- Classic Mini design
- Sharp, quick handling
- Quieter, nicer interior
- Interior versatility, functionality
- Decent fuel economy
- Only sort of a four-seater
- Options add up quickly
- Base model is better value
- Cooper S relatively less impressive
The 2016 Mini Cooper is as cheeky as its retro style implies—and its three-cylinder engine is a charming surprise.
The 2016 Mini Cooper isn't just a single hatchback etched into the auto world's collective memory. These days, it's a range of vehicles that encompasses as many as 10 different models, not only the classic "Hardtop 2-Door" but also a new “Hardtop 4-Door” introduced last year, as well as a Clubman edition. And for 2016 there’s a new Convertible model, which has itself been refocused to be a bit sportier than its predecessor.
When we're talking Mini Coopers, it helps first to describe the body, as all the Cooper models we review here are spun from the same architecture. The Mini Cooper hardtop models are hatchbacks, with three and five doors; the Clubman has four side doors and a pair of rear barn-style doors, while the Convertible has two doors and a tiny trunk lid instead. Even in its third generation, the Mini remains a very small car, but it's one that's improved over the years, even as it retains the distinctive looks, rollerskate handling, and cheeky character of previous generations.
While the four-door hardtop model is new with this generation, it keeps the classic Mini styling idiom very much intact. Its upright windshield, long roof, horizontal window line, and oval front lights all shout "Mini," as does the optional white-painted roof. Only its longer nose telegraphs the complete redesign it received during 2014, until you put today’s Mini next to an older version from 2007 or even 2002. It's slightly larger in every dimension, and the less stubby front and longer hood indicate the stronger bodyshell and new crash structures underneath. Meanwhile, the new Clubman stretches the body 10.9 inches, devoting four of those to rear-seat room.
Inside, the current design brings the Mini up to par and beyond in several areas, including refinement, interior materials, standard and optional features, and general comfort. Its designers have cleaned up the ergonomics, which in earlier Minis looked as though a box of switches and dials was tossed into at the dash and fastened where they landed. Now both a speedometer and a tachometer sit behind the steering wheel, at last, and the large round dial in the center of the dashboard shape houses only a display screen (of various dimensions depending on model and optional equipment). Three rotating knobs handle the ventilation system, and overall it's far easier to understand how the various functions and controls actually work.
The two hardtop Mini models are powered by engines from a modular family shared with BMW. The base Mini Cooper has a 1.5-liter three-cylinder, while the more powerful Cooper S has a 2.0-liter inline-4. Either one can be ordered with either a 6-speed manual (our preference) or a 6-speed automatic. Both engines are direct-injected and turbocharged; the 124-horsepower three produces as much power as the base four in earlier generations did, but it’s peppier and considerably more fuel-efficient as well. The turbo four in Cooper S is rated at 189 hp.
Minis have always been known for their roadholding and handling—remember "The Italian Job"?—and the urban parking fluency remains intact. But the car is considerably quieter and more comfortable to travel in, with excellent electric power steering. A handful of optional suspension upgrades ensure that it’s all but impossible to disturb the Mini’s composure on almost any road surface. To our surprise, we ended up liking the base model better than the higher-performance Cooper S. The difference in performance between the two is smaller than before, at least until the higher-output John Cooper Works versions arrive, and the base car is lighter and less expensive.
The better-quality interior of the current car is one of its most appealing features. The driving position is close to ideal, and the front sport seats are superbly comfortable. Rear-seat riders now get 3 more inches of shoulder room, meaning it’s at least possible to seat adults back there. While there’s still a lot of black trim and upholstery inside the cabin, more soft-touch materials are used. Combined with the more logical layout of controls and switches, it's just a friendlier place to be.
In Convertible models, the two back-seat positions are a bit tighter and more upright, although they manage hatchback versatility and flexibility like the rest of the lineup, with rear seats that fold forward, not quite flat, but to allow longer items to fit. These models have a flip-down tailgate, supplemented by a top that can be raised in back another foot or so to create a wider load opening.
The IIHS gives the latest Mini Cooper its top rating of "Good" on every test, including the tough new IIHS small-overlap front crash test. That's good enough to earn the IIHS' nod as a Top Safety Pick+. Eight airbags are now standard in the car, along with the usual suite of safety systems. But the Mini Cooper offers a few novel options as well. Befitting its performance aspirations, one of those is corner-braking control, in which each wheel’s brake force is adjusted to maximize traction even under hard braking, based on the car’s cornering attitude. Federal authorities have given the car a four-star overall rating.
While the base Mini Cooper with the three-cylinder engine and a 6-speed manual gearbox starts around $21,000, and the Cooper Convertible starts just under $27,000, prices can mount quickly as buyers page through literally dozens of options, packages, trim levels, paint and upholstery colors, and appearance options to customize their cars. Notable options include a head-up display, which works nicely, and keyless ignition. Safety-oriented options include a rearview camera, forward-collision and pedestrian warning systems, a parking assistant and even a speed limit information system traditionally found only on far more expensive European models.
Standard features include LED headlights and leather upholstery. More powerful Cooper S variants start about $3,500 higher, and an automatic transmission adds another $1,250. A reasonably equipped three-cylinder Mini should run somewhere in the high $20,000-range, though a heavy hand on the options list will take that well into the $30,000-range. A top-of-the-line Cooper S Convertible with lots of options ends up around $40,000.
We think the best value is the smaller-engined car, which is lighter, almost as quick as the Cooper S, and provides a quirky and endearing exhaust note on idle. Although in Convertible form, several hundred pounds heavier, we suspect the S might be the better bet.
Whichever body style you choose, and however you spec the car, the 2016 Mini Cooper provides the cheerful character and urban-warrior handling the brand is known for, in a package with fewer rough spots and compromises than previous generations. It had to get a little bigger to do that, but we’re willing to trade all that for a little extra size.
The base, turbocharged three-cylinder 1.5-liter engine—developed by parent BMW for the first time—has the top rating of 28 mpg city, 39 highway, 32 combined with the 6-speed manual gearbox in the two-door Hardtop. The same powertrain comes in at 29/39/33 mpg in the four-door. Switch over to the automatic and the numbers fall to 27/37/31 mpg for either body style.