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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.