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MotoringFile Review: The 2014 MINI Cooper Manual

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Making a Case for the Cooper.

MINI has a unique problem with the Cooper. Traditionally it’s been this swiss army knife within the MINI model range. Sure it’s never been near as fast as the Cooper S, but through every generation, MINI has allowed potential owners the opportunity to spec a Cooper to essentially the same levels of handling. However as the years have gone by and new generations have been released, MINI’s customer base has expanded into a broader segment of the populace. Because of this MINI has wisely made the base (i.e. non-sport suspension) Cooper a little more compliant and perhaps inline with the expectations of a typical consumer. Naturally it’s still more go-kart in feel than other small cars (and certainly more premium) but there’s a little more room between the Cooper and Cooper S with every generation.

We at MF hold this to be a good thing with one caveat – that you can option the Cooper with in a way that brings back most if not all of that handling we love so much about the Cooper S. Like the R50 and R56 before it, MINI has given us that chance with the F56. And in our time driving the Cooper recently, we can attest to it being perhaps the best blend of comfort and performance of any MINI we’ve ever driven.

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The Deep Blue and White topped Cooper test car that we were handed a fob to was a perfect spec for most of you. Shod with 17” performance wheels and tires, variable suspension and a manual transmission, it offered a chance to exploit the F56 chassis even more than the Cooper S we had just gotten out of. With less weight and as much torque as the 2002 R53 Cooper S on tap, our test car immediately felt lively and direct. If it were on equal suspension terms maybe even more lively than the MCS.

I made the mistake of calling the Cooper softer in our initial review of the F56. Yes it is softer in it’s suspension settings but using that term provoked some unwarranted reaction to how MINI has subtly pushed the Cooper and Cooper S apart. The Cooper feels great with the variable suspension turned over to sport. That said the variable suspension only gives you 10% more stiffness than the stock set-up. For more you’ll want the sport suspension which MINI claims gives you 30% more stiffness, quicker turn-in and better reflexes. What it does to the ride we can only assume.

Speaking of the ride, the variable suspension is what MINI has needed for years. We’ve long heard about MINI’s “brittle” and “unrelenting” ride. For the enthusiasts out there willing to put up with the trade-off of performance vs ride, it was less of an issue. But for most it became tiresome. The beauty of the variable suspension is that it allows you to tailor your car by the road or even by the moment. Bumpy rail-road crossing ahead? Switch it into comfort a second before cross and you glide over. Corner coming up? A flick into sport gives you less body roll and more confidence.

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If I had any critique of the system it would be that MINI didn’t go far enough in making the variable version of sport mirror the old-school sport suspension. I would have loved to have seen sport another 10% – 20% stiffer putting it near or on par with the optional sport suspension. Perhaps they’re saving that for the JCW?

The Cooper’s little three cylinder is a gem. It’s quieter than we’d want but the sexy little warble from 3500-6500 is plenty noticeable with the window down. And we can only imagine what a free-flow exhaust would do. That said there’s not a lot to gain by winding the 1.5L out to the top end. With the turbo doing its job as turbos will do, the meat of the power band is in the low to mid-range. Which in turn makes the engine easy to manage and great in everyday situations. You won’t have to grab 2nd from 4th to make those two lane passes anymore.

Performance in every day driving is certainly more than adequate with plenty torque on tap and available early in the rev range. In fact the overall performance feels close to the original new MINI Cooper S released in 2002 (the R53) due to similar torque figures.

If I had any critic would be center around wanting to hear more of the great sounding 3 cylinder. A higher redline would have been interesting.

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Motivating the 1.5L engine in our test car was MINI’s new and improved six speed manual. If you’ve driven a manual R56 (Cooper or Cooper S) you’ll be familiar with the manual box here. Granted it’s an entirely new component, it’s action is slick and very similar. The clutch on the other hand is noticeably different with less resistance and a more subtle engagement point. While it didn’t make the manual less satisfying it did take a few miles to get used to as someone who’s used to the R56 JCW set-up.

The key new feature of the transmission is rev-matching which works brilliantly here. While many will bemoan the further simplification of a time honored tradition (don’t worry you can turn it off) I think most will love the effect and appreciate the consistency it brings to gear changed in day to day driving and commuting. And of course on the track or in the canyons, it gives the driver one less thing to worry about. For many, that may be a good thing.

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One thing you might have noticed with the recently released MPG figures (auto: 29 City / 34 Combined / 41 Highway, manual: 30 City / 34 Combined / 42 Highway) is that the F56’s city and highway numbers seem to be further apart than before. That’s not by accident as MINI wants to retain the car’s performance appeal while making it more efficient for highway and commuting use. So it wasn’t a surprise to only see low to mid 30s while carving the canyons in our time with the car. However on the highway that figure quickly rose to almost the mid-40s with the cruise set to 60 mph.

But perhaps the biggest surprise with the F56 is the way it feels. Handling and steering feel is subjective yet it’s hard to argue that the new MINI feels immediately more engaging than the previous generation. While the steering ratio hasn’t changed, it feels sharper and quicker than the R56. The reason is a decrease in unsprung weight and a revised rear suspension — especially the new hollow anti-roll sway bar in the rear.

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In talking with the MINI engineer responsible for suspension design, I learned that this was area was of intense focus for MINI. The team’s goal was to create a foundation that allowed for a greater range of either comfort or performance as desired. The effect is a car that feels more composed even over the bumpiest roads. This is where the Cooper’s slightly softer spring rates feel superior to the Cooper S.

The lighter three cylinder engine and the softer suspension gives the Cooper a unique feel that was endearing from the start.

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The F56 Cooper feels more comfortable and more softly sprung than the R56 Cooper. Even with the variable dampers in “Sport” mode, there’s a noticeable ride difference between the F56 Cooper S and Cooper. However, a more compliant suspension doesn’t mean it’s not fun. On the contrary, the Cooper had a gentle fluidity to it that the MCS didn’t posses.

With the R56, and to a lesser degree the R53, modern MINIs were incredibly fun to drive but often felt like they were working against you when you pushed them hard. With this new car, MINI has created an experience that feels both more communicative, more balanced and more forgiving at the same time.

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Inside MINI has done an exceptional job of reinventing while evolving. Yes center speedometer is gone, but I doubt I’ll ever actually miss it. The new MINI’s interior is such a revelation in design and quality that it feels two generations removed from the previous car. The material quality alone is on par with at least a BMW 3 Series and at times even better.

Parts sharing is evident if you know where to look. For one MINI has borrowed BMW’s excellent sport seat design with adjustable thigh bolsters. Not only do they have longer, adjustable thigh support, but they have surprisingly aggressive side bolstering. They’re so good that they’re not far off from the optional Recaro seats in the R56. And even the stock seats are a huge improvement – coming close to, if not surpassing, the old R56 sport seats. Yet don’t let that dissuade you from ordering the sport seats. They are worth every penny.

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But MINI didn’t just improve the quality of the materials. They’ve rethought many of the interfaces that we use everyday focusing on making them more functional yet still MINI like.

The Cooper we drove had the MINI Yours interior package with the white trim and Punch Carbon black seating, featuring Dynamica. Simple, but effective, and especially well-spec’d given the Deep Blue/White combination of the exterior.

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So the new Cooper is efficient, quick and high advanced. What’s not to love. The styling will be a tough pill to swallow for some diehard R53 or R56 fans. But I suspect most will quickly get over that when seeing the car in person. In fact I’d go so far as to say that most of the general car buying public will barely notice the difference between generations until they see them side by side.

In many ways this is the first BMW MINI. The first car to be produced totally in house by BMW and at the typically high standards that the company has been known for. Those standards are evident at every touch-point and at every engineering decision. While the F56 certainly isn’t perfect, the seismic shift that MINI has made with the new Cooper over the previous is impossible to ignore. This is a car that any MINI owners simply must drive. And we bet more than a few MCS owners might find it surprisingly appealing.

Written By: Gabe

  • Magnus

    Thnx! Great review! Have you heard anything on possible JCW products for the 3-cyl? For example a sport exhaust would be great. And a tune to (would like to say 165 but that would probably be to close to the cooper s,) so say ~150 bhp for a little more power but still maintaining a gap to the Cooper S.

  • oldsbear

    Does a three-cylinder engine, doing the same work as a four-cylinder engine, wear-out faster? Does adding a turbocharger shorten its life? I am not being a naysayer; just wondering if there are any objective measurements of this.

    • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

      A three-cylinder has fewer moving parts and fewer surfaces in contact under oil pressure, so in theory it should be more durable than a four, but we’re talking about minuscule differences. When any engine fails or wears out, it’s much larger, more significant issues than how many cylinders there are. As for the turbo, it does introduce some added heat into the system that has to be accounted for, but at a basic level (that is, from a physics standpoint) it’s simply making the engine behave as though it has a larger displacement. This means that the pistons, rods and bearings are under more stress than they would be were the engine naturally aspirated, but if the engine is designed from the ground up to run forced induction, this shouldn’t be an issue. If, on the other hand, you add a turbo or supercharger to an engine that was originally designed to be naturally aspirated, you run a risk of exceeding the spec of the internal engine components, because they weren’t designed to run under that much load. The reason turbos are seeing so much action these days is because it basically allows you to simulate a variable displacement engine by varying the boost. Under low boost and low RPMs, you’re essentially just 1.5L, which is a very efficient size that lets you cruise and just sip fuel. But when you want more power, by cranking up the boost and the revs, the engine starts doing the work of a 3.0L engine because you’re literally cramming more air and more fuel into each engine cycle and getting bigger, more powerful explosions. This is how the 3-cylinder in the BMW i8 is able to make so much power but remain so efficient. With so much investment in turbo of late, by both BMW and others, expect to see a lot more turbos across all car brands in the future.

      • oldsbear

        Thanks — very well explained!

  • nsbancroft

    I drove to the local Italian dealership and I have to agree with you Gabe on both the impressive interior fit/finish (what an upgrade over past versions) as well as the exterior styling. I expected to be, at best, ho-hum regarding the styling but I was quite surprised at just how much I loved it. As someone who’s owned both an R53 MCS and an R56 JCW I was pleased to find that the F56 still looks and feels like a MINI. Now I just need to find out how the whole test drive thing works over here in Italy. Thanks for the fantastic review, Gabe!

  • lavardera

    Is my dream of a JCW Cooper (non-S) crazy, or will Mini offer something like the 3cyl Cooper S I wish they had mustered the courage to offer.

  • lawrothegreat

    It will be great to see the in-gear acceleration times of the 1.5-3cyl at some stage and how it actually compares to the Cooper S. I’m sure that the Cooper is easily fast enough for many who think that they need the Cooper S. In reality the Cooper S has moved on significantly as well – Autocar in the UK have done a full road test of the S manual – it managed the 30-70mph sprint in 5.9s vs the JCW coupe which took 6.0s. The standard S was only 0.3s behind the recent mark 2 JCW GP as well (6.9s vs 6.6s, real world testing remember). Whilst I’m a week away from getting my MCS and very excited, I STILL think the Cooper is the pick of the range.

  • Bob Hayhurst

    Nice piece….

    I really like this new Cooper. What with the innovative 3 cylinder engine, turbocharger for loads of torque, up rated and upscale interior, adjustable suspension, all the tech, I mean really (IMHO) what isn’t there to like? The new cloth/leather sport seats look to be a real improvement over the R56. The days of calling a Cooper, “justa” or a “non-S” are in the rear mirror. I’m going this week to check one out at my MINI dealer in Richmond and I really cant wait. They’ve got and “S” and a Cooper so it’ll be fun to hopefully drive each one back to back for comparison. Styling is always subjective of course, but I like the A**kicking, huge, in your face tail lights; but that’s my opinion…

  • Marcus in E17

    Great review – I’ve done 1600 miles in my F56 Cooper now and the engine is really starting to burble nicely, performance wise it has surprising shove and the handling with the combination of comfort is excellent. If you live in a city like I do it’s probably all the performance you need. Most of all you feel like you’re having great fun and look at the speedo and you’re only doing 30mph, which is what a MINI is all about. In short, believe the hype – the Cooper is a stunning bit of engineering and has that MINI character us enthusiasts crave.

  • JakeKayak

    My local MINI dealership ran a performance track day for customers a few weeks ago…we had the good fortune of driving a new F56 Cooper and a F56 MCS. I currently drive an 04 MCS and have to say, if I was in the market for a new one, the choice between each of these new models would be difficult. A F56 Cooper with appropriate sporting additions makes a compelling argument, however; it is difficult to ignore the extra grunt of the new 2 litre MCS engine (despite the controversial new chin… it looks better when the car is a dark colour, incidentally). I think many people will have difficulty justifying the extra cash to upgrade to the MCS (but I would do it). In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy my retro R53.

  • Joe

    Does the new Cooper really feel R53-S-quick behind the steering wheel as the numbers would suggest? I mean in terms of throttle response and the way the engine actually builds up power. Regarding the torque figures it should actually feel punchier when not pushing it to the limit. However i’d like to know if it’s just as rewarding for the driver when pushing it hard.

  • Chilly

    Are you saying that the base cooper has a different suspension from the base S? Because they both have the option for a Sports suspension I was assuming they both have the same default set-up.

    A large number of reviews (probably the majority) suggest that the Base Cooper is the way to go and, if anything, has moved closer to the performance of the S, not farther apart as you suggest. Can you explain this discrepancy?

    Have you driven the base Cooper with 16 inch wheels? If so, how does the experience differ from the 17’s?

    Finally, are the variable dampers worth the extra money when, as you stated, the difference is only 10% in either direction form the standard setting? Thanks

    • http://bridger.us/ Gabriel Bridger

      Yes – that’s based on conversations with the suspension engineers and MINIUSA product experts. Why aren’t other reviewers mentioning it? Good question.

      MINI made it clear at launch that one of their goals with the F56 was to move the two further apart. Subsequent conversations with engineers and product planners gave insight into this with specifics.

      I haven’t driven any F56 with 16″ wheels.

      Variable dampers worth the money? We opted not to get them on our F56. It may end up being the only thing we regret. We’ll let you know,

      • Chilly

        Thank you for the feedback Gabe, appreciate it.

  • Modnar

    On the R56 the Sport Suspension option was the same suspension on the Cooper and the Cooper S. (So it was a much more dramatic upgrade over stock on the Cooper than the S.) Do we know if that’s also the case for the F56 as well?

  • Aurel

    I sat in a F56 for the first time today. Wow. It has to be experienced in the flesh. The interior is indeed 2 generations ahead of the R56. Everything feels great. Getting back into my Clubman soon after felt … disappointing. It is really that great.

    Can’t wait to drive one.

    Bring on the next gen Clubman.

  • SFRedMCc

    Were the “17-inch performance tires” run-flats?

    • http://bridger.us/ Gabriel Bridger

      Yes.

      • SPICYJCWCOUPE

        Gabe…so far I notice that MINIUSA doesn’t have any accessories listed on its build for the F56… specifically the exterior JCW options (or even interior JCW options except for the steering wheel). Will the site be including these accessories sometime soon for the F56?

        Also, will the JCW accessories be on the site for the four door F55 immediately when it makes its debut at dealer this fall of will they also be delayed there?

        Would guess that now that the F56 is now arriving at dealers, the news & info on MF will begin talking more about the next model…the F55 re non camouflaged photos, added rear seat room info, & other features such as specifications that may differ it from the F56 including pricing.

        • http://bridger.us/ Gabriel Bridger

          Eventually yes. But not likely until the 2015 model year this summer.

  • JeffH

    I saw two F56s yesterday at my local dealer. A base Cooper, and an S with JCW options. The S looks awesome…. except for the front end. It does not look better in person, even in a darker color, sorry. The Cooper looked really good, except that I was disappointed that the base head lights do not come with the halos. I couldn’t tell if they have any DRLs at all. The back end of both look really good, with the S spoiler having an cool up-turn that I never noticed in pictures; the tail lights are not a problem at all. Interior was very very nice, but sport seats in the S are pretty tight (and I am not a big guy). Rear seat ingress/egress and legroom not so good, and the front seat does not return to its original position after being moved, so I think the upcoming 4 door model might be a good option.

    • Chilly

      Did you find the Sports seats tight overall or just the additional thigh support?

      • JeffH

        It was the side bolsters.

  • Jason

    Can you guys confirm the PCD of the F56?

    • Jason

      Nevermind we figured it out. 5×112 66.6

  • one9deuce

    Just saw the F56 for the first time in person, both the Cooper and the Cooper S. My personal opinion? Awesome. The F56 looks like a sports car, and when I test drive one I’m confident it will feel like one as well. The interior looks and feels expensive, it truly is a big improvement. I plan on getting a 2016 MCS in a year and a half. It will be my first MINI and I am really excited.

  • Steve Sullivan

    Great review. Agree with everything said – definitely believe the hype when it comes to how the car feels when you drive it. It’s two steps up in terms of driving fun and feel than the second gen car. I was wowed and hadn’t expected much at all. Granted, I drove the MCS, but still. Most fun I’ve had in a car EVER. They’ve really hit a home run for performance. The rev-match actually adds to the experience (thought I’d hate it too) and the seats are amazing. The interior is a big upgrade but IMHO is quite complicated looking and fussy. It’s not a clean, minimal design. Love the quality and feel of the interior, but not sold on the appearance. Yet didn’t hate it either. It’s a big departure from what we’re used to. And the outside. . . well it’s going to take a long time to get used to that “puckered mouth” look to the nose (that’s what it looks like to me, especially when the gill is outlined in chrome). Those taillights are way too big, yet you can really see the evolution of the design, something that had to happen. It makes sense visually. I’m sure I’ll grow to at least not hate it eventually. After all, I hated the Clubman when it came out and now it’s my favorite MINI. So maybe it’s “zug ugly” too and that’s part of the charm. We MINI’ers are a different bunch after all. . .

    • Chilly

      Maybe a silly question but does the rev matching work with both up and down shifts?

  • me

    http://s3.motoringfile.com.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/278_Cooper.jpg

    Any idea what the missing toggles and missing button are? Just curious what options you need to complete those banks. I know the fog lights are the two buttons next to the light circle, so figured those out.

    It’s definitely growing on me. A Pepper White Cooper Spec’d with the off-white trim and JCW interior package looks really nice!

  • Cj

    I just came across your review. I have owned 3 Minis over the last 14 years, the best being my 2002 mcs. I am sorry I got rid of it! Even though the cars I drive now are mostly Porsches, I always think that that was the best fun for the money I have ever owned! That being said, I am now Mini-less and even though the new hardtop look didn’t impress me, I could not refuse the dealership invite to drive both new Hardtops and see what this 3 cylinder was all about.

    I ended up loving the base hardtop more than the mcs and came home to see if I could build up a bare-bones performance base hardtop. I did and before you I knew an order was placed. I really liked that 3 cylinder!

    It was great to read your review because you took the words right out of my mouth! I am hoping with sport suspension and deleted sunroof I can get a little of the feel of my 2002 mcs. Thanks for the most informative review from people that know MINIs on the base hardtop!

    Oh and that nifty rev matching feature will cost you $1200 on a Porsche. shhhhhhh ;-)


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MINI Model Cheat Sheet

1st Gen MINI
R50: One & MC Hatch
R52: All 1st Gen MINI Convt.
R53: MCS Hatch
2nd Gen MINI
R55: Clubman
R56: Hatch
R57: Convertible
R58: Coupe
R59: Roadster
R60: MINI Crossover
R61: MINI Crossover Coupe
3rd Gen MINI
F54: Clubman
F55: Five Door Hatch
F56: Hatch
F57: Convertible
F60: MINI Crossover
F58: Traveller

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