Mini Cooper

Newcomer differs significantly from its forebear, which isn’t necessarily a good thing… | By Andrew Frankel

It might seem a strange thing to say about a car whose success has outstripped by far the highest hopes of its creators, but replacing the Mini presented a problem that forced even the finest brains in BMW’s engineering and design departments to stop and ponder.

In essence its customers split into two groups, both of which wanted subtly but significantly different characteristics from the new car. Traditional Mini buyers, including most in the UK, could scarcely have been happier with the current car and wanted it merely updated, so it was a little more practical and, on long runs, a touch more civilised, but not at the expense of its unique character. The others, including prospects in the US – the only Mini market larger than the UK – wanted something else: a car that looked like a Mini but with substantially fewer neuroses. They didn’t like the fact it darted about every time you moved the wheel, nor that it snapped out of stabilising understeer the moment you lifted the throttle mid-corner.

BMW could hardly design an entirely different Mini for each group, so one would have to do for both. To complicate matters further, the new Mini would be first to share its platform with a BMW. Having remained stoically wedded to rear-wheel drive for decades, BMW has finally given in to the economies of scale and designed one architecture that will underpin not only every one of the myriad versions of the new Mini, but also every BMW smaller than a 3-series.

Mindful of those who read this magazine, I turned my attention first to the new Cooper S. It’s grown in every dimension, especially the wheelbase, but still looks little different from the last Mini. There’s a new engine under the bonnet, however, a 2-litre turbo replacing the 1.6 and producing a very understressed 192bhp with a useful slug of extra torque. The car I drove also had a brand new paddle-shift automatic transmission and electronically adjustable dampers, a first not only on a Mini but for any car in this class.

It might still look like a Mini, but it doesn’t drive like one any more. This is a car that’s all grown up and has left childish things far behind. And I guess, for most people most of the time, this has to be a good thing. But Mini buyers aren’t most people. While I am sure the new car will appeal to an entirely new constituency of punter who’d never have considered it before, there are some who bought a Cooper S precisely because you could steer it on the throttle. For them, the new car is likely to come as a dire disappointment.

Over and above everything else, the new Cooper S is abidingly competent – and I use that word to damn with all the faint praise I can muster. The ride is better, though still not brilliant, but its refinement compared to the old Cooper S is a world apart. You can barely hear the new engine as it delivers an even spread of torque from scarcely more than idle to little less than peak power. The auto gearbox is efficient, too, though entirely unlovable in smooth but hardly snappy action.

But nowhere is this car changed more than in the way it addresses the road. The steering is far more linear and this has softened the off-centre immediacy of the old system. Coupled with that extended wheelbase, it helps make the Mini feel far more stable, but commensurately less immediate. It will still neutralise its stance if you cut the power mid-bend, but gently, predictably and far less amusingly than before.

In short it is a Mini Cooper S for those who don’t actually want a Mini Cooper S, merely a car that looks like one. This will likely please more people than it annoys around the world, so you can’t blame BMW for the brutal commercialism that made its designers think this way: its job is to sell cars and many thousands of UK jobs depend on it doing that job to the best of its ability.

Still, the thought saddened me as I approached the standard Cooper.

In place of the previous normally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine, it now features a three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbo offering 136bhp.

And unlike the Cooper S, it was in back-to-basics spec, with a standard six-speed manual and passive damping.

The fact it was better to drive than the Cooper S did not surprise me as much as you might think. In a dozen years of driving BMW Minis, I never drove one I preferred to a normal Cooper hatch. But even I was surprised by how much more driver appeal this slower, cheaper Mini possessed.

It’s down to a number of factors, all significant and collectively overwhelming. First is the fact that the Cooper is 75kg lighter than the Cooper S, second that almost every gram of this weight comes out of the nose, where it is least welcome. Third is the more compliant suspension that manages to provide a far better balance of ride and handling than the Cooper S, even when the latter has the alleged benefit of adaptive damping. Fourth is a brand-new manual gearbox that is as good as any in a road car this side of a Porsche Cayman. Finally, fifth is the new, three-pot engine, a rorty, characterful enthusiast in place of the sullen four-cylinder unit in the Cooper S.

Not once in a day driving the Cooper did I yearn for the additional power of the S. Instead, I flung it up and down the gears and through every decent corner I could find on the island of Puerto Rico, where BMW inexplicably chose to host its launch. This is a car whose bare performance provides no indication of the enjoyment on offer, which derives instead from the feel of the chassis, the sound of the engine and the way its perfect blend of power, grip, feel and balance encourages you to drive harder. The chassis is still a little tamer than that of the old Cooper, but more than adequate compensation is provided by a far better engine and gearbox, not to mention ride and refinement that’ll take the sting out of long journeys.

But for BMW the greatest challenge is yet to come. What I want to see is Mini building on this base of excellence in a way that, for all its success and strength, it hasn’t managed in the past. Instead of designing all versions to be equal, one engineer admitted that they created one Mini and then modified that ideal to create its offshoots. And that is how it feels: able though the Cooper S is, it feels like a compromise between the new and old Mini worlds.

The Cooper proves that you can have the best of both – and will have to pay far less for the privilege.

Engine: 1.5 litres, three cylinders, turbocharged
Power: 136bhp @ 4500rpm
Torque: 162lb ft @ 1250rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
0-62mph: 7.8sec
Top speed: 130mph
Economy: 62.8mpg
CO2: 105g/km