Since the original MINI, this is the fourth generation; during that time the car has got bigger as well as heavier overall – to the extent that the latest version looks huge if you park it next to an original MINI. So can the latest model really still capture the fun of the original?
The exterior design of the latest MINI is very similar to the last generation model, with one of the few key visual differences being larger headlights and tail lights. It’s the interior where you’ll notice more improvements, where the design and the quality have both moved up a gear. The infomedia system in particular is much better, taking over the large central circular display and displacing the speedo to where it should be in front of the driver. Perhaps the best news of all for MINI owners is that the window switches have at last moved to the doors from the bottom of the centre console – and other small switches have also disappeared from here.
Despite larger exterior dimensions, there’s still not a huge amount of legroom for either of the rear seat occupants, or much space in the boot.
There have been some significant changes in the engineering department, most notably with engines – the Cooper D now has a 3-cylinder 1.5-litre turbodiesel, and there’s a turbocharged 3-cylinder 1.5-litre petrol unit in this Cooper (the Cooper S has a 4-cylinder 2.0-litre). The 1.5-litre petrol engine shares the same base with the unit in the BMW i8, although in that case the engineers have extracted almost twice the power. In the Cooper the result is an engine that is light, with good performance and good economy.
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The Cooper looks fun, and the driving experience matches the promise of the looks. The interior is still much more interesting than most other cars on the market, but this time the materials are higher quality, and it’s much better from an ergonomic point of view.
There’s now a starter switch on the centre console; once you’ve fired up the car and you’re underway it still feels like a MINI, with its direct and responsive steering. It’s not quite as much of a go-kart sensation as the previous version as there’s now a fair chunk of body overhanging the front wheels, but it still excels in this area compared to rivals. Going round corners is one of its strengths, and in our view the MINI remains one of the very few front-wheel drive driver’s cars.
A key difference is in the area of refinement – it feels like every aspect of the driving experience has been examined in order to make this latest MINI feel more of a ‘premium’ product. This also applies to the ride, which is now much better than the previous generation model – the car actually feels like it has some suspension.
The engine is also less coarse than before, and all these improvements make life on the road – especially the motorway – a more enjoyable experience – although there is still some road noise, and some firmness in the suspension, on some poor road surfaces.
Performance is good, and the Cooper feels faster than the 0-62mph of 7.9 seconds suggests. The key thing is that the combination of direct steering and handling responses, the compact size and the brisk performance make this feel like a fun package overall.
Our test car came with automatic transmission. You could also change gear manually by pushing or pulling the gear lever (there’s no steering wheel-mounted paddles); overall the transmission worked well for this class of car – although it’s not ultimately as responsive as the 8-speed unit found in BMWs. You can see that this gearbox choice would be ideal in the urban areas where MINIs are popular, but we would prefer a manual ‘box as it feels more in keeping with the interaction that a driver should have with a MINI.
There are three drive settings – Green, Mid and Sport. No surprises here – if you want to eke out maximum miles per gallon, choose Green – the car will usually change gear before it gets to 2000 rpm. If you want more instant throttle response, choose Sport – which we did in most cases.
Our test car came with a head-up display which is very good, even if not quite as excellent as the one in BMWs.
The new MINI Cooper is more efficient than the previous model. Official combined economy is 61.4 mpg, (62.8mpg for the manual), along with 107g/km CO2 emissions (105g/km for the manual). We averaged 44.8mpg over a week of mixed driving with the car. If you’re planning on covering high mileages in your MINI then the Cooper D, with an official combined economy figure of 80.7mpg, may make sense. For more mixed driving the cheaper Cooper could be a better option.
Although the basic price for the Cooper is £15,300, our test car cost a fairly hefty £24,210 thanks to an extensive list of options such as CHILI pack at £2,250, automatic transmission at £1,270, media pack XL at £1,175, and variable damper control at £375. If you want a MINI hatch then there’s also a One, One D, Cooper D, Cooper S and Cooper SD. Of course there’s now also the 5-door hatch.
The new MINI may not look like a quantum leap over the previous model, but it is in terms of engineering and the resulting driving experience. It’s much more refined, the interior is much higher quality, and it’s also more efficient. So which do you go for – the Cooper D, Cooper, or Cooper S? If you want best economy – but still an excellent driving experience – then the Cooper D may be the one for you. If you want a performance focus, then the Cooper S is the one. However if you want a good balance between performance and economy – as we do – then the Cooper is probably the answer. We’d opt for the manual gearbox as it provides more interaction with the car, but if you’re mainly driving in urban areas, then the automatic transmission makes sense. The MINI Cooper gets a Green Car Guide rating of 9 out of 10.