14,000 miles in one year is a great way to get to know a car. And it’s especially good when you’ve already driven and dissected it previously. But driving the new generation F56 MINI for a day or a week isn’t quite like living with it. So we started our year with our BRG Cooper S asking a few key questions. First is this really a better MINI than what came before it? The F56 after all was MINI’s first entirely new platform since the 2001 relaunch of the brand. And (alarmingly to some) it shared both the drivetrain and UKL chassis with a new range of front wheel drive BMWs. Does the driving experience still excite the way MINIs always have?

Secondly we wanted to know if this could be the first small MINI that was truly comfortable to live with. The F56 has gotten a lot of press for offering a more comfortable ride, better noise isolation and plenty of tech. But how would it fair during the rigor of every day life in Chicago?


Options – What’s Worth it and What’s Not

We carefully chose the options on our Cooper S to both harken back to vintage color combos of the 1960s while providing us with all of the latest technology available. Unabashedly classic on the outside and perhaps surprisingly suave on the inside, the idea was to create a combination of color, leather and material that referenced history yet felt modern.

Inside, our F56 has held up well with the only obvious wear being seen on the off-white lounge leather seats. Yeah probably to be excepted. But here’s the thing. They look nothing less than stellar when clean and the process of cleaning takes nothing more than a damp cloth and a good scrub game. While they don’t necessarily look as crisp as new, they look plenty luxurious against the darker tones of the interior.


Unfortunately while the car’s exterior and interior colors made it intact through the ordering process, many of the options we requested did not. Due to an ordering snafu brought about by a change in the way options were configured internally at MINI, we were left with a puzzling collection of options and packages.

Among the many options that got left off our car was MINI’s comfort access. After 12 months we can easily say that there are few non-performance options we’d look at as mandatory more than comfort access. But first let’s back up. With keyless go standard on the new MINI not only is there no key but there’s no place to even put the fob. With the optional comfort access, the process to unlock and start the car would be as seamless as possible. Simply walk-up, get in and start the engine. However without the optional comfort access the process goes from seamless to aggravating.


The issue is that you get used to not needing the key to start the car. It’s touch-less, buttonless and frankly invisible. Without comfort access you need to dig into your pocket, find the appropriate button (that’s impossible to find without looking), wait for the unlock and then slide into the seat. Sure it’s easy. But experiencing a system that doesn’t require buttons and keys makes you realize what an unnecessary chore it is to have to physically hit a button to unlock the trunk or open a door.

In our eyes this makes comfort access nothing less that a must have optional alongside adaptive suspension, rear fogs and navigation.


One positive side note however, was that our MINI’s remote fob had at least double the range of the system on the previous R5X models.

There are a couple of other must have options that are worth mentioning. While the navigation system isn’t as intuitive as the one found on smartphones, it’s good enough for us to call it an essential choice if only for the gorgeous screen. Which is in essence a larger window into your MINI.

Sport seats are standard on the Cooper S but it’s worth mentioning that they were as excellent after 14,000 miles as they were when we first drove the car two years ago. Our off-white Lounge leather certainly had to patina after a year but any dirt was easily cleaned with a damp cloth.


The Right Wheel Makes a World of Difference

A result of our ordering issues was a loaded Cooper S with the smallest wheels MINI offers. When our Cooper S arrived last January we were taken aback by at finding 16” wheels on our MINI. Our first thought – surely those are winter tires that MINI nicely threw on for us. Alas, not the case – not only were they small but they were also summer tires. But then something interesting happened. We actually liked the ride and the softer handling characteristics that the large sidewalls offered. They didn’t look great and there was less feeling at the limit, but there was a more fluid feel when pushing the car over broken pavement.

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Yet ultimately for us the look and the feel (or lack of) at the limit were too much to look past. As soon as the weather broke in Chicago we made a call to our friends at NM Engineering.

After looking wistfully at other 17” and 18” shod MINIs rolling around the hood we finally decided to plunk down for something big and light. After some research (and the help of Aaron at Outmotoring) we came across the NM Engineering 18” RS12s.

As much as our MCS was transformed in appearance with the RS12s, performance was also affected. The result is an 18″ wheel that only weighs a hair over 18 lbs. That in turn reduces unsprung weight (the best possible weight on your car to reduce). It’s had immediate affect on our F56 allowing for more lively turn-in, steering that is more communicative and grip limits that are increased. Ride has been affected (as you’d expect) but not as much as you’d think thanks to going from run flats to standard tires.


Large Wheels and Suspension Choices

If you haven’t heard MINI has made the Sports Suspension an exclusive option on the JCW and taken it off the option list for other MINIs. In its place you can spec variable dampers which on paper allow for the best of all worlds. The problem is that they don’t go quite far enough on the sporty side with spring rates about 20% less stiff.

As we mentioned earlier, the Sports Suspension combined with the our car’s original 16” wheels and tires gave it pleasantly aggressive dynamics without a ride that was unbearable. It’s an interesting combination that gave our MCS good body control and confidence at the limit without being unsettled by broken pavement mid-corner. Moving to the 18” NM Engineering wheels and Dunlops endowed our car with a more harsh ride but still better than nothing.


The downside with the small wheels however is the reduction of that knife-edge feel of precious that a set of 17” or 18” wheels and good tires can give you. There’s a sense that the entire set-up is slightly dulled by the larger sideway and narrower 195 mm width.

After a couple weeks with our car we’d recommend the sport suspension for those looking for the ultimate enthusiast choice. But it can only really be paid off with 17” or 18” wheels with wider tires. The combination allows for a feel and a performance that’s more akin to the R56 and even the R53.

But why the sport suspension over the variable dampers? For us it allows a more sporting experience that feels right on a MINI. Truthfully if the variable dampers had the ability to go from -10% all the way to +30% (matching the sport suspension calibration) we’d call them the ideal choice. But MINI did’t endow the variable dampers with that range and therefore they feel a bit more compromised than we’d want.


Making a MINI Feel Like a Mini.

At times handling and steering feel can be subjective. Other times 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 for that 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 area was of intense focus for MINI for the F56 generation. The goal was to create a foundation that allowed for a greater range of either comfort or performance. The effect is a car that feels more composed even over the bumpiest midwestern roads I came across.

With the R56 and to a lesser degree the R53, modern MINIs were incredibly fun to drive but often seemed to be working against you when pushed hard. Our 2015 Cooper S feels both more communicative while balanced and forgiving at the same time. With 14,000 miles and several back to back drives we can unequivocally say that there’s decidedly more feel in the hand with the F56 than the previous R56 generation.

The electronically boosted steering is an entirely new system which feels much more transparent than the set-up found in the R56. It’s hard to believe but after years of us complaining that MINI’s steering feel has gotten worse, it would seem MINI has reversed the trend. Is it on par with the R50/R53? Not quite. But the immediacy of the turn-in, the improved grip and the increase in road feel has produced an experience that doesn’t feel that removed from the first generation new MINI. And that is intended to be a huge compliment.


MINI’s new Sport mode system (standard in all MINIs sold in the US) is a huge improvement over the previous sport button. The system affects three things – throttle mapping, steering weight and suspension firmness (if you opt for the variable dampers).

MINI has made the system lightly configurable with drivers able to select on or off to the throttle mapping and variable dampers settings for each stage. What we would have loved however is to configure the system to allow for the more aggressive throttle mapping without the extra weight in the steering that seems to subtly dial out some of the great tactile qualities MINI engineered back into the system. While it doesn’t blunt the feedback through the wheel like the previous system did, it’s still not quite perfect.

What of the torque steer that plagued the R5X chassis? Our initial tests of the F56 showed that MINI has dramatically reduced it. While the F56 will understeer at the limit (even if you lift off the throttle), with the right tire you rarely hit that limit on the street. And if you do, MINI’s engineers have carefully dialed in the chassis to allow the understeer to build gradually giving the driver plenty of time to back off.

I recently spoke with the lead on the F56 project and asked him about the work done to reduce the torque steer. He mentioned that during the development process he had a R56 JCW – a car with perhaps the most pronounced torque steer at the time. Driving that car every day reminded him of how important it was to get it right. Through a process of redesigning the meeting point between the driveshaft and the suspension (along some electronic wizardry) it’s clearly been accomplished.


The Engine – A 2.0L Torque Monster

The new 2.0L engine of the Cooper S feels every bit as strong as the old 1.6L JCW power plant. The mid-level torque increases drivability. In combination with the revised six speed automatic it almost never feels caught off guard by anything you ask of it. Having spent quite a lot of time in the JCW version recently there’s clearly more that MINI could have done to this engine. But if you never got behind the wheel of the Cooper S’ big brother you’d never know.

The sound is also all new. The 2.0L creates a deeper yet more refined growl that is a big step up from the previous Prince family of engines. With the sport mode engaged it emits some serious pops and burbles – even with an automatic chosen.

With that extra size and torque comes a couple of downsides. Despite the car being designed approximately seven years after the R56 generation, my average MPG was roughly what I experienced in the 2012 JCW Roadster we had for a year. Then there’s the way the engine revs. The previous 1.6L engine (especially in JCW trim) felt light and quick in the way it moved the tach needle. The new 2.0L (with more engine to motivate) has a decidedly more gradual build to revs and never quite feels as “alive” as that previous engine.

So in essence MINI has traded some of that angry and quick character of the previous engine for a faster, more elastic and relaxed experience.


Is Navigation Worth It?

Speaking of that navigation we found MINI’s substantially upgraded system to be a huge leap forward as compared to the R5X generation. Traffic data has gotten better (it now uses peer to peer data from other MINIs and BMWs to create a more clear picture) and routing is smarter. Yet it’s still not as fast or smart as Google Maps (or Apple Maps for that matter).

My solution was to combine both. I typically used Google Maps for traffic data and a quick gut check on the best way to tackle long Chicago commutes. Then I put the phone away before slotting into 1st. However when I’m going somewhere I’m not familiar with or on long trips I will almost always use the built in nav as it’s the safer option when it comes to distracted driving.

Of course navigation isn’t the only thing that happens on that large screen. And that’s really the other critical reason I’d never do without the option. It’s a window into the car and in my mind you always want the largest window. Sure your smartphone will run rings around navigation etc. But you will never regret having the option if you’re someone who likes to constantly fine tune your driving experience or make use of the things like MINI Connected and that incredibly helpful reverse camera.

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That Look.

For some the newer generation of MINIs takes some getting use to simply because we’ve been seeing the previous generations for years. But a year on the design seems to be aging well. Once I swapped the poor little 16” wheels with 18” RS12s from NM Engineering, the overall shape and size of the car simply made a lot more sense.

Yes, that front overhang is still something I personally struggle with. But this is a car that was designed in an age of ruthless regulations and efficiency requirements. In other words the shape of the F56 is designed to both cheat the wind and offer the world a safer MINI.

The goal was to decrease drag from the R56’s .39 cd to under .30 cd. That of course would represent a huge savings and, according to the F56 product manager was a very difficult task given the car’s overall shape. But 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. But they all add up to an astonishing drag coefficient of only .28 cd. At high speeds that’s a difference you can feel. With the R56 at high speeds it felt like you were trying to push a brick through the air. Our 2015 Cooper S was not only more eager at high speeds but also more stable and confident.


Thoughts On a Year With the 2015 Cooper S

There’s no question that the F56 MINI is the best product the brand has ever produced. It’s little larger than the previous MINI but for that tradeoff you get a car that has much more utility, performance, technology and comfort. The interior is a revelation as compared with the R50 and R56 generations and the quality has been dramatically improved.

With every MINI I’ve ever owned there was always a certain amount of excuses I’d have to make. For the ride, the space, the ergonomics and even lack of green credentials (looking your way R53). Our 2015 Cooper S was a car that needed none of them. For a year it not only conquered the corners but day after day it comfortably tackled the rigors of life.

It seems impossible but MINI has made both the F56 more broadly appealing and yet a better driving car for the enthusiast. MINI designers and engineers have brought some of the purity found in the R50/R53 generation of MINIs and added a massive dose of technology, safety and performance that that car never could have dreamed of. Not everything is perfect of course. The size of the front overhang and other details takes some getting used to for some. But the overall driving and (crucially) ownership experience is such a huge improvement over what came before that it’s hard to not look at this new Cooper S as more than just a great MINI. It may just be one of the best cars on the market full-stop.