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RECENTLY DRIVEN

2014 MINI Cooper S 

 

MINI went for more rounded forms for its third-generation car under BMW ownership

Car tested MIN Cooper S
Body style Two-door hatchback
Engine 2L-four-cylinder turbo (189 horsepower)
Transmission Six-speed manual
Least expensive MINI Cooper S $25,490
Price as tested $31,620 (includes Fully Loaded package, Black Cosmos wheels, anthracite headliner)
Observed fuel economy 12.9L/100 km

 

A very familiar side profile

History
Alec Issigonis, the auto designer, was tasked by British Motor Corporation Chairman Sir Leonard Lord to design a compact, economical car to stem the tide of German bubble cars washing up on Britain's shores in the late 1950s. He created the car we know as the Mini. Launched in 1959 as the Austin Seven and Morris Mini Minor, that car was built until 2000, with numerous updates along the way. BMW bought the Rover Group, who was the last independent maker of the Mini, in 1994. BMW sold most of the Rover Group in 2000, but kept the Mini name and the new car it was developing, which became the revived MINI. BMW's first MINI hatchback was launched as a 2001 model in Europe and made it to North America for the 2002 model year.

The second-generation MINI debuted here as a 2007 model; our test car was a third-generation Cooper S that went on sale here in the spring of 2014. The last two MINI's were standalone products within the BMW group, but this new car shares its basic architecture and mechanical components with the upcoming front-wheel-drive BMW 1-series hatchback, which will go on sale in Europe in about a year.

Competition
BMW's chic, sporty MINI was one of the first cars that broke the link between vehicle size and price. MINI's may be small but they are premium-priced. Two other cars, the Smart ForTwo and the Fiat 500, match the MINI's "small but chic and pricey" formula, although they cost a lot less than the MINI. Though the Volkswagen Golf is both bigger and more mainstream than the MINI, it is the car dealers say is most commonly cross-shopped against the MINI. The Ford Fiesta ST is potential cross shop that few people think of because it is merely a variant of a big-volume mainstream car.

 

Interesting accent on the side of the headlight

Performance
Driving fun has always been a key component of MINI experience, and the current model does not disappoint.

The 189 horsepower 2L turbocharged four in our Cooper S was smooth, quick and flexible, with a pleasing yet discreet wail at higher revs. This engine feels much more refined in the MINI than in the BMW 3-series. The key drawback to the 2L turbo is relatively high fuel consumptions; the APA observed 12.9L/100 km in mixed suburban and highway  driving. 

With a light, precise clutch and a precise, nicely-weighted gearchange, the MINI's six-speed manual transmission is a delight. Carefully chosen gear ratios result in good acceleration and in-gear flexibility in all the chosen ratios as well as relaxed cruising.
 

Beautifully weighted, precise steering faithfully telegraphs to the driver what is happening between the tires and the road.

Though the Cooper S rides firmly, the suspension exhibits a resilience that shields occupants from actual impact harshness. APA staffers in Quebec note that the rough roads in that province may make the MINI's ride less forgiving than it seems in other jurisidctions. Handling, with great stability and minimal roll in corners, is inspiring.

The brakes have great pedal feel and arrest the car with alacrity.

Road and wind noise are nicely suppressed and the new MINI is impressively refined.

Air-conditioning performance was better than on the last MINI; the Bluetooth phone and audio hook-ups worked very well and the audio system delivers good sound. The dual panel roof has a large glazed area but the part that opens is not that big. Paint and body panel fit are very good, especially for a car in its first year in production. 

 

The new MINI is powered by BMW engines for the first time. A 2L turbo four rests under the hood of the Cooper S

Interior

At a quick glance, the MINI’s cabin looks the same as on the last two generations, but closer inspection reveals the extent to which BMW went to create a more liveable MINI. The buckshot ergonomics of the last two cars, where gauges and controls were literally scattered randomly throughout the cabin, has been exorcised. The speedometer and tachometer are now right in front of the driver, climate controls are located handily on the dash centre stack and the driver's door now houses door lock, window and mirror switches. The big circular styling element at the centre of the dash that once contained the speedometer, was devoted to the navigation and audio controls on our test car. A BMW i-drive like controller, which is located between the front seats, works well enough once you become accustomed to it.

The front seats, which are surprisingly large for such a small car, even have extendable thigh support bolsters. The seatbacks hold the driver in position, but don’t squeeze. Long seat travel allows tall drivers to relax behind the wheel. The rear seat is comfortable enough, but legroom is not abundant and access is strictly for the flexible.

Headroom was adequate on our sunroof-equipped test car.

Cabin materials are more attractive than those used in the last MINI. Low-sheen plastics, convincing chrome, faux alloy and piano black accents, elegant leather upholstery and copious soft-touch surfaces make for an upscale cabin ambience. The black interior on our test car was made a bit too sombre by the equally black headliner; fortunately, it is an option.

Regularly shaped and deep below the window line, luggage capacity is good with the rear seats in place and pretty commodious when the rear seatbacks are folded flat.

Gauges have moved from the centre of the dashboard to right in front of the driver. Crisp, no nonsense graphics, including the electronic info screen. The segmented orange bars to the right of the speedometer are for fuel level

The big sphere at the centre of the dashboard that used to house the speedometer now contains the optional navigation system as well as the audio controls 

 A BMW i-Drive like controller sits between the front seats

 

While the dashboard has the same shape as the two previous MINI's, its easy to fathom controls are a big upgrade compared to what came before 

Sleek door trim houses the door lock, window and mirror controls that were once scattered about the cabin

Pricing
Starting at $25,490, the base the Cooper S is not cheap, and the price escalates once a few options are added. Metallic paint, leather upholstery, wheel upgrades and the MINI Connected and Wire Navigation packages are very pricey, as are individual options like satellite radio and the anthracite (black) headliner. The Loaded package is priced to reflect the value of its contents, but the Essentials and Fully Loaded option groups are bargains. Dealers note that many buyers opt for leather upholstery and sunroof on their MINI's, with a growing number adding a navigation system as well. Comparing similarly-equipped versions of the VW Golf GTI three-door and the MINI reveals that the Cooper S is actually about $1500 cheaper.  Over half of MINI buyers are leasing their new rides.  

Though not expansive, the trunk is regularly shaped and is deep below the window line

Reliability
The MINI is covered by a four year/80,000 km bumper to bumper warranty, with no further coverage for the powertrain. Reliability for the last generation of the MINI is below average, and was terrible for the first generation car. The driving pleasure and high-style that are part of the MINI experience can lead first owners to forgive their cars for developing a few problems. The APA strongly recommends leasing for a period not longer than the warranty, or buying an extended warranty from MINI.

Safety
The MINI is equipped with dual front, front seat mounted and side curtain airbags as standard equipment. The MINI Cooper has not been tested by the NHTSA, the IIHS or the Euro NCAP organization. Both previous MINIs had strong unibody structures.

 

 Rear styling is the same, but different, than before

Summary
Like Volkswagen with the Golf or the Porsche 911, the MINI’s look is so iconic and so identified with the car that there is a reluctance to significantly alter the design as it could alienate current owners and MINI intenders who like the look of the car. That said, there are detail differences on the car if you care to look and the new interior expunges all the complaints owners have made since the BMW MINI went on sale in 2001, leaving a stylish, functional cabin.

Moving the MINI to the next-generation BMW 1-series platform will no doubt reap good economies of scale, but also results in a remarkably solid, mature car that has managed to filter out all the shortcomings and aggravation of the last two cars, but kept the fun and performance intact.
The MINI has always stood alone as a small car that combines high-style and high-performance in one package and continues to do so. Cars like the Smart ForTwo and Fiat 500 do succeed in matching the MINI for chic, but neither come anywhere close to the driving pleasure the MINI provides. On the other side, the mainstream Ford Fiesta ST and Volkswagen Golf GTI may come close to matching the MINI Cooper S for driving pleasure and precision, but can't, due to mainstream roots, approach the bespoke nature of the MINI.