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Now in its third generation, we find out if the bigger, cleverer and more mature Mini can still entertain like it predecessors did

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Since we last road tested a three-door Mini or even a Cooper S, BMW has introduced an entire family around its famous British sub-brand and expanded its domestic operation to suit.

It has been an impressive journey, and one easily significant enough for successive British governments to fawn over.

The original hot Mini was developed by John Cooper

But the Cooper S’s replacement is the harbinger of even deeper ambition, underpinned as it is by an all-new modular platform that will form the basis of not only a refreshed Mini line-up but also a new generation of front-drive BMWs - started by the third generation three-door hatch, this platform has already spawned a five-door hatch, the next generation Mini Convertible, Mini Clubman and Mini Countryman, the second iteration of the BMW X1 and the 2 Series Active and Grand Tourers. The UKL platform has also allowed Mini to develop its first plug-in hybrid and will be the backbone to the first front-wheel drive 1 Series.

This extraordinarily expensive and complicated strategy will take years to play out completely and already has proven fairly successful thus far, but our core focus here is to see if this platform ensures that the hatchback – still very much the centre of its Mini universe – has been satisfactorily replaced.

The previous Cooper S was dinky, twitchy and tenacious, which was great when you were in the mood but wearisome when you weren’t. It embodied much of what the Mini stood for, so if its shortcomings – such as space, comfort and fit – have been addressed with its strengths preserved, BMW can consider the first hurdle in a bright future triumphantly cleared.

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The original Mini Cooper S was developed by John Cooper alongside the motorsport version of the original car, using, most famously, a 1275cc engine. BMW seized on the concept, and the model has been a feature of the modern Mini line-up since its inception.

The first modern-day Cooper S featured a supercharged 1.6-litre Tritec engine, replaced in 2006 by a turbo unit co-developed with PSA. The Cooper S nameplate, which typically plays second fiddle to the JCW badge, has since been shared across the Mini line-up.

So is this third-generation Mini Cooper S as fun to drive as its predecessor? Our comprehensive road test will reveal all.

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Mini Cooper S LED headlights

For anyone expecting BMW to have taken a revolutionary approach to designing the Mk3 Mini, we’d remind them that Issigonis’s version barely changed in 40 years.

Further evolution of Frank Stephenson’s 13-year-old design was inevitable, if not entirely successful. Crucially, this is a bigger car. Sly shunting of familiar proportions conceal it well, but the new Mini is 98mm longer, 44mm wider and 7mm taller than before, and the Cooper S, with its appendages, is longer still.

The Mini Cooper S can sprint from 0-60mph in 6.9sec

And this new Mini is not any prettier. The elongated nose is fussy and the rear lights have swollen, yet, with the hexagonal grille, clamshell bonnet, floating roof and upright windscreen in place, it’s likely that a layman would miss such minor differences. Dig beneath the skin, however, and more obvious newness abounds. The new UKL platform adds 28mm to the Mini’s wheelbase and, flush with high-strength steel, explains this car’s greater rigidity.

Connected to it are MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link set-up at the rear, both of which have been revised to reduce weight and increase component stiffness while preserving kart-like handling in what is a larger car.

There is now the option of adaptive dampers. Dynamic Damper Control electronically adjusts rebound and compression damping, affording the Cooper S both Comfort and Sport settings.

There’s no mechanical locking diff, even for this 189bhp Cooper S, although it does get Performance Control, a further refinement of the Electronic Differential Lock Control system that applies the brake to a spinning inside wheel while redirecting torque to the opposite corner.

The industry’s appetite for downsizing has made an increase in cubic capacity an unusual occurrence, but BMW has applied all its latest tech to ensure that the new 2.0-litre round peg can be pushed into what has until now been a 1.6-litre square hole.

 , direct fuel injection and variable camshaft control on both the intake and exhaust sides, develops 189bhp between 4700rpm and 6000rpm – a slight increase over its predecessor – and, more significantly, up to 221lb ft from 1250rpm via an overboost function. The same engine is tweaked further for the hotter John Cooper Works version which produces 221bhp.

As standard, the Cooper S's and JCW's big petrol motor, together with the Mini's line-up of 1.2 and 1.5-litre three-cylinder engines, is mated to a newly developed six-speed manual gearbox, but a six-speed auto is also available. It is worth noting that Mini is dropping the 1.2-litre petrol in the One for a de-tuned version of the Cooper's 1.5-litre unit. Overall the performance figures will remain the same and will be first seen in the limited edition 1499 GT - a homage to the 1275 GT. The rest of the three-door range is made up of three diesel variants - two 1.5-litre units and a 2.0-litre engine which powers the Cooper SD.

As well as being lighter, the gearbox gets high-friction carbon particle linings on its synchroniser rings for quicker, smoother shifting, and a centrifugal pendulum in the flywheel to improve refinement by counteracting torsional vibrations.

BMW says better comfort – and enhanced sportiness – is the reason for the new sensor that automatically matches engine speeds when changing up and down. Buyers also have the option of a six-speed automatic transmission which, for the Cooper S and JCW models, comes in a fettled ‘sports’ guise, including shorter change times and a paddle-shift manual mode.


Mini Cooper S interior

Welcome changes abound inside the new Mini – all of which make it more effective, mature and agreeable but not any less characterful. Good ergonomic sense now prevails over forced quirkiness, and few will miss the latter.

Most obviously, the central speedo is gone. The new car has a more conventional speedo mounted on the steering column, with a rev counter and fuel gauge either side. Given that both are easier to read because they’re closer to your eyeline, they are significant improvements. We’d rather the fuel gauge was analogue, but it’s a fairly insignificant gripe.

The upright front pillars don't restrict your frontal view too much

Electric window switches and door lock toggles are now on the door console rather than low on the centre stack. The climate controls are easier to fathom, too. As a whole, the car is just easier to interact with.

It’s roomier, too. There’s greater shoulder room, better underthigh support from the seats and more kneeroom in a wider driver’s footwell. There’s a bit of pedal offset – annoying in a brand new car – but overall you feel much more comfortable here than in any previous Mini.

Which is all the good news most Mini owners will have wanted to hear. Further back in the car, the improvements get steadily less remarkable. The back seats, though bigger, are still small by supermini standards, and the boot, while larger, still won’t swallow bulky items.

But the boot is at least more cleverly packaged, and you wouldn’t want it, or the back seats, any bigger if it meant adding size to the car. Minis should be small, after all, although whether this one is small enough is a matter for personal judgement. It does at least balance interior space against exterior footprint quite well.

Each Mini is relatively well-equipped, with the entry-level One models come with steel wheels, hill start assist, heated and electrically adjustable wing mirrors, keyless entry and ignition, DAB radio and access to Mini's teleservices as standard. Choose a Cooper trimmed Mini and you get 15in alloy wheels and body coloured wing mirror caps added to the package, while Cooper S models acquire 16in alloy wheels, a unique cloth upholstery, air conditioning, a dual-exhaust system, a bonnet scoop, an LED light ring around the central display, a leather clad sports steering wheel and a sports front seats. Air conditioning is available as a no-cost option on the Mini One and Cooper - a box we recommend ticking.

John Cooper Works Minis get more of a makeover than a wealth of additional equipment. Most noticeable is the beefy body kit, which sees large air intakes on the front, and the addition of lightweight alloys. Inside there is a Dinamica upholstery, lots of JCW badging and red stitching and sports seats included as standard, alongside LED headlights, sports suspension and adaptive cruise control. Those keen to snap up a 1499 GT will only get the choice of black or white, with exclusive decals fitted down the sides, and also comes with 17in alloys and Mini's John Cooper Works Chili pack as standard.

As has become accustom with the Mini buying process under BMW's ownership, ticking options has been made simpler through six packs. Those buying a Mini One or Cooper can opt for the Pepper pack, which adds 16in alloy wheels, a sports steering wheel, floor mats, dual-zone climate control, auto lights and wipers, and height adjustable front seats to the hatchback. Mini Cooper and Cooper S owners can opt for the better endowed Chili pack which adds 17in alloys, a multi-function steering wheel, sports front seats, LED head and fog lights, and a part leather upholstery. Those wanting a sporty JCW looking Mini 3dr hatch can tick the John Cooper Works Chili pack which adds 17in lightweight alloys, a beefy bodykit and sports suspension.  

The other two packs, we believe are strongly worth considering when speccing up your Mini 3dr hatch are the Media Pack XL, which adds chiefly sat nav, USB connectivity and enhanced Bluetooth, and the Hatch Tech Pack, which adorns the Mini with rear view camera, rear parking sensors, head-up display, and a Harman Kardon stereo system.

Cars fitted with the optional Media Pack feature an 8.8in screen and the latest BMW iDrive (with a Mini user interface). Even without it, hands-free connectivity is standard, and linking a phone is easy. USB and aux-in complete the default inputs, while Mini Connected (another option) adds social media capability via a phone’s internet connection.

The full Mini Navigation System XL is part of the Media Pack. It offers not only the quickest route but also the most fuel efficient, while checking the weather, helping you avoid jams and finding a place to park. This tried and tested BMW tech makes it both intuitive and polished.


2.0-litre Mini Cooper S engine

It’s not easy to take a Mini seriously as a fully fledged hot hatch, not least because performance appeal is a relatively small part of what attracts most modern Mini buyers. But here’s a note to the cynics: on road or track, the Cooper S earns its go-faster stripes in fairly spectacular fasion.

Hitting 60mph from rest in 6.9sec and a standing quarter mile in 15.3sec, the Mini does enough to outsprint the class-leading Ford Fiesta ST. Its advantage to 60mph is just a tenth of a second, achieved because the Mini can hit 60mph in second gear, whereas the Fiesta needs third.

A new 2.0-litre engine replaces the old model's 1.6-litre engine

Both a Renault Clio RS 200 Turbo and an Abarth 595 Competizione are, according to our figures, more than half a second slower to 60mph.

The move from a 1.6 to a 2.0-litre engine has done this car a power of good. Accelerator response is cleaner at low revs and mid-range torque is much stronger, as evidenced by a fourth-gear 30-70mph showing of just 8.0sec – faster than a Vauxhall Astra VXR and, incredibly, the 6.2-litre Chevrolet Camaro.

Such response and pulling power give the Mini instant appeal on the road. The car feels eager to scamper off and its effusive spirit is disarming enough to make you minded to indulge it. As does a much sweeter shift quality, it must be noted.

But just as pleasing to report is the new Mini’s civility. Hot Minis have for a while been capable of putting a grin on your face, but this one is twice as unobtrusive, better mannered and much more frugal; you can conjure better than 50mpg from this car when you select Eco mode and drive accordingly.

Road and wind noise are decently controlled and suspension noise isn’t so wearing, either. Those sound principles also apply to the harder, tauter JCW Mini too.


Mini Cooper S cornering

The Mini’s new-found maturity and breadth of ability leave their mark here, too. As far as the driving experience goes, a Mini remains an eccentric and fairly committed prospect, and a Cooper S is more eccentric than most Minis.

But unlike with previous generations, the Cooper S doesn’t now feel like a car you could only keep for a year or two before your patience ran out. That’s because – assuming you choose the Variable Damper Control – you can give it a much less wearing dynamic character than you ever could before.

The Mini's cornering balance is good, but not great

Being not just short in the wheelbase but also short on suspension travel, the Mini still gets sucked into bumps you wouldn’t notice in larger cars, and if they’re medium-size or large ones, it’ll inevitably pitch fore and aft harder than some. But select Comfort mode and there is compliance and absorbency in the chassis and a certain sense of pragmatic measure in the ride quality that makes the car much calmer over long distances.

We’d leave the dampers in Comfort for fast cross-country use, too, the bump absorption it provides being vastly preferable to the trolley-jack stiffness of Sport. Press on and there’s some excess weight, positivity and directness in the steering, along with some bump and torque steer to contend with – all of which makes the car seem darting and energetic when changing direction, but most of it is slightly unhelpful if all you want to do is guide the car precisely. But none of this stops you having fun.

Grip and balance are both strong, traction is much better than in older Minis and there’s never any shortage of charm or interactivity about anything the car does.

There's plenty of circuit pace, too. A bit too much for the brakes to rein in, in fact, with the car’s pedal beginning to go long and its stopping power tailing off after five laps. In something weighing only 1265kg, that surprised us.

Brake fade apart, the car coped well with MIRA’s handling circuits. In dry conditions it had abundant lateral grip and cornering power. It’s not as sweetly balanced as a Fiesta ST when that lateral grip begins to run short, but it’s better balanced than the average fast supermini.

Tucking the car’s nose in to an apex is best achieved by trail braking slightly and overcoming the chassis’ slight bias towards understeer. The challenge then is not to over-correct, given that the car has quite a high rate of yaw anyway, along with plenty of weight, speed and reactivity in the steering.

BMW’s ‘DTC’ setting works well to manage wheelspin in slower corners, but it seems to exacerbate the brake fade problem over time by over-working the hydraulic assistance.


Mini Cooper S

The entry point for a Cooper S has always been competitive against other pocket-size hot hatches. Being only slightly more costly than its predecessor, the new Mini continues the theme.

It’s marginally cheaper than the Clio RS 200 and Peugeot 208 GTI, and considerably more affordable than the Audi S1. The Fiesta ST remains the best value, although it’s worth noting that the higher-spec ST-2 is only slightly less than the Cooper S and will probably depreciate more.

The variable damper set-up should really be a standard-fit item

In terms of running costs, there’s little to choose between any of them. Mini quotes 49.6mpg combined for the Cooper S (we managed 53.7mpg on a cruise and 34.9mpg overall). Considered alongside its 133g/km CO2 emissions, that might make it the class leader, but the difference is so slender that it’s unlikely to sway would-be buyers one way or the other.

Comparative equipment levels ought to be more persuasive. The Cooper S covers the basics (air-con, Bluetooth, DAB, sports seats) but, typically, its options list is long and distinguished by items that really ought to be standard.

Most shoppers in this segment, for example, will baulk at the idea of owning a quick supermini with 16-inch wheels and rightly grumble at the prospect of parting with £450 to make them grow by an inch.

As before, the potential for personalisation is good, but Mini’s rivals have long since cottoned on to this concept.

The Mini's forecasted residual values lose out to the much pricier A1 – just – but expect it to compare better with the Audi at a like-for-like price point. The Alfa Romeo Mito 1.4 TB MultiAir, for further comparison, will lose its value faster and more significantly.

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4 star Mini Cooper S

Another car more or less like the last could have spelled the beginning of the end for BMW’s Mini success story.

Exuberant charm and retro cool have taken this car to great heights but, 13 years after its relaunch, Mini needed to offer something extra.

The Mini's more grown-up and easier to live with

And ‘something extra’ is what it’s got: extra space, pace, refinement and maturity but, crucially, no less ‘Mini-ness’.

While it’s grown from proportions many thought already too large, the Mini Mk3 remains a small modern supermini and appeals for its compactness. It can be unruly to drive at times, but it’s enough fun at other times to bring out the excited teenager in anyone.

To us, the Cooper S falls short of the class lead only by the distance that separates its handling from true excellence. For now, the Ford Fiesta ST remains the most fun you can have a on B-road.

But for those inclined to put driver appeal anywhere other than at the top of their list of priorities, and who can live with a Mini’s practicality, the Cooper S deserves to be top of the pile. For those who want the fun factor with added fuel efficiency then 1.5-litre petrol and diesel versions should cater well-enough.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mini 3-door Hatch First drives