Car reviews - Mini - Hatch - Cooper
Feisty powertrain, eager steering, iconic design, pert proportions, efficient engineering, solid quality build
Room for improvement
Twee dash design, overly firm ride, road noise intrusion, stingy equipment levels
The cheapest Mini digs its heels in as a fun entry point into BMW ownership
11 Jun 2020
*Note: Overseas model shown.
Nearly 20 seasons on, and BMW’s take on the British Motor Corporation’s seminal ADO15 Mini is hardly the head-turning Cool Britannia icon the 2001 R50 original was.
But there’s still a surprising amount of enjoyment to be had in the facelifted version of the third-generation F56 launched nearly six years ago.
In some ways, for good as well as bad, it even feels more like a baby BMW than the latest 1 Series. Result? We’re still charmed.
Along with Netscape, the iPod and JNCO jeans, Mini fever is definitely a New Millennium thing, but unlike two of those three things, BMW’s premium-priced homage to the British Motor Corporation’s icon of the Swinging Sixties is still very much with us today.
In fact, Germany’s Mini has been available new in Australia longer than the BMC version made in Sydney ever was, as that had an 18-year run from 1961, making it part of the modern urban streetscape, and comfortably outlasting the reborn Volkswagen Beetle.
Unveiled in late 2013 and launched locally a few months later, the third-gen, F56 Mini was the first of a whole host of vehicles adopting the UKL (‘lower class’ in German) modular architecture, signalling the first BMW-badged front-wheel drive models such as the 2 Series Active Tourer (2014), X1 SUV (2015) and Mk3 1 Series (2019).
Last year also saw the introduction of a minor Mini facelift, dubbed Life Cycle Impulse (LCI) in BMW-speak.
So, six years later, how does the latest Mini Hatch in entry-level Cooper guise fare?
Kicking off from $31,500 before on-road costs, the base Cooper we’re testing here in $32,750 DCT dual clutch auto guise now standardises BMW’s ‘Driver Assistant Package’ that bundles autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, auto high-beam speed sign recognition, as well as a toggle start, wireless Apple CarPlay (but not Android Auto) and satellite navigation.
There are also power windows, remote central locking, manual climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity for phone, music and apps, DAB+ digital radio and 16-inch alloy wheels – we’re mentioning all these because not so long ago, Mini charged extra for items you might expect to be included.
Note there’s no spare wheel – just a repair kit.
As with all BMW-era Minis, big weighty doors allow easy access into a low-slung and very distinctively designed cabin.
First impressions are classic/cliché Cooper – almost bolt-upright pillars, the voluptuous curvature of the bonnet view ahead, square-edged windows and quite a large back window (as per all the glass area) for pleasing all-round vision.
These, along with solid build quality, pillarless doors and the (overdone) circular motif dash styling, make the experience a unique one for a car of this size and at this price point.
Thankfully, for the LCI, BMW has toned down the cartoonish detailing that has detracted from modern-day Minis, with only a few toggles (including an effective starter one) and quite a lot of Bavarian influences with the rest of the dash. You can imagine there’s a 2007 BMW parts bin catalogue full of 2020 Mini switchgear.
It’s with relief we can say that now even the base Mini is well-equipped enough to help justify its lofty pricing, since more driver-assist safety systems like AEB are standard for 2020, as well as climate control and height-adjustability for both front seats.
But the kerbside mirror won’t automatically dip in reverse, adaptive cruise control remains optional (c’mon, even a base Corolla has it now), and Android Auto users are plum out of luck.
Additionally, the multimedia interface looks cheap and twee, not helped by Mini’s Fisher Price take on BMW’s iDrive system.
The control placement feels like an afterthought, though there’s no denying it’s an easy reach just down by your left thigh. It also seems to be a source of trim rattle in our particular example, which is disappointing.
All four seats are comfortable and softer than we imagined – helpful given the hardness of the ride – but these, too, do have a German feel in their look and support as well.
A foldable front centre armrest does its best to get in the way of longer elbows, while, behold, a regular handbrake lever is fitted for those wanting to be Michael Caine in The Italian Job. Blimey.
Access to the twin rear seats is aided by the Cooper’s boxy proportions, wide-opening doors and a left front seat that slides and then returns to the previous position with just a lift of a conveniently located handle.
Again, there’s a decent amount of space for a car with a 3.82-metre length and 2.5m wheelbase, and it’s quite airy back there too due to the deep-ish windows and upright (though thick) pillars.
And being a base model (in Australia anyway, now that the One is no more), there’s little tinsel to enliven the cabin, just solid dark greys, absent overhead grab handles and no rear centre armrest.
What you do get, though, are a trio of big cupholders for the duo sat there, as well as some attractive headlining detailing.
Some might say this is in keeping with the BMC Mini’s austere character.
Finally, behind the small hatch door is a short but deep boot area that – with the help of the split/folding backrest – is larger than the Cooper’s pert proportions suggest. The same, too, applies to what is beneath the bonnet.
Charming, chatty and with an ability to really charge along, BMW’s excellent 110kW/220Nm 1499cc triple is a real Cooper highlight. However, we cannot help but think that something’s been lost compared to the earlier F56 Mini.
Let’s start with the positives. The three-pot turbo punches way above its limited cylinder count from low revs, bringing on a surge of acceleration pretty much right from the get-go.
And it will keep pulling hard right up to the redline, for spirited, enjoyable oomph whenever required, accompanied by a sporty thrum evocative of the earliest BMC-era Mini’s A-series engine characteristic – though of course they sound nothing alike. There’s no doubt the B38 unit is one of the best of its type in production today.
Additionally, thanks to the inherent efficiencies of the dual-clutch transmission (DCT), the Cooper switches between its seven ratios with imperceptible speed and ease, making for super-smooth progress that is right in keeping with the baby British BMW’s refinement.
Throw in excellent fuel economy – the official combined figure is just 5.3L/100km and in the real world we were sitting in the mid-7s – and there’s plenty to love here.
Yet the latter, having been achieved with the aid of the DCT, comes at a cost, and that’s the instantaneous off-the-line surge that this gearbox’s predecessor – the six-speed torque-converter auto launched with this-gen Mini back in 2014 – possessed in spades. T
here’s that usual DCT delay that can be frustrating in traffic, or when you need immediate response.
Additionally, there are no paddle shifters fitted despite the Cooper’s racy reputation, but the (correctly engineered) Tiptronic-style gear lever shifter is a delight to use anyway.
At least Mini still offers a six-speed manual transmission, saving you $250 and sidestepping our only real powertrain gripe we have for the Cooper.
Superb handling and rousing body control have long been Mini hallmarks, and the F56 LCI Cooper doesn’t disappoint.
Wearing modest rubber (Michelin Energy 195/65/R16), it tips into turns with promptness, precision and ease, thanks to fast steering that’s never nervous, to maintain a secure and stable course of action even at unsociable speeds without distraction or rack rattle.
There isn’t the terrific feedback associated with the classic ‘60s models, but then again the Cooper’s maturity and refinement are commendable given this car’s diminutive dimensions.
On the flipside, with a 2495mm wheelbase, such dynamic tautness comes at a price, and that’s a firm ride around town, with bumps and road surface irregularities quite abruptly transmitted inside to the point where the suspension – MacPherson-style struts up front and the B-segment’s only multi-link rear – can become choppy at times.
Things settle down over smoother roads of course, but then there’s an inordinate amount of tyre roar over our coarse highway bitumen.
Clearly, the Mini’s been developed for roads that are generally better than Australia’s blacktop, but a memo to BMW: a bit more urban compliance and travel would be appreciated anywhere in the world.
Warranty and servicing
Like all BMWs, Mini has condition-based servicing, meaning the powertrain will let you know when it needs mechanical attention.
That said, 12 months or every 10,000km is a good rule of thumb. There are no published fixed-price servicing regimes on offer.
Where the Mini really lags behind, though, is in its ungenerous three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, when even Mercedes-Benz now offers five.
On paper, the Cooper can come across as an overpriced and under-equipped vanity purchase for people two decades behind the times. The Mini hasn’t been hip for years.
But the fact is, there’s nothing that looks, feels and drives like one, and that’s a testimony to the solid, quality engineering that permeates throughout the car.
That the Cooper is also a hoot to drive, delivers hearty performance and yet manages to be parsimonious to boot highlights the multi-faceted talents on offer. Seen in this light, the low-$30K pricing isn’t unreasonable.
With real substance to back up the style, we’re glad BMW persists with its New Millennium poster baby.
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