With the 2011 MINI almost upon us we thought it was time for a last look at the best of the R56 Cooper S. Four years ago we pronounced it the best MINI yet and I promptly sold my own R53 Cooper S to buy one. Since then we’ve seen the JCW introduced, cold start issues, and all sorts of new options and packages added to the car. But what remains is a package that has aged well in most ways. Nevermind the pedantic R53 vs R56 debate, the 2010 MINI Cooper S is a compelling product that is selling as well as ever.
This was also a chance for me to step back into a stock MINI for the first time in over a year. It would give me a chance to give a fresh take on the car that inspired me to create this site.
Our test car came equipped with the Mayfair package and was finished in Hot Chocolate on the outside and Toffee leather on the inside. Looking at the options sheet there weren’t many things it didn’t have except the two most important luxury items in my mind; the navigation and sunroof. Unfortunately that also means it had the dreaded Aisin 6 speed automatic transmission. Automatic debate aside, there is no question that the R56 Cooper S has a different (and decidedly more laid back) character with the torque converter box. We’ve detailed why we don’t like the idea of an automatic in a MINI for over seven years on MotoringFile and we won’t go through it all again here. Suffice to say sucks a little bit of the soul out of an incredibly fun car.
One area that has garnered a fair share of criticism is the stock suspension on the R56 (which came on our test car). But what some fail to mention is that it’s unquestionably more forgiving livable than the R53’s old set-up but it’s also clearly more aggressive than any other $23K sporty car I’ve ever driven. In fact it felt easily more sharp and rewarding than the X5 M I had just tested for BimmerFile. Yes apples to oranges but sometimes it’s worth remembering just how good a stock MCS feels.
Come to think of it I’d likely opt for either the stock suspension or the JCW suspension if I was ordering a new MINI. To me the Sport suspension doesn’t do the comfort or the sport as well as either and I’d prefer to embrace one of the two directions rather than having a solution great and neither.
Ah the handling. This is where the MINI shines more than any mass market car I’ve ever driven under $50,000. It’s astonishing how much fun 30 mph is in a MINI. It’s equivalent to 90 mph in an M3 and 120 mph in something like a BMW X5 M. It’s honest in its simplicity and the thing that so many of us love but can’t quite express in words. The word go-kart comes to mind but in reality there’s much more to it. It’s the package or good brakes, acceleration and a small package. It’s an attitude and nothing expresses it better than what you feel at the apex of a 90 degree corner.
Key to this is feel. It’s also the one let-down in the entire performance equation for the R56. With the sport button engaged the car gives a appropriate level of feedback and in turn gave me tons of confidence. Nevermind that the weight was a little light for me, it generally felt great. You’d expect that turning on the sport buttons would add more of everything we enthusiasts love. Yes it sharpens the throttle (a well executed touch) and adds needed weight to the steering. However along with those improvements it also adds an unnecessary filter that dulls the steering and the feedback. It’s interesting to note that is bothers me more now than it did on my own R56. Some of that could be down to my car having the JCW suspension and 18″ OZ wheels and ultra high performance tires. However I couldn’t help but feel let down by a button that promises everything I would expect to love.
Sport button aside the 2010 MCS we tested was flawless. No rattles, good build quality and the attractive Mayfair package made my week with it fantastic. I’m not sure if I’d personally opt for the Mayfair options package (I’d spend my money on something more sporting like the JCW engine kit and suspension or just the JCW itself) but it’s nothing if not smartly appointed and attractive. That said the Camden feels a bit superior in look and technology.
Speaking of technology the radio interface continues to annoy and frankly confuse. I’ve driven countless examples of the R56 and anyone without the Nav has an interface that is a confusing mess of buttons and knobs that (no matter how many times I use) befuddles me. 2011 can’t come soon enough.
So this review is meant to close out the first chapter of the R56. It was a car introduced to take MINI to new heights in sales and customer satisfaction. While it may lack a few character points so loved from the previous generation, it has introduced an entire new group of consumer to the MINI in a way that BMW could never have dreamed of doing with the previous generation. In fact with its efficiency and weight loss (yes it’s lighter than the R53) it has lived up to the Mini brand exceptionally well.
When we look back on 2010 I believe it’ll be easy to identify this year as a turning point for MINI. The brand is on the cusp of introducing three new models (the R60 crossover, R58 Coupe and R59 Roadster) in the next two years and about to embark on an aggressive strategy that will see many new variants and a complete maturation of the brand. And that makes this 2010 Cooper S pretty special. It’s the car that launched the brand into this new realm of a real car company. Hard to argue that the R56 and in turn this Cooper S isn’t a complete success.
As long as they fix these damn radio controls.