetheless, because of the sport suspension, a lot of the bigger bumps are still very much noticeable.

    Other aspects of two cars are pretty much covered by the write up. I will say this, the turn signals AND the wiper controls (which operate the same way) definitely takes some getting used to — since the spatial relationships of these controls are no longer present.

  • Liam

    Nice review, very extensive. Thanks.

    R56s have just arrived in Australia, and I was lucky enough to get a drive today, the first day available for general public to do so…

    Firstly a big THANK YOU to Rob from Rolfe Classic MINI Garage in Canberra, it was fantastic of him to offer a friend and I a reasonably lenghty test drive on day one.

    Our drive was around town on Canberra’s nice open roads, but we also took advantage of the city centre hill climb course, otherwise known as Black Mountain.

    Outright pace is about on par with my 04 MCS (with 15% pulley, CAI and cat-back exhaust). Or at least, that is the impression I had from the driving seat, if anything I’d say my modded MINI is ever so slightly quicker. But basically the same. A dragstrip test with timing would be interesting. MINI has done a very good job of ensuring there is little turbo lag. On the drive today, there was maybe only one or two moments where lag was noticeable, but it’s not bad by any means, by the time you’ve noticed it you’ve spooled up. Certainly from a drivetrain point of view I found the car extremely liveable and likeable. Gearshift is still very good, but just slightly slicker in the new car. A nice, but subtle improvement. Shame the actual gear knob doesn’t feel quite as good. Nothing Mr Whalen can’t fix I’m sure.

    While not the longest of tests, I personally didn’t notice too much difference with the Sport button on or off. It’s there, but based on today probably a pointless exercise. Maybe over time the nuances would be appreciated more.

    Suspension felt tight and composed, as to be expected. Ride quality is a step up. Given I have Eibach lowering springs this is perhaps not a surprise, but my friend shared this view as well, comparing to his stock 06 MCS Checkmate. For drivers who have to drive on poor quality roads every day, I’d be surprised if you didn’t find this car a definite improvement. Pleasingly, the improvement in ride quality hasn’t resulted in a loss of composure. Differences in overall handling traits seem to be minimal. One of the biggest advances is in the new generation run flats. Comparatively they are superb. Remains to be seen how they last and so on, but they appear to be a vast improvement in all facets compared to my OEM 16 X-lites with runflats (used as track wheels). And certainly a match for my 17s with conventional Bridgestone rubber.

    The only slight disappointment I found in the driving experience was with the steering. I find it very difficult to explain why or how, but I found the feel from the steering wheel is not quite as good as the old car. The best way I can put it into words is that the steering is still direct, but compared to the R53 you feel a bit disconnected. I know that sounds weird, but I can’t quite describe it any other way. It’s almost as if there is a fraction lost between turning the wheel and the wheels actually turning. That’s probably a harsh call in reality, but again, I just can’t quite put my finger on why I found it to be small step backwards. Goes to show just how right BMW got the steering on the MINI from day one.

    Taking a big picture view, I’d say the R56 MCS is pretty much the same as the R53 MCS. It’s just the finer details are a bit different between the two. The things that have improved with the new car are offset a little by the things that haven’t improved, which, it has to be said, are mostly aesthetic (steering aside). Sure you miss the supercharger whine and the character that gives the car, but that’s only an issue for current owners. If I was going from my R53 to an R56 MCS I wouldn’t be disappointed in my decision, yet there’s not enough of a difference to make me want to change over sooner than perhaps I might. In the future though, if the time and budget is right I’d definitely buy an R56, without hesitation.

    Kind of as I expected, driving the R56 MINI slots in nicely between the driving experience of my MINI and my wife’s Mk5 Golf GTI. You have the chuckability of the R53, with a bit of the refinement you get in the Mk5 Golf. Nice work MINI, job well done.

  • Joe

    Michael – I like to think that the owners of most “driver’s cars” do not care how well their cup holders work, since they are focused on driving. Drinking coffee, eating Big Macs, or talking on their cellular phones should not be an issue when it comes to tossing the car into a corner.