From the Vault: R53 MCS vs R56 MCS

Today we start a new feature at MF called the MF Vault. The idea is to bring back some of our favorite reviews over the years and present them to a new (and larger) audience at MF. So we start with one of our most popular reviews over the past eight years. The R53 vs the R56 has been a debate since the first R56 test mules began showing up in 2005. But until this review we hadn’t had a chance drive two well sorted version of each car back to back. And while a lot has happened in the R56 development over the years (not to mention the aftermarket) we believe the review still holds up well.

So let us set the stage. On one side we have a lightly specced and well modded 2006 MCS. On the other we have a loaded 2007 MCS with the JCW suspension, engine kit and aerokit. Both have identical wheels and tires and of course the gorgeous Astro Black. So enough of the set-up. Let’s step back into the fall of 2007…

(Originally posted November 28th 2007) 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 15% 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 and immediacy, 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 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, with these two cars, 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?

  • It’s still a great article, though perhaps not so relevant now as many people will not be choosing between one or the other. Harsh words against the wonderful R53 seem wrong to me. I guess it’s all very personal but “For me, the R56 has lost it’s “MINI genes”; I simply don’t love driving it.” From back in 2008

    • I think what you had Ian was just the wrong R56. One of the problems with the car is that there’s a greater disparity between what I would call a normal R56 and a well equipped one. Meaning that on the R50 or R53 you could get a stock MINI and be pretty happy with it. With almost zero options it was a great car that was a ton of fun. The R56 needs a bit more thought given to the options list because MINI wanted to expand the market a bit. So you need a suspension upgrade (factory or aftermarket) and you need to carefully spec the interior so as to not stay at nasty black plastic all the time. Even the stock seats in the 2007 R56 (which I think are better in a number of ways) look cheaper.

      Any that’s all “IMHO”.

      • goat

        I agree 100% with this… but I also see it as a failed design in many ways that the basic model is nowhere near as engaging and competent to drive as those with top hardware spec, upgraded trim spec, etc. The beauty of the R50/R53 is that, as you say, you could step into a fully “base” car and not feel like you are missing anything… the styling is bang on, the car looks good even with small wheels, etc. The R56 NEEDS a lot of massaging before it starts to look “right” and to drive with the verve of the mk1 cars. 

        IMO, if the upcoming mk3 MINI can excite the mk1 fans again and get them thinking about getting into a new MINI, BMW will have nailed it. 

    • Michael

      I agree, the R56 did “lose its MINI genes”, and all MINIs post R56 are nothing more than baby BMWs

      • Rocketboy

        The saddest thing about having to turn in my first year MCS was the realization that there will never be another MINI like it.  

        • JduR56

          This is why we are garaging the R53 for the rest of its life when t is paid off next year!

  • Adam Poon

    Totally agree with Lan, R56 is too easy to drive and without (may be I should say lost some of) the feeling of Mini R53. I still driving my R53 JCW, cannot find a replacement.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, that was a blast from the past for sure. Though I’ve never been a fan of the R56’s styling, it seems kinda blurgy, I do think it is  a better built car in many ways but in my talks with 2 different MINI mechanics they both feel the R56 motor is a bit of a time bomb. All in all if you like your R53 or R56 that’s all that matters. Though I’ve owned 3 different R53 years, ’02. ’03, ’04, and those have had varying degrees of poor craftsmanship I’ve loved them all. The ’03 Cooper my daughter had driven to 145000 miles with minor difficulties though now it needs a lot of work. My ’04 S is brilliant at 80000.

    • Hoover

      Listening to Chad on White Roof Radio, I get a little nervous about the R56 motor, too, but I check my oil regularly.  I would be interested to know if the mechanics/gearheads think that it is better to go with R56 MCS, and then add the JCW tuning kit (to get the variable valve timing) or if it is better to just go with the factory built JCW. 

      • Anonymous

        Checking oil regularly with both is a necessity but with the direct injection of the R56 they felt it “had” to be done “every” 3,500 miles where the R53 could go father between changes. Didn’t talk to the about a JCW kit. Both, one a ex MINI of Monrovia mechanic the other an independent shop, felt the R53 was just a stronger engine though not as advanced, their words not mine.

      • Anonymous

        Chad is down on the Prince engine, that is for sure. I think any Mini speed shop has seen 1 or 2 people that followed the ECU’s advice on oil changes and ended up with no oil in the car, either frying their turbo or the whole motor. The dealers have probably seen more. I think Alex at Helix has a much better sense of the engine. He’s owned one and and lived it. 

        The negative vibe among Chad and Todd is a bummer when I listen to White Roof Radio. They are down on the car, and I don’t feel like its program about Mini’s sometimes, its about R53s. Always much more level discussion when Gabe’s on.If bmw made an engine that consumes oil then their big mistake was programming oil interval advice to the contrary. That is a freaking booby-trap. My feeling is if you feed it, it will do just fine.  

      • P912

        Engine to engine, I think the N18 with the variable valve timing and a JCW tuning kit gives the best of both worlds – a hopefully more durable engine with better power.  That said, going that route leaves off all the other JCW goodies.  I am surprised MINI isn’t planning the 2012 JCW with the N18 engine.  Makes me wonder why?

    • Anonymous

      The R56 is more husky than the R53. But I think the all black, with the JCW body kit on it to boot, make the R56 look even more bulky. I know its Gabes signature mini color scheme, but its just an unfortunate convergence. 

      I still think the original R56 S body kit, in a color, was the best looking trim for that model. The front end is like a 3d version of the R53 JCW body kit, but the rear treatment on the 11 refresh is nicer in proportion.

  • JonPD

    Still think the oddest part is the times I have been behind the wheel of a R56 it just feels a bit dead, then again against a GP not to surprising there lol. I don’t think the R56 is a bad car at all, its level of refinement just seems to muddy the water with so much that I loved about the R53. I know many owners that love the refinement of the R56 just not my style. I am excited and nervous all at the same time for the major update coming up.  I have a ton of hope that some of the character of the R53 comes back but I think that further refinement is more likely. Lets just hope they reforge what a MINI is in a clearer statement than what I think the R56 is.

  • MINIme

    IMO, the ’05 R53 MCS is the best car MINI has built.  I miss mine more than I care to admit.  It was the perfect driver’s car!

    • Anonymous

      So what do you drive now?

    • Anonymous

      I love my ’05 R53.  Six and a half years later, it’s still a great car to drive.

    • MINIme

      an SUV…GASP!  I sure miss the MINI.  🙁

  • Anonymous

    Great article – thanks for re-posting.

  • KPH

    An oldie but a goody for sure. The ’05 and ’06’s are hitting the market more often now with low mileage cars the norm, so this was and is still a great article for that on it’s own.

  • jbkONE

    great article.  I’ve never driven an R56 for a while.  I’ve gone on a test drive or two for 10 mins, but you really need one for a couple of days to get a good feel.  The funny thing is I probably would have bought my ’02 R50 without even having driven one – I just had to have this new quirky/cute/cool car based on looks alone!  Coming from an ’83 GMC diesel truck, I was amazed with its handling from day one and still am.  Can’t wait to drive a coupe!  Thanks for the repost.

    • Really?

      I have owned 4 JCWs. One was an R56. Sold it after 6 months to get back into an R53. Nuff said.

  • Volkan

    I purchased my MCS early in 2003 and drove it cross-country to start a new job on the West Coast. It was a blast at day 1, and it still is today after 115Kmiles. It had its share of problems and will need additional maintenance (e.g., a new clutch will be in order soon), but that’s expected… Regardless of what I buy in the future, MCS will remain in my garage!

    It appears that many R53 owners have been staying away from R56 due to its design elements, the BMWish refinement and the lack of its MINI soul compared to R53. I am definitely in that camp! Yes, R56 is easier to drive and faster than R53, but it doesn’t have that “raw” feeling when handling an R53. I’ve driven my friend’s R56 extensively, and it’s been great for my long commute and for my vertebrate column. Every time I was in the R56, I found myself missing the rattles, whines, etc that define the R53’s “character” for me. R56 would be an excellent purchase for someone who hasn’t been attached to an R53.

    Thanks for the re-post Gabe!

  • JduR56

    I have a R56, my wife has a 05 R53 and we always fight over whose car is better.  I like my refinement, turbo and torque, she loves her Supercharger whine, stiff steering and gut busting suspension.  We have the best of both worlds!

  • Anonymous

    There are only three thing I miss from the r53: supercharger whine stiffer steering low bonnet/beltline

    In all other categories I like the r56 much more.

    I wonder what Gabe would have thought of the power had the access port been available back then.

    • Yeah that would have been pretty interesting. One thing on the steering. I’ve found that the R56 actually requires slightly more effort (with the sport button on) than the R53. I’ve also noticed in the years since, how different the effort of each the clutch, shifter, steering and throttle are. It’s a little jarring if you’re used to a more refined high performance car like an M3 even a new MINI.

  • Chris2

    The cars are different beasts. Hands down, down low, the R56 wins. Higher in the powerband, the turbo doesn’t pull as hard, and the R53 gets the edge, especially with a 15% pulley.  Most people drive down low, and the R56 makes a better daily driver because of that. I’d rather have the supercharged version for the track–it’s a better platform for modification.  Unmodded, it’d be a tossup.

    Not that the R56 can’t be modified, but you have to be careful on a non-JCW especially–the internals can’t handle it, and tuning that taps into the overboost can blow a piston. This issue has been common enough to get a thread on NAM (and Chad and Todd aren’t the only big names with concerns about the longevity and robustness of the Prince) The JCW variant should do better there, but there seems to have been more issues with the Prince engine; I’d be very careful modding that puppy. The R53 engine is both unrefined compared to the Prince, but relatively bulletproof.  It all depends on what you’re after.

    One thing that I really like on the R56 though is the throttle response–I’m still trying to improve throttle lag in my R53.  As for pedal placement, Rennline pedals solve that fairly easily. Basically you can heel-toe by barely moving your foot. At least those Porsche guys got one thing right.

  • Mantawayne

    I have never driven an R56. I just can’t get past the squared body. I love everything about my ’03 R53. 94,000 miles and no major issues.

  • JonPD

    Still interesting after all the years since the R56 was introduced how there is still a gulf between the owners. Should be interesting to see how the F56 comes out and which of the groups likes it better.  My greatest hope is that MINI can create it with the steering feel and character of a R53 with the refinement of a R56. My guess would be something more refined yet and slightly softer personally since this was also the direction at BMW.

  • Nice write up.  I’m in the market to get back in a MINI and am going back and forth from a R53 to a R56.  I had an 03 MCS then moved to an 06 JCW then sold the JCW last year.  It reminds me when my wife sold her Z3 when she became pregnant.  Thinking the next models would be better.  The R56 and Z4  may possibly be better vehicles to some but the feel of the car is not there for me.  Not saying anything negative.  Just preferences.  Maybe I should just pick up a 1 series before BMW does the same thing to it on the next generation.  

  • Horseh8r

    Bell’s Oberon Ale!  YUMMMMM