We’ve done several R53/R56 comparisons over the past year but one thing we’ve never done is tested two (almost) identically equipped MINIs back to back. Along with that, we’ve never had the right opportunity to equally assess both cars over the right roads and in the right conditions. And while MotoringFile has been the host of multiple articles comparing the two cars, I always felt they missed a little something without back to back drives. This comparison was to be different. We’d be focusing on driving the cars rather than talking about styling, price and all the other hotly contested debates that we’ve hosted on these pages previously.
So the plan was hatched; we’d drive from Chicago to Kalamazoo Michigan with a detour to the Indiana Lakefront. Here we’d find some of the best (and largely unknown) roads in the entire region. Once back on the highway we’d finish with a two hour blast up I94 to Bell’s Brewery, home of one of the most celebrated micro-brewed beers in the US. Along with the two MINIs being tested would be another R53 (’03 vintage) and a chase car in the form of a Porsche 911 Turbo (996).
But why travel two hours to buy a case of beer and bring it back? About a year ago the distributor of Bell’s in Illinois sold the rights to distributor that the Bell’s management found rather unsavory. Instead of dealing with this new company, Bells decided to simply pull out of Illinois and the entire Chicago market. But as a tip of the cap to it’s Chicago clientele, Bell’s decided to offer a discount to anyone purchasing beer at the brewery with an Illinois driver’s license. Thus the 2007 Bells Beer Run (aka East bound and Up) was born.
Now onto the cars. Our goal was to test two cars that were seemingly equal in performance. So we needed one of the last R53s made and it had to have all of the popular modifications that have become commonplace with MINI enthusiasts. Thus our 2006 R53 test car came equipped with the following:
- Astro Black on Astro Black
- Miltek Exhaust
- Webb Motorsport Intake
- Webb 15% Reduction Pulley
- 18″ 16lbs OZ Ultraleggera Wheels
- JCW Steering Wheel
- JCW Brakes
- w/some of the toe “dialed out” by a local garage (the owner was adamant it makes a difference with turn-in)
Power = 185hp +
Torque = more than stock…
This particular R53 was one of the last made and it was is excellent condition with fairly low miles.
With the R56 we wanted a similar wheel/tire combination and modifications that upped the power in a similar fashion. Luckily I just happened to have the perfect car… sitting in my garage. On paper my 2007 MCS matched up particularly well with our R53 test car due to the newly released dealer installed JCW Kit. Here are the full specs:
- Astro Black on Astro Black
- JCW “Stage I” Engine Kit (Exhaust/Intake/ECU)
- JCW Suspension Kit
- 18″ 16lbs OZ Ultraleggera Wheels
- JCW Steering Wheel
- JCW Pads (other brake components are identical to JCW brake kit on the R53)
Power = 189hp (192bhp)
Torque = 200ft lbs
We started out from Chicago on the newly re-opened Dan Ryan expressway. Immediately it was obvious that the modded R53 had a ton of power in the mid range and top-end. While the R56 could hold it’s own, it certainly wasn’t dramatically faster. And the sound of the R53 from behind was fantastic. Just a hint of Supercharger whine and the growl of the Miltek exhaust gave the car one hell of a presence.
In contrast the R56 JCW MCS had a less complex note to it but was (surprisingly) equal in aggressiveness if heard from outside the car. Driving behind the JCW R56 you’re immediately struck by the difference. The JCW kit adds a note that is deeper than on the R53 even with the Miltek. The exhaust itself was also louder both in and outside the cabin on the highway. Under cruising speeds we found it fairly subdued (it didn’t drone as some aftermarket exhausts do), but move the pedal at all and sound returns with a vengeance.
Having owned basically an identical car to the R53 we tested, I can vouch for its quickness. Whether around a track or on the highway, the car was exceptionally fun. However the highway wasn’t always it’s most ideal setting. Above triple digits, the R53 had a tendency to become a little less planted and lose some critical steering feel. In other words the front end became a little too light for comfortable high-speed cruising.
In contrast to this the JCW MCS (equipped with the JCW aero-kit) felt noticeably more confident than both the R53 or the R56 I tested at 140mph + on the German Autobahn. In fact, above tripple didgets it felt close to the GP in composure. The conclusion one has to reach is that the wind tunnel study done on the optional JCW aero-kit does effectively increase front down-force and provide a better experience at high speeds. While I had heard this said to me by more than one person at MINI over the last year, I had never felt this first hand until now.
As we neared the Michigan border, it was finally time to get off the expressway and head for the shore. There are a few hidden gems around the Beverly Shores area that seemed ideal to put these cars to a proper test. And with the help of the GPS in the 2007, we finally found them.
First up, the JCW R56.
“Insanely fast,” were the first words out of Matt’s mouth as we walked away from the R56 after a short drive. I’ll agree it’s fast, but insanely fast? Yes the R56 has loads of torque. And with the JCW kit it has a bit more power too. With the meat of the power-band starting low and going all the way near redline, acceleration seems to be effortless. But what makes it all the more enjoyable is the engine’s ability to rev so quickly.
The JCW kit not only increases the power noticeably but gone is the annoying flat spot where torque seems to disappear in the stock R56 MCS. In it’s place is a clean upsurge in power that starts when you touch the pedal and doesn’t seem to stop until redline. And there’s now so much torque on tap (officially 200ft lbs) that you don’t really dare burry the throttle for more than a moment unless you’re truly prepared for triple digit speeds. But it’s not that there’s a huge number disparity between the two cars tested here. The difference is really how and when the JCW R56 applies the power. Which is to say with efficient vengeance and all the time.
There’s little question that this particular R56 has the edge in handling due to the JCW Suspension kit installed (also available on the R53/R50). But you can’t really appreciate the difference until you drive the two cars back to back. Where the stock suspension in the R53 felt stiff and ready to play, the R56 seemed to swallow corners with a shrug and a “what’s next?” sort of attitude. It allows for more composed motion through the corners and thus more control at the limit. It also gives you more traction coming out of corners. There’s less of that weight shift to the rear that you’d normally get in a quick FWD car like the MINI. The combination of the JCW suspension, updated DSC (standard on the R56) and the optional limited slip made the R56 feel almost faultless in the corners despite the cold leaf covered pavement.
But enough of the new car. Let’s get behind the always familiar R53 JCW steering wheel and get reacquainted with the car that built the new MINI’s reputation. Immediately it’s painfully obvious that both the throttle response and the power delivery are second rate to the R56 – even more so to the JCW R56 tested here. At best you could describe it as… delayed. At worst it’s alarming after a drive in the R56. But if you wait just a bit, you’re rewarded not only with some impressive pull but with a sound that is completely addicting.
You can hear everything in the R53. The intake, the exhaust and the supercharger whine is startling at first if you’re not used to it. And this is coming from someone who’s owned essentially the same car for two years. You have to love the sound to be able to tolerate it all day. Luckily I do. And then of course there’s the glorious exhaust popping. On this car (equipped with a Miltek exhaust) that back-pressure popping has a classic car feel that is addicting.
Then I turned the wheel and things got better. The R53 has an immediacy in it’s steering that (for better or worse) the R56 can’t quite match. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again; the R53 simply has more steering feel than the R56. While the ’07 JCW MCS doesn’t ever seem lacking, it just doesn’t quite match the purity that you get from apexing at speed in a 2006 MCS. But somewhat surprisingly the steering is also noticeably lighter than the R56. It lacks the weighted and on-center feel that I begin to take for granted in the R56. While it’s especially evident off of the twisties, it’s also obvious in the tight stuff as well.
One change that I hadn’t noticed as clearly before was the pedal placement. Where on the R56 I could heel-to-toe with just a little flick, on the R53 it was more of a concerted effort. It didn’t take long to adjust to the set-up but it was surprisingly noticeable. However it’s worth keeping in mind that heel-to-toe style shifts are something much easier practiced in the R56 due to it’s ability to rev quickly. The R53 (with it’s supercharger all the baggage that comes with it) seems to rev at glacial speeds in comparison. Because of this, the naturally aspirated R50 Cooper (not tested here) was always quicker to rev.
Beverley Shores is one of my favorite areas in Northern Indiana. It’s located on Lake Michigan on dunes that centuries ago became overcome by forest. For enthusiasts that means two things; elevation changes and corners. For everyone else it means a gorgeous lake-shore with Lord of the Rings style forests. Due to this, it’s also the location that was used to display the famed “World’s Fair Houses” from the 1933 Chicago World’s fair. The homes were built in Chicago by a handful of the most well known architects of the day and once the fair was completed, disassembled and shipped (via boat) across the lake to Beverly Shores.
Alas the years were not kind to the houses. Several were taken by the lake during storms and the others simply fell into dis-repair. Thankfully the state of Indiana stepped in last year and the remaining homes are being refurbished and/or rebuilt to the original specifications by individual owners. So before leaving the area a stop had to be made to pay our respects to the seemingly unbridled enthusiasm that these homes represented 75 years ago. And who doesn’t want to see the first electric garage doors?
As we headed back onto the highway I was almost in disbelief. The extent to which the cars were different shocked both of us. I had driven the two back to back before, but never with so little time in between and through such demanding roads.
There was little question that it was the R53 that had the edge in steering feel and that its turn-in was quicker. While the R56’s on-center feel and better weight made it feel a little more grown-up, it was still eager to play. But it felt like it lacked the last 10% of feel that made the R53 so pure.
But it was the power of the new “Prince” engine and the smoothness of the new transmission that stood out in my mind as the huge differentiators. The R56 was just plainly faster on every facet of the test. Once more, while it lacked some of the R53s steering feel, there was also little question that the JCW suspension gave the car inspiring grip and control in the corners.
And with that, we were back on the highway. With three Valentine One’s in the group, we made pretty good time. Although I got the distinct feeling that the 911 Turbo in the group was just toying with us staying back in the pack. Perhaps he knew, if anyone was getting a ticket (and potentially jail-time), it would be the guy with the word “Turbo” on the back of this car.
After another hour or so we finally made it to Bells Brewery. We saddled up to the bar and ordered a pint (just one) and some lunch. And that’s where the debate started. Or not. As it turned out, Matt and I pretty much agreed from the first words out of our mouths. There wasn’t much mystery about it. Sure the debate gets cloudy when talking about things like styling preferences but discussion on performance was pretty cut and dry.
Once we got packed up and said our goodbyes to all that is Kalamazoo, we headed back out onto I94. One hour and 45 minutes later we were in Chicago. I won’t go into how this was possible but I can tell you it even included an unscheduled detour through the wonderful metropolis of Gary Indiana.
As we were heading into Chicago I reflecting on how different the two cars are. The power and speed of the R56 had always been masked due to it’s smoothness. Then there’s the R53’s lighter steering and inferior on-center weighting that didn’t seem all that bad when I owned one. And of course the wonderful immediacy of the turn in with the R53, something the R56 can’t quite match.
Then it hit me. The R56 is a product purely designed and engineered by BMW. Even the engine is 100% BMW engineered. It truly is the better car of the two, no question. The R53 on the other hand is a product of, well basically an unhappy marriage. It was designed and engineered by BMW and Rover outcasts (talented as they may have been) as the BMW Group was going through one of the worst periods in it’s history with the Rover losing millions daily. And yet it turned out to be an exceptional, capable car with (above all) loads of personality. Part great people and quite possibly part luck, the R53 (R50 and R52 included) will forever be remembered as special cars for resurrecting a brand the right way. But today, it’s second best.
And then, as I was turning off the highway I heard something in the JCW R56. A rattle, just in-front of the sunroof. 4500 miles and this was the first signs of imperfection. Maybe these cars aren’t all that different?