The thing about driving in Puerto Rico is that there are a lot of stray dogs littering the roads. Relaxed and seemingly unaware of any potential danger, they roam the countryside with a casual authority. Their reign on the roadside wreaked havoc on my nerves as I put mile after island mile on the next generation MINI Cooper and Cooper S.
Then there are Puerto Rico’s roads. They’re twisty and feature plenty of elevation changes. They challenged me like any foreign twisty road will. However these roads are about the width of a typical American driveway — often with significant drop-offs on each side. Remember those dogs? They’re right on the edge of the road with what seems like supreme confidence that, no matter the situation, you’ll figure out how to avoid them and oncoming traffic, all while not having a heart attack.
Luckily, I was in the right car.
Initially it was with trepidation that I slid into our Volcanic Orange, Cooper S test car. After all, the car we’re testing here (the F56) will form the basis of an entire generation of MINIs over the next decade. If MINI and BMW got it wrong it would be a major blow to a brand built on exciting the senses. To further complicate things, the car I started with that day had one proverbial arm tied behind its back from an enthusiast’s POV: it was an automatic. No sooner did I get seated and buckled in, it started to rain.
All of my concerns evaporated the second I hit the gas in the first roundabout. Put simply, the 2014 MINI Cooper S is a revelation.
Obviously, handling and steering feel is subjective. Yet sometimes it’s just plainly obvious how good something is. The F56 is immediately good. 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 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 mountain roads we found in Puerto Rico. Trust me, that’s saying something.
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.
There’s decidedly more feel in the hands with the F56. The electronically boosted steering is an entirely new system and feels much more transparent than the unit found in the R56. It’s a relief that after years of us complaining about how MINI’s steering feel has gotten worse, we can finally drive a MINI with better steering than it had before. Is it on par with the R50/R53? Not quite, but it’s a big step in the right direction. The immediacy of the turn-in, the improved grip (heavily assisted by a new generation of Pirelli P-Zero run flats), and the increase in road feel has produced an experience that doesn’t feel far removed from the first generation new MINI. I don’t make that statement lightly and intend it as a huge compliment to the new car.
Yet I wasn’t the only one with that thought. My passenger, an Editor and Chief of a leading consumer publication, thought that it felt like a German front wheel drive version of the Subaru BRZ.
The suspension is not simply redesigned. Each level of that tuning has been rethought. MINI engineers explained it to me like this: Consider the base Cooper S suspension at the “0’ point — the neutral — between performance and comfort. When equipped with variable dampers, the suspension has a range of -10 in Normal / Green modes, and +10 in Sport mode. Then there’s the optional stand-alone Sport Suspension, which is at a +30 to the performance side of the scale. Reportedly, the updated Sports Suspension is more aggressive than today — equivalent to the R56 JCW factory sports suspension setting (not the dealer installed kit). We only drove MINI’s with the variable dampers, but given my personal experience, I’d likely opt for the sport suspension if I was buying a performance-oriented MINI. However if I was buying more of a daily driver or commuter MINI, the variable dampers would be hard to pass up. That said, I would have liked greater differentiation between the two settings. The difference was noticeable but not as dramatic as I had hoped.
MINI’s new driving modes are a significant update to the car. Sport Mode made huge improvement over the previous sport button. The system now adjusts three things: throttle mapping, steering weight and suspension firmness in cars with the variable dampers. It’s also lightly configurable, with drivers able to select the suspension settings separate from the Sport Mode throttle mapping and steering weight. You cannot, however, turn on Sport Mode and then turn off the extra steering weight that is programmed in. You also can’t select the firmer “Sport” suspension dampening in Green mode, which is unfortunate. All that said, the big take-away for me was that at least the firmer steering of the sport mode doesn’t blunt the feedback through the wheel like the previous system did.
What of the torque steer that plagued the R5X chassis? During my hard driving of both the Cooper and Cooper S, torque steer was completely absent. There’s the inevitable understeer when you push the car, but the R65’s sensation that the car is trying to take the wheel out of your hand is gone. I spoke with the lead on the project after my first stint in the Cooper S and mentioned to him how I felt the torque steer was gone. He just smiled and causally mentioned he has been driving the current JCW for the past year and had made it his personal quest to eliminate torque steer from the new car. How? By redesigning the meeting point between the driveshaft and the suspension, along with some electronics. However it’s done, it’s quest complete.
The Engine, Transmission & Brakes
The new 2.0L engine of the Cooper S feels every bit as strong as the current 1.6L JCW power plant. The focus on mid-level torque increases drivability. In combination with the revised six speed automatic, the engine almost never felt caught off guard by anything I asked of it. On paper, the overall power of this engine is not up significantly over the previous unit, but the power delivery is much better. Also, keep in mind that this is just the beginning of this new family of engines. In talking with MINI engineers, these power and torque figures are just a starting point for future development.
The sound of the engine is also all new. The 2.0L creates a deeper, more refined growl that is a big step up from the previous Prince family of engines. With Sport Mode engaged, it emits some serious pops and burbles – even with an automatic transmission onboard.
What about that revised six speed automatic? A lot has been written here on MotoringFile about how lackluster the six speed Aisin auto has been in previous MINIs. In this updated unit, MINI has made both mechanical and electronic revisions and has put those previous issues behind it. As much as this new unit may seem like a carry-over from the previous car, it’s a whole new driving experience.
Accelerating up the mountain roads of Puerto Rico, the shifts snapped off effortlessly. Perhaps more impressive, however, was the new transmission’s ability to downshift more quickly and with less driveline shutter than before. While this revised Aisin isn’t as quick or as smooth as the transmissions we were hoping for (the 8-speed automatic found in BMWs, or a proper dual-clutch unit), it’s a significant improvement in both performance and comfort.
Braking on both cars was very similar to the R56 for good reason – it’s a very similar setup. While there are some weight saving measures and a general re-think of the system, the results aren’t shocking. The performance was good with the R56 and it’s slightly better with the F56. These are marginal improvements, but improvements none-the-less.
Years of anticipation and here I am – sitting behind the wheel of a 3 cylinder MINI. It seemed like such a foreign idea a few years ago but with downsizing of engines across the board, it’s now clear that BMW was heading down the right path with their plans to slice their famous inline six in half and put it in the MINI.
While this new Cooper has torque on par with the original R53 Cooper S, the mission of the car is clearly different. That mission has pushed the Cooper and Cooper S further apart in terms of driving experience. The F56 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. Couple this with a slick shifting six-speed (an entirely new design) and you have one of the purest driving experiences of any MINI I’ve ever driven. Evan after two hours of wringing the hell out of the Cooper on mountain roads, it was still averaging 26 mpg.
The 1.5L is quick to rev all the way to its slightly low 6,400 rpm redline. That aside, the new engine a joy to wind up and I found it responsive at every stage of the power band – especially with that new manual transmission.
Both the Cooper and Cooper S feature all new Getrag six speed manual transmissions with rev matching. The system works like the new BMW M system. For example, you downshift from 4th to 3rd and the engine blips the throttle for you to match the RPMs needed for a perfectly smooth shift. It’s an automated version of a process that many of us have perfected with our own feet over the years. Which had us wondering, can it be turned off? As it turns out, yes. The easiest way is to simply turn on DTC. When you do MINI assumes you’ll want more manual control over experience and switches rev matching off. However, the system is so good that even diehard throttle blippers (of which I count myself) will likely appreciate the experience. The experience is especially good on the Cooper where the throttle mapping (even in Sport) isn’t as conducive to manual rev matching.
Enough of that, though. You probably want to know how it sounded right? With the windows down the 3 Cylinder had a vague similarity to a BMW inline six, albeit a little angrier. Which of course makes sense given that it’s basically half of that engine, but still being asked to do some real work. It’s a fantastic growl, but one that was too quiet to my ears. I wanted more. If you’re an enthusiast intent on buying a Cooper, you may want to consider getting an aftermarket exhaust once they hit the market. There’s no doubt that the 1.5L three-cylinder has some magical sounds to it. They’re just a bit buried under too much baffling.
Many MF readers have asked about clutch feel. Like most new cars the F56’s clutch is lighter than the one in the R56.
Which of the two would I choose? To me there’s a simply choice if your like power. But things get a little muddy for those who value efficiency as part of the package. With the manual Cooper S apparently going own in MPG and the Cooper going so far up (42 MPG highway with the auto) the idea of a performance oriented Cooper sounds appealing to us. However at the end of the day it’s the Cooper S that really stole our hearts during our time with the cars.
The looks of the F56 take some getting use to simply because we’ve been seeing the R56 for seven years now. In the flesh, that newness gets stripped away quickly. Well, almost. The new, larger front overhang is still something I personally struggle with. In dark colors, the size of that overhang tends to disappear. Yet in something like Volcanic Orange, it’s hard to ignore. Given that most front engine, front wheel drive cars will also have to adopt the larger overhang to comply with EU crash standards, I’d expect that I, and most of us, will get use to the look. After a few days being hands on with the car, I’m already noticing it less.
Overhangs aside, elsewhere on the car there’s lots to like. The exterior was driven by function more than any MINI before it. That function has everything to do with performance and efficiency. The goal was to decrease aerodynamic drag from the R56’s .39 coefficient of drag to under .30. That’s no small task, but success would represent significant gains in fuel efficiency. According to the F56 product manager, this was a very difficult task given the MINI’s overall shape. MINI engineers looked at every millimeter of the car — optimizing the shape and adding details. The improvements were measured in the thousandths and became incredibly incremental. All those microscopic tweaks added up to an astonishing drag coefficient of only .28.
Our Cooper S test car was finished in Volcanic Yellow and black with black wheels. Our Cooper had a more classic and much, much better looking combination of Deep Blue and white, with silver 17” wheels. Of all the colors at launch (Thunder Grey, Volcanic Orange, Blazing Red) Deep Blue was by far the most impressive. It reminded be quite a bit of Indi Blue from the R50 days.
There’s little question that the design of the F56 is one of the main points of contention people have with the new car. The front end with it’s trapezoid grille harkens back to the classic MINI. However, due to pedestrian safety regulations, the nose protrudes at certain angles that make it a challenging look at first. Also, the rear taillights dwarf any previous generation’s lights, giving the rear of the car a more squared-off, board shouldered look. To my eyes, it all makes more sense in person, but still isn’t as immediately attractive as the R50/R53 from most angles.
The higher belt-line and increased overall width serve to make the car look more aggressive and dare we say it, sporty. Other design details such as the LED headlights and subtle creases on the front and rear flanks create a more purposeful look that is reflected in the driving experience. In fact, if you think about a design brief dominated by two factors — new safety regulations and a need to visually convey more of a sense of performance — the new MINI’s design makes a lot of sense.
The center speedometer is dead, 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.
Our Cooper S test car had the Leatherette/Cloth combination called Black Pearl. The cloth fabric is actually made from recycled materials and has the appearance of a thick wool weave. It’s a surprisingly rich-looking fabric that has the appearance of a ’60s throwback couch. The leatherette is also surprisingly nice, with a feel that is much closer to real leather than any material MINI has used before.
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.
How about interior space. The car has gotten every so slightly bigger, so what difference has that made in the interior? Front legroom feels about the same. At 6’ 2” I’ve never had any issues fitting in a MINI and there were no issues in the F56 either. Headroom feels as cavernous as ever – especially without the optional sunroof which is how our test cars came.
Rear legroom has increased slightly but don’t expect even Clubman, let alone Countryman levels of room in the new F56. That will come in the new four door F55 and F54 Clubman on up.
There are three things you need to know about the new MINI’s interior above all. First, the sport seats have improved substantially. Not only do they have longer, adjustable thigh support, but they have surprisingly aggressive side bolstering. They’re not far off from the optional Recaro seats in the R56 and overall offering better support and much higher quality. 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.
Second, the new navigation system is fantastic and a must-have in my mind, even though every piece of functionality not associated with nav (or MINI connected) is available on the stock dash.
The cars we tested had the full 8.8” Navigation system, which dominates the interior is a very good way. The screen is a huge improvement in both quality and resolution over even the latest R56 nav system. The software itself, while based on the current BMW system, is also hugely improved. It’s faster and offers much better overall user experience. There are also subtitles within the interface design that help better convey the functionality. Most of all, the significant increase in system speed will likely be greatly appreciated by owners who use the system a lot.
Third, the light ring. I know it sounds ridiculous in concept, but let me tell you, it actually works. Honestly, I assumed that this would be something I’d turn off within the five minutes behind the wheel. While you can turn off the light ring’s association with individual functions in the car, I didn’t want to. I so quickly get used to the subtle element of theatre it adds that I just left it on and really came to like it.
Overall, the interior design mixes both new and old — with MINI clearly iterating on some well established, high-level design themes but wanting to creating an experience that feels thoroughly contemporary. The results speak for themselves the first time you sit in the car. Every touch point exudes quality and thoughtfulness. There will be a few who bemoan window switch placement and a downsized rev counter, but overall the decisions made and the materials chosen are hugely successful and a big improvement over the previous car.
Like the Navigation system, the new heads-up display (HUD) was the other piece of tech that became indispensable throughout my day with the cars. Like other HUD systems, it allows the driver to focus on the road while still getting speed or even navigation directions directly within their line of site. The only downside to the system (and a common issue with HUDs) was that it disappeared the moment I put my polarized sunglasses on.
Let’s talk about audio. All the MINI press launch cars had the fantastic, optional 12-speaker H/K system fitted. Gone is the CD player slot in the dash and in its place are two USB slots and a hard drive that can store a music library similar to BMW’s current system. If you’re not ready to give up your shiny data coasters, there will be a glovebox mounted, six-disc changer offered as an option.
The Take Away
Since MINI introduced the Countryman and Paceman there’s been a growing concern that MINI had forgotten how to create a car that felt as alive and exciting as the R50/R53 generation of cars. In talking with MINI engineers today, it was clear that they felt they had something to prove. Each one of them I spoke with had such enthusiasm for their area of responsibility that I could sense that the F56 was going to be good before even driving it. Turns out my hopes were realized.
When I opened the door to the F56 Cooper S for my first drive, I really didn’t know what to expect. How would it compare to the R56? After all, the previous car that sold more in its last year than it’s first. Yet perhaps more importantly, how would it stack up to the R50/R53 — the car that re-launched the brand and launched this website? Would it hold up to the legacy of a car that is quickly becoming something of a modern classic.
It seems impossible, but MINI has somehow made the F56 a more broadly appealing car and a better driver’s car for the enthusiast at the same time. MINI designers and engineers have brought forward some of the purity found in the R50/R53 generation of MINIs and added a massive dose of technology, safety and performance that car never could have dreamed of. Not everything is perfect, of course. The front overhang will take some getting used to. Also, the MPG figures, albeit not finalized, aren’t particularly encouraging for the one specification that many of you care about: the manual Cooper S. Yet the overall driving experience is such a huge improvement over what came before it, that I can’t look at the F56 as anything but a stellar achievement. Sure, maybe the car took one-and-a-half steps back in some regards thanks to safety regs, etc., but it also took about ten paces forward in the areas that matter most.