Is the 2015 Mini Cooper S overwrought or just cheeky? Is it a trend-setter or a fashion victim? And does it still continue to build on the heritage of the classic Mini?
Those are tough questions, we know. But when driving the Cooper S—the new-generation Cooper S that made its debut this past year—for the first time a few weeks ago, we couldn’t help but ask them to ourselves. MINI, the BMW sub-brand, making cars in England, has been around for 12 years, and this is the third generation of a vehicle that started as a sort of design homage to the classic 1960s (and later) Mini—and especially the more 'optimized' Cooper.
In some ways, we'd say the Cooper S embodies what a modern hot hatch should be; yet in others it’s confoundingly aloof, despite all the heavy-handed cues.
First off, the packaging: At just 151 inches long, the MINI Hardtop is definitely still mini by American standards. Sure, it’s grown closer to other subcompact hatchbacks like the Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit—and significantly larger than the modern Fiat 500, another retro-styled minicar that’s sold in the U.S. But it’s worth making a reality check that the new model is two and a half feet longer, a foot wider, and two inches taller, than the classic Mini.
Before I get into some of the more controversial points, there’s one thing we can all agree about, and it’s that the new Cooper models look pretty great on the outside. They’re essentially the same interpretation on classic-Mini-inspired proportions that MINI Coopers have had ever since BMW created the brand in 2002, but it seems that the nose edges just a bit longer with each generation (are there lies being told?). What we really do like is how there’s a little more contrast and sharpness brought about by the details.
Functionally simplified—though still quite busy
Inside, the Cooper lineup is a little less quirky than it was, and less cluttered in its controls. Yet it’s still most definitely a busy design. Between the various curves, bulges, steps, bevels, and bezels, taking in the design of the interior as a whole can be overwhelming, even though from a functional standpoint it's been simplified. The speedometer has been moved in front of the driver—a good move, we think—while the central stack is still a Big Round Thing, now encircling a display screen. Below, there’s now just a handful of toggle-switches, and climate controls are quite intuitive and ordinary.
A ring surrounds the central display cluster, illuminating based on your driving style and driving mode. We found it gimmicky and somewhat distracting and turned it off; our test car had the available head-up display, which we found quite useful given the central gauges. Settings for both items, by the way, are accessed through a version of BMW’s familiar iDrive system, with a version of the iDrive controller just behind the shift knob. For this tall, long-armed driver, with the seat back most of the way, it was in the right place; but we do wonder about shorter drivers.
Otherwise there’s a drive mode switch just at the back of the shift-knob base, letting you choose from Sport and Green settings, as well as a 'normal' one, that order up some quite different behaviors in the powertrain and steering. The Green setting, for instance, lets the transmission fully detach when you ease off the gas, for far more effective coasting.
A different car, familiar in the details
The latest generation of Mini Coopers are built on a new platform, but you might not even know it from the outside. You’ll know it once underway, though; this feels like a different vehicle entirely—yet one intimately familiar in some details.
While base Mini Cooper models now have a 134-horsepower, 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine—one that lets the MINI Cooper achieve ratings up to 30 mpg city, 42 highway—the Cooper S we drove comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making 189 hp and 207 pound-feet of torque—or 221 lb-ft in a special overboost mode, for a few seconds at a time. In our Cooper S it was hooked up to a six-speed automatic transmission; and although we probably would have preferred the six-speed manual, the automatic was a delight for the most part, allowing more of a ‘connected’ feeling than most automatics bring.
Click it over to Sport mode and drive more aggressively, and the transmission will shift with such quickness and decision that we couldn’t help but liken to the way the dual-clutch boxes in BMW’s M cars behave. The official 0-to-60 mph time for the Cooper S is now just 6.5 seconds, and with the low seating and small overall package, it feels even quicker.
There are definitely some ways in which the Cooper S disappointed, and steering is one of them. To us, the current Cooper models still don’t have the level of steering feedback (and kickback) that should be present in this type of small car—especially one that’s living up a heritage like this. The general feel and the way the steering is weighted is definitely better than the previous (2013) model, however.
This Cooper S goes into corners more softly than its predecessors, yet it now feels like you sit closer to its natural center of mass; there’s less of a need for mid-corner adjustments, so we ended up by the end of the week driving the Cooper S with more of a ‘flick’ into corners than we’d thought to use. There’s so much composure here, you almost have to work at it to feel that spark.
More cultured, in many ways
Likewise, the latest Cooper S sounds and feels a feels a mite more cultured than its predecessors. It definitely rides with a little more forgiveness than before, too, but we still caution shoppers to take a long test drive, on their own day-to-day driving roads, as the ‘S’ we had still rode very stiffly by most tastes and carried a lot of general road coarseness and boom into the cabin. Also, trim and switchgear feel improved once again, and we’re pleased we didn’t experience any of the rattling and creaking of plastic pieces that we’ve almost come to expect in MINI models.
The back seat of the two-door Cooper is still super-tight, even considering the expanded overall footprint of the car, as it stands today. But with the anticipated introduction of the MINI Hardtop 4 door late this year, with six inches more overall length and almost three inches of wheelbase, it should be a good option. Those planning to carry back-seat passengers but not subscribe to the Countryman’s elevated stance should have a good option.
I averaged 28 mpg over 95 miles of driving in the Cooper S—including some simple daily errands, as well as a more spirited run out to some backroads. Engine stop-start, which shuts the engine off at stoplights, then restarts smoothly when you lift off the brake, probably helped with that.
As always with MINI, lots of extras—and potential for a high price
The Cooper S starts as low as $24,950; although if you go all-out on options and packages you could end up with one that approaches the $40k mark. Our test car had the automatic transmission with paddle shifters (optional...really?), the John Cooper Works interior and exterior packages, and many other comfort and tech extras, like the head-up display and the panoramic moonroof. You can also get a dynamic damping suspension.
The Cooper lineup seems to be taking a turn away from its boy-racer tack, and that’s a welcome move. Yet it feels more at ease with itself than ever before—less overwrought, for sure. We’re not quite in love, but if you can resist most of the options, we think that the Cooper S—and the Cooper especially—is quite the deal, as a super-stylish, nice-driving hatchback that feels very smart.