Five years ago we posted a review that helped define our opinion for years to come. It was our first long-term review of the R56. And we thought, what better place to spend that week with a new car than on the dragon. And what better way to find out about the soul of MINI. Our resulting opinion was somewhat dividing. Here was a site that had been with MINI since the beginning embracing the next generation car in a big way. With five years gone by it’s interesting to see the dividing line between MINI owners starting with reviews like this.
Five years later we still stand behind the review. The R53 is a classic that will never be re-created. The R56 on the other hand is less unique but superior in every other way. The resulting opinion? You’ll have to read on to find out.
This review was originally published on May 16th 2007.
Based on my previous review of the R56, I knew there was a lot to like about this car. It’s certainly true I came away very impressed (and somewhat surprised) by both the road and track performance of the car at the official BMW press launch earlier this year. But how does this result change in the real world? And when driven back to back to back with a modded R53 (one which happens to live in my garage) how would the R56 feel? Would I discover a soul in that turbo? Or would I find some fatal flaws that would convince me to put my R53 in storage for the eventual Barrett-Jackson windfall sure to come for all R53 owners?
These are questions not easily answered in just a week’s worth of motoring. So instead of a week, I thought I’d try for two month’s worth…in seven days. After some potential logistical nightmares and a hastily arranged overnight truck from Detroit, I had my 2007 Cooper S press car (courtesy of MINI USA) just in time for the most important week of motoring I’d do all year: MINIs on the Dragon.
What better way to find the soul of the R56 than on the most demanding road in North America. And what better way to test a new car than a 2000 mile road trip from Chicago to North Carolina. Nothing but city streets, rural highways, and twisting mountain roads for seven days
My Mellow Yellow and Black test car came with only two optons, the sport package and rear foglights. Yes you heard right, no cruise. However the by-product of this light option list was a very reasonable price of $23,350.
To start with, the looks of the 2007 Cooper S have grown on me tremendously over the past six months. In fact (gulp) I now prefer the more aggressive, upright styling of the R56 over the R53 sitting in my garage. Sure, there are some minor details that I’m not fond of (the side vents being chief among them). But generally this new car is more modern yet just as ‘MINI’ as before. The higher beltline, rear hips, and elongated front and rear lights help give the car a slightly more masculine character – not a bad thing when you’re a little tired of heaaring the word “cute” byt impressed by-standers.
My feelings have also softened in regards to the interior. However, not all is perfect once you open the R56’s door. Where before I felt the center stack was the low point of the interior design, that honor now goes to the stereo and its overly intricate controls and dual knob format. Actually, it’s not the two knobs that bother me (they’re essential for control of the computer’s UI) but it’s the size and placement of both, considering what they control.
Otherwise, I found the interior almost a revelation. While some materials aren’t a huge improvement, there are quite a few places where the R56 improved greatly over the previous generation. First and foremost, I’m talking about the steering adjustment, shifter feel, and seat comfort – the things that impact motoring most. They are so improved that the R50/R53 almost feels a little antiquated in comparison. The shifter in particular is simply a joy to use with its precision and hot-knife-through-butter feel. The seats also make for a huge improvement in comfort and support – especially in the bottom cushion design.
And a big thanks to the engineers who decided to slim down the center stack. My knee and shin thank you as well. Drivng in my R53 back to back with the R56, I was shocked at how I’ve tolerated the left pillar all these years. I’m sure being 6’2″ didn’t help.
As much as I appreciated the exterior and interior change, I found that it’s the entire performance package where the R56 truly shines. The new Cooper S is not only quicker than the one that it replaces, it’s also more fun to throw into corners, easier to drive quickly, and better at stopping with the larger calipers, pads and rotors. The end result is performance that is noticeably better than what the stock R53 offered. Not something to gloss over as the R53 was a very capable car out of the box.
Even more surprising was the experience of driving my R53 (with pulley, Supersprint exhaust, and JCW intake) back to back with a completely stock 2007 MCS. It left little doubt in my mind that the R56 was easily as fast and probably quicker. While it lacked some visceral drama (if you want visceral drama, drive an R53 with a pulley) it was incredibly eager to rev and the torque gave it an appreciable advantage off the line and out of corners.
Before this long-term test I felt strongly that, while the new engine was technically good, it lacked much of the character of the supercharged mill found in the R53. I’m now convinced I was wrong. The new 1.6L Turbo does indeed have a character all its own, it’s just more subtle in how it goes about delivering it. And that delivery is also entirely endearing. Punch it and you go. It sounds simple enough, but driven back to back with a R53 MCS, you’ll immediately appreciate the difference. The new MCS has so much torque down low in the rev-range and revs so freely all the way to redline that it’s much more fun to wring out. Or at least a little less stressful. On top of this, the engine is now quicker to rev, allowing for more efficient matching of revs (you can hear this on any of the R56 test drive videos we posted last week). The end result is an engine that felt more engaging on roads like the Tail of the Dragon. Point and shoot motoring at its best.
The gearbox is also a marked improvement over what was in the R53. While I never thought the previous Getrag was exceptional, I always appreciated its good feedback and precision. This new Getrag has all of that plus an incredibly slick shift action that makes driving quickly all the more easy. It’s also more fun and easier to use in daily driving – not something I’d consider insubstantial considering long-term ownership.
Another area that the new car excels in is steering. With the sport button on (remember that’s essential), the R56 does indeed have a more weighted steering feel than the R53. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you’re feeling more of the road (I actually believe the R53 has the edge in that). It just means the steering is better weighted for spirited driving. Also gone is the rather annoying power steering whine (especially bad on early R50s and R53s) that would accompany low speed steering input.
The R56 is just as tenacious as the R53 ever was in corners. In fact, this is one area where BMW engineers have made a decisive improvement. With the rear suspension changing over to aluminum (a la the JCW GP), the new MINI has a much more neutral feel when pushed through corners. Go in deep, let off the throttle, and the back end will rotate as if you had an aftermarket sway bar installed. It’s an entirely addicting character that makes the track experience all the more fun.
There is a ‘but’ however, the sport suspension and limited slip are both highly recommended options for the 2007 MCS. The stock suspension works great for 95% of drivers out there. However if you want to take your R56 to the track or autox circuit, you’ll want to pay the $500 for the tighter sport suspension. Likewise, the LSD is also a must have for those give their cars regular workouts. In fact it’s more necessary for the R56 than the R53 due to all the torque low in the rev range. A test drive of another R56 at the Dragon (back to back with my press car) fitted with both of these options made it an open and shut case in my mind.
As you may have noticed from most of the photos, I swapped out the OEM Crown Spoke wheels and all season (!!!) tires for my own OZ Ultraleggera 18″ wheels and Kumho Escta SPTs for much of the test. The change helped give the R56 knife-edge quality to the steering. Grip was excellent and comfort didn’t suffer. In fact the ride was noticably better than my 2005 MCS with 17″ runflats. The net tire take-away from test: don’t order all-seasons unless you absolutely have to or plan on using them for the winter. And if you can, ditch the runflats altogether. While generally speaking, MINI’s OEM wheels have gotten lighter (Crown-spokes are down a full 2lbs over the S-lites), you’re better off going aftermarket if you want ultimate performance courtesy of lighter wheels.
Comfort is one area that you don’t typically think of when considering a MINI. Personally, I find my R53 rather taxing at times around the streets of Chicago. If pothole paranoia is a disease, I’ve got it bad. And it’s not just the rough ride but enormous crashing and rattling that gets to me after awhile. However, with the R56, this drama is almost entirely eliminated. MINI has introduced sound-deadening material in the wheel wells (among other improvents) to help with eliminating the symphony of noises associated with the R53. And with the revised suspension, the car soaks up road irregularities while still giving you all the handling you expect in a MINI.
The car that I tested was clad with the excellent cloth seats which were a huge imrpovement over anything I’ve felt in the R50/R53 MINIs. On the long trip down to the Dragon I never once felt a bit uncomfortable (despite not having cruise) and they gripped through every kind of corner imaginable throughout the trip. The key (for me) was the bottom seat cushion. Not only is it longer for those over 6ft tall (thank you MINI) but the bolstering is much better. If it wasn’t for the less than successful checkered pattern, it would be extraordinarily hard to pass up the free cloth seats when speccing an R56.
So, what’s wrong with the R56? After driving the car in all environments, on the street, on the track, and on the Dragon extensively, I’m happy to say very little. Beyond the interface annoyances of the stereo and the a few cheaper-than-expected interior bits and pieces, there’s little complain about. The biggest issues R53 owners will have is the visceral quality of the steering and the sound coming from the supercharger. The R56 lacks the former and probably loses about 155 of the road feel present in the R50 generation of cars.
The other thing that comes up from a lot of R53 owners is that the car looks high. While the space between the tires and the arches has indeed increased, the car itself is only fractionally taller than before. That said, I can definitely see the need for a minor drop to make the car look a touch more aggressive. It would certainly be something I’d consider on any R56 I owned. From a performance perspective the R56 makes due with a more relaxed suspension set-up as standard. The solution? Order the sport suspension – essentially equivalent to the Sport suspension plus on the R53.
Over the years I’ve had some expcetional experiences with MINI press cars. From the 2005 Cooper S Convertible to the last one, a 2006 Cooper S GP, they’ve been great cars that I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed. However, I’ve never been more saddened to turn one in than with this Mellow Yellow ’07 MCS. I’ve rarely grown so attached to a car in one week.
The R53 (and R50, for that matter) are absolute classics. They will go down as design icons that resurrected a once proud brand, created a huge (and active) ownership community, and enjoyed runaway sales for the entire model run. It just so happens that the R56 is a better car and we, as MINI enthusiasts and owners, should be proud in knowing that it’s a legitimate successor to what came before it. It’s more comfortable, gets better mileage, and performs better in all conditions. Simply put, it’s more of everything that made the original ‘New’ MINI a success. It is better in every quantitative way cars are measured. And at the end of the day, I simply enjoyed it more. Yes, you’re giving up some visceral feel and rawness with the R56. Yes, there are those who will miss that and harken back to the glory days of 2002-2006. And I can’t blame them if that’s what they value. However, the R56 is the car MINI had to make. It’s lighter, faster, quicker, more efficient, and goes around a track better. It is in a word; improved.
On a personal note, anyone want to buy a totally specced out, tastefully modded and impeccably maintained 2005 MCS? No, seriously. Let me know via the contact form above.