2016 MINI Cooper Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
April 26, 2016

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.

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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.

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2016 MINI Cooper

Styling

The 2016 MINI Cooper is faithful to the well-known MINI shape, but the interior is vastly improved over earlier generations.

The 2016 Mini Cooper hardtops, in two- and four-door form, are actually hatchbacks. The longer four-door model is a new addition to this third generation of Mini, but the classic two-door model is larger in every dimension as well. The Clubman, derived from the four-door, is stretched in wheelbase by 4 inches, and overall by 10.9 inches, and uses barn-style doors at the rear, but it's stylistically and mechanically a close relative of the other Cooper models.

No matter which flavor of Mini we're talking about, the design has remained so consistent that some people will never realize the car was totally redesigned two years ago.

The main tipoff to the new design is its longer nose, which complies with the latest frontal crash-safety regulations and accommodates European rules for more crush space under the hood for accidents with pedestrians. The taillights too give it away: while they're still vertical rectangles, they're closer to square—and larger overall. The standard Mini design cues and proportions are all there: the oval light units on the top corners of the front fenders, an oblong grille framed in chrome, and the upright windshield. The window line remains horizontal, with black pillars supporting a long roof that can be painted white to contrast with the body color (one of Mini’s most popular options).

Convertible models further emphasize that horizontal theme, and while their rear flip-down tailgate gives the rear of the vehicle a different profile, the stance is virtually same as that of the Coupe. Top down, the Convertible models gain a different, more roadster-like sense of proportion that actually works very well with the longer front end these Cooper models got with their last redesign.

The 2016 Mini Cooper has changed most on the inside, and largely for the better. The instruments are where you expect them, at last: A large tachometer with a smaller speedometer hung off its side sit behind the steering wheel. The round shape in the center of the dash is now exclusively a display screen—of various sizes depending on trim level and options—flanked by a pair of rectangular air vents. Two large round eyeball vents sit at the outer edges of the dash.

The switchgear, previously found in arrangements ranging from marginal to chaotic, is easier to find and more logical to operate. There's still a horizontal row of switches in the central lower dash, but above it are three more-or-less standard rotary knobs for the heating and ventilation system.

Passengers still sit deep in the car, surrounded by quite a lot of black trim and upholstery, but most of the Mini’s beneficial quirks remain—and a lot of the bad ones are gone, making this the most livable Mini yet.

What distinguishes the Cooper lineup to a lot of shoppers will be its degree of customization, and the chance to concoct your own distinct style. For instance, Convertibles can be themed with a Union Jack flag top and herringbone-patterned detailing, eight different upholsteries are offered, including a new Malt Brown leather, and Mini Yours finishes like Fiber Alloy and porcelain-like Off-White add a more distinctive look to the cabin.

The new three- and five-door models and the Clubman and Convertible are based on underpinnings that will ultimately spawn up to 10 Mini models. As of 2016, the Coupe and Roadster models have been discontinued.

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2016 MINI Cooper

Performance

The 2016 MINI Cooper continues to offer roller-skate handling and nimble performance; the base engine impresses more than the Cooper S.

Two all-new engines power the pair of hardtop Mini, developed for the first time by the brand’s parent company BMW. Both are direct-injected and turbocharged, with variable valve timing, and they form part of a larger family of modular engines that be used in several small cars sold by both brands.

The base engine in the 2016 Mini Cooper is a 124-horsepower 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder. Its torque rating is 162 pound-feet, but there’s also a temporary "overboost" capability that raises that slightly to 169 lb-ft. This model reaches 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, Mini says, and has a top speed of 130 mph. As well as the crisp 6-speed manual gearbox, a 6-speed automatic is optional, and it cuts 0.1 second off that acceleration. Still, the Mini is one of the few cars where, really, the manual is the better option—and far more in character with the car.

The turbo three-cylinder is tuned to put out its power from low speeds, meaning turbo lag has largely been tamed, which makes the car tractable around town. The appealingly uneven exhaust note produced by the three is most apparent from outside the car, or with the windows open.

For higher performance, the Mini Cooper S model gets a 189-hp 2.0-liter inline-4 version of the same engine, putting out 206 lb-ft of torque (or 221 lb-ft with that overboost). The same pair of transmission is available, along with $250 paddle shifters for the automatic to let drivers use it more aggressively. The S model is a second faster to 60 mph, at 6.4 seconds with the manual or 6.3 seconds with the automatic. (If you choose the optional navigation system, the transmission also makes some shift decisions based on what it knows about upcoming terrain based on the satellite positioning signals.)

A toggle at the base of the ring around the shift lever lets drivers choose from Sport, Mid, or Green modes, with corresponding red, blue, or green rings around the center display screen. Sport keeps idle speed higher and holds gears longer; it also stiffens the steering, and if you've opted for the $500 adaptive dampers, they're firmer as well (although the adaptive damper system does help keep road coarseness out of the cabin).

As it always has, the 2016 Mini car corners flat, and its tires feel sticky—it’s "glued to the road," as enthusiast magazines say—and it has one of the best electric power steering systems we've driven. The ride is better than before, while still firm, and the whole car is considerably quieter, which makes it less tiring to drive aggressively or over long distances.

If you're buying the car for flat-out acceleration runs, the JCW Cooper wins out, but our choice would be the base car. It’s now much closer to the Cooper S in performance, as well as lighter and better balanced overall.

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2016 MINI Cooper

Comfort & Quality

Fun to drive and larger inside and out, the 2016 MINI Cooper is quiter too--but in the U.S., it remains a very small car.

The 2016 Mini Cooper is longer, wider, and taller—by 4.5, 1.7, and 0.3 inches respectively—in its two-door hardtop form, which has a 1.1-inch boost in its wheelbase as well. The four-door hardtop adds another 10 inches to that length, and the Clubman, another 10.9 inches beyond that. There’s more interior room in a stiffer body structure, though a Kia Soul compact tall wagon still looks gargantuan next to the small Mini.

Compared to earlier generations, the current Minis stand out for their nicer interior materials and improved ergonomics. The designers have used more soft-touch materials, the controls are more intuitive, and at last both the the speedo and tach are both behind the steering wheel. The characteristic round central dial in the dash has been relegated to a display screen.

The overall vehicle is less ruthlessly minimal now—you can thank tougher crash-safety standards—but the package is still carefully defined, and a delight for two people. It’s now tolerable for four adults, though it helps a lot if the second two are slim, agile, friendly, or all of the above. The longer four-door hardtop gives them extra leg room, while the Convertible tightens the back-seat area somewhat. The Clubman is the model that turns the Mini into a vehicle that can routinely transport four people. It's the only one classified as a compact, at just about the size of a five-door VW Golf.

Behind the wheel, the driving position is close to perfect, and there's plenty of head room even if you sit high. One drawback: The long roof extends so far forward of the passenger compartment to meet the upright windshield that taller or long-torsoed drivers may have trouble seeing stoplights. Our test car’s sport seats were both form-fitting and very adjustable.

Even the new generation of Mini rides firmly, but it doesn't crash over the worst bumps. Road noise is vastly reduced, and occupants now hear the right amount of engine noise rather than tire roar, wind rush, and suspension actions. The hot-rod Cooper S now has some of its engine noise piped into the cabin, while the base three-cylinder has its own audio signature—with an uneven idle we found strangely endearing.

The 2016 Mini hatchbacks offers 8.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat upright. Fold down the seat, and you'll get 38 cubic feet (up from a meager 24 cubic feet in the prior generation). The Clubman is good for 17.5 cubic feet and 47.9 cubes, respectively. In all, the front compartment has various cubbies, trays, and bins, and an optional storage package in the rear adds a tiered shelf, package nets, and seat map pockets.

Convertible models still manage hatchback versatility and flexibility much like the rest of the lineup—even though they're not actually hatchbacks. 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. Rear seat fold forward, not quite flat but so as to allow longer items to fit.

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2016 MINI Cooper

Safety

The 2016 Mini Cooper lacks ratings for safety tests, but has a lavish suite of standard and optional safety features.

The 2016 Mini Cooper, introduced in two-door hardtop form halfway through the 2014 model year, gets the top rating of "Good" in every category from the IIHS. That includes the new and tough small-overlap front crash test. That’s admirable, considering that a large number of older small-car designs did far worse, and those ratings were good enough for the agency's vaunted Top Safety Pick+ rating.

But the current Mini Cooper lineup only manages a four-star overall rating from the NHTSA, with four stars across the board.

The 2016 model includes eight airbags as standard equipment: not only front, side, and side-curtain bags that cover the entire window opening, but also knee bags for the driver and passenger seat in front. The usual suite of electronic safety systems is present, from anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution to dynamic stability control and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

Reflecting its performance character, the Mini also includes corner-braking control, which adjusts the brake force on each wheel to preserve maximum traction in response to changes in the car's cornering attitude.

Being a fairly short car, rear three-quarter vision is adequate, but the roof pillars are thicker inside than you might expect. And because the roof extends 18 or 20 inches beyond the top of the driver's head to meet the upright windshield pillars, tall drivers or those who like to sit high up in the car may find that stoplights can be invisible without leaning forward and craning their necks.

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2016 MINI Cooper

Features

The 2016 Mini Cooper comes better equipped these days, but the long list of options can still boost the price substantially.

The two-door and four-door hardtop versions of the 2016 Mini Cooper start around $21,000, with the Clubman starting at just under $25,000. It’s easy to get a high-end version of the Cooper S close to $40,000—and that’s even before the John Cooper Works high-performance models arrive. The base 2016 Mini two-door with the three-cylinder engine and 6-speed manual feels like the strongest value for money this year.

Every Mini Cooper includes a number of premium features as standard, including LED headlights, a white-trimmed interior, and leather seats. The standard alloy wheels are 15-inch, with 16-inch standard on the Cooper S. Moving up from the three-cylinder 1.5-liter to the Cooper S model, with its 2.0-liter inline-4, adds about $3,500. And the 6-speed automatic transmission is a $1,250 option as well.

Once you’ve chosen your body style—two- or four-door—and your engine and transmission, then there's the traditionally lengthy list of options and packages. They cover everything from comfort and infotainment improvements to suspension and wheel and tire upgrades. Handling-oriented buyers can add a $500 sport package, plus $500 adaptive dampers—which we recommend for their driving quality.

A wide range of optional wheels and tires ranges up to 18 inches, with the usual caveat about the tallest wheels with the lowest-profile tires giving the worst ride under most circumstances. We'd suggest that the 17-inch wheels with all-season tires are a good compromise for both the Cooper and Cooper S.

A Technology Package brings an 8.8-inch widescreen display plus a rearview camera system, rear parking sensors, navigation, real-time traffic info, a full portfolio of MINI Connected apps, and a "Convertible Rain Warner" feature that will tell you when rainstorms are approaching and you should really consider putting the top up. And you can get a Premium Package, with Comfort Access entry, heated front seats, Harman Kardon premium audio, satellite radio, a folding wind deflector, and power-folding exterior mirrors; or the Sport Package, which trades off the S’s 16-inch wheels for larger 17s or 18s, plus full-LED headlamps and taillights, LED fog lights, and the Dynamic Damper Control (adjustable, multi-mode) suspension.

The huge palette of paint, trim, and decals are a Mini hallmark, including the popular contrasting white roof. Nonetheless, ticking boxes with care will get you a three-cylinder hardtop in the $27,000 range that has almost everything you'd expect or want in a Mini, including the classic white roof, the sport suspension package, and adaptive dampers.

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2016 MINI Cooper

Fuel Economy

The 2016 Mini Cooper is impressively fuel-efficient with the base three-cylinder engine.

Though bystanders may assume that the 2016 Mini Cooper's small size means big fuel economy numbers, it's still nowhere near the ratings of any small hybrid. The Mini's always been all about driving fun—not fuel efficiency—eager character and rollerskate handling that defines the car.

The latest version is fitted with standard stop-start, which helps fuel economy in city driving. It's acceptably smooth on the base model, though more jarring on the Cooper S. Eco-minded drivers can select a "Green" mode by twisting the lit ring around the base of the shift lever.

The base Mini Cooper is powered by an all-new turbocharged three-cylinder 1.5-liter engine—developed by parent BMW for the first time—for a 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.

Oddly, the 6-speed automatic is less efficient in the base Mini—but more efficient in the brawnier Mini Cooper S model with the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4. That model comes in at 23/33/27 mpg with the 6-speed manual, but the automatic option gives you slightly better ratings: 26/33/29 mpg. Convertible S models slot in at 23/33/27 mpg with the manual, or 25/34/29 mpg with the automatic.

Driven very rapidly along a mix of canyon roads, freeways, and surface streets around LA, we managed about 25 mpg in both of these vehicles. That’s about a worst-case scenario for this car; And the engine stop-start in the Mini Cooper is the kind you’ll leave enabled, as it’s smoother than what’s offered in much of the BMW lineup.

On a lengthy 600-mile road trip in a manual three-cylinder model, we logged a solid 40 mpg on the car's trip computer. Less highway travel and more urban cut-and-thrust driving will lower that substantially, of course.

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