First Drive : MINI Cooper D

The MINI evolves into its fourth generation and is bigger, more efficient and driver-focused than ever. Question is, will it be good enough to continue the success story?

Keith Adams drives the super-economical 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbodiesel Cooper D to see how the latest chapter shapes up.

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Since its launch in 2001, more than 1.8 million MINIs have rolled out of the factory in Cowley – it’s been a proper Anglo-German success, made in England in an operation they nickname the MINI Triangle. The outgoing model ended up being developed throughout its life – almost constantly – and, even at the end, it was still a class-leading hatchback, dynamically at least. But now the counter has been reset, and the latest car, which is new from the ground up, has been set a very tough brief – to beat the old car in all areas.

Styling is a clear evolutionary effort – it’s a design policy that MINI set in stone with the arrival of the first new-era model in 2001, to reinvent and reboot the Mini-Cooper. The new car carries over the main visual identifiers, such as its floating roof, big, round headlamps and curvaceous flanks while, at the front, there’s the familiar elongated hexagonal grille (no longer split horizontally), which makes the car so obviously a MINI.

However, there has been some growth, much of which has been concentrated at the front – the overhang is longer more ungainly in profile and the grille juts out more than before. This is a side-effect of improved pedestrian impact regulations and, in truth, it’s not been that well disguised. But once used to the new look, and provided you can warm to its elongated conk, there’s no denying it’s a successful evolution, bringing the MINI bang up to date without scaring existing owners.

The enlargement hasn’t been such that the MINI is anything other than a small car in overall terms. It’s still comfortably shorter than what must be its principal rival, the Audi A1, and mainstream challengers, such as the – admittedly more commodious – Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo, which are more than 15cm longer. Importantly, MINI confirms that there’s more interior room for passengers and luggage – although we’d still count it as a two-plus-two-friends-who-don’t-mind-being-squeezed kind of car than a true four-seater.

MINI Cooper D 42

The interior has also been overhauled, with what amounts to an all-new ground-up effort, even if it looks largely the same. We searched in vain for any carry-over parts, which for anyone unimpressed with the quality and design of the old MINI, can only be good news. The overall design remains very familiar, if more premium, but everything has been given a lick of polish, bringing it more in line with BMW’s thinking.

The centre-speedometer has gone and, where that once resided, there is now the largest (optional) infotainment screen in its market sector. The new heating and ventilation controls are much more conventional, and all the better for it, while the electric window controls have – like the Countryman – moved to the doors. The speedometer and tachometer are mounted on the steering column directly in the driver’s line of sight.  You could say it’s all heading for orthodoxy, but there’s still some way to go, thankfully.

Practicality has been improved, although it’s still nothing to write home about, if space matters to you – the boot being the biggest upgrade with the move into its fourth generation. It needed to be. It’s now 30 per cent larger, and comes with 60:40 split, rather than 50:50 as before. There’s now a false floor, which means you can set the height to one of two positions – and you can stow it vertically to release the full 211 litres (backrests up). It’s still not big, and you can’t specify it with a spare wheel, which is an annoyance.

The biggest change for existing MINI owners will be the lower and more BMW-like driving position. This, combined with thicker A-pillars and less all-round visibility, might take the edge off driving the car confidently in town. We’re certainly disappointed by what feels to be the smaller glass area, as the view out was an old MINI strong point. The mirrors are bigger and more useful, while the new controls for the driving mode selector (Green, Mid and Sport) and improved iDrive-style interface in the centre console are all mastered in seconds.

We’re testing what promises to be the biggest selling MINI in the UK, the Cooper D. Like all the new MINIs, this one gets a brand new power unit – it’s a variation of the modular three- and four-cylinder range of petrols and diesels that are being built at the company’s Hams Hall factory in Birmingham. MINI calls it the TwinPower Turbo, which sounds delightfully retro, but don’t think for a minute that the 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine that powers the Cooper D is not truly cutting edge stuff.

With 116bhp and a thumping 193lb ft (which matches the 2.0-litre Cooper S), comparisons with the outgoing model are largely meaningless. The on-paper figures point to a very efficient little power unit that also performs very well indeed. The claimed 0-62mph time is 9.2 seconds, the combined fuel consumption figure is 80.7mpg (the first MINI to better 80mpg) and the 92g/km CO2 figure is astounding when performance figures are taken into account.

With that out of the way, the big question that we need answering is what it the new MINI like to drive? The first impression is of its astonishing refinement. At idle, there’s a little diesel chatter, but you’re only really aware of it when the window’s open or at a restart when the Stop/Start system is working. When it’s running along A-roads and motorways unless you’re really listening for it, you’ll not be able to tell it’s a diesel. But for those who like to have fun, it pulls very strongly from little more than 1000rpm in any gear and, if you hang on to the revs, it has an appealing, slightly off-beat sound that works for us, right up to the red line.

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The gearchange is light and accurate, if not quite as good as before, but the steering is everything a MINI should be – light, accurate and quick, perhaps too quick for some. Turn-in is what we’d describe as savage but, like all quick set-ups, it’s fine once you’re acclimatised to it. Sensitive drivers may feel the power assistance’s artificiality at times, especially when in Sport mode, but on the whole, it’s a very nicely set-up rack.

Handling is predictably brilliant, with bags of lateral grip and nary a trace of understeer. When really pushing on, it’s faithful and you can really lean on it, although it can feel a little hyperactive under heavy, last-minute braking – and, if you’re a late-braker, you might find the ABS can be a little over-eager to cut in. That said, despite these minor gripes, the MINI does put in a masterful performance – all the more so, when you consider that it’s an economical diesel hatchback.

The driver can lean on it into corners pretty much as before, and the improved levels of refinement don’t take any of the fun element away from the driver. In Sport mode, the steering has more weight and it has a far more responsive throttle, and an automatic blip of the throttle as you change down but, in reality, in every day driving, Mid or Green modes (signalled by a gimmicky series of LEDs surrounding the centre screen) offer all you need. For traditionalists, the retention of a traditional handbrake will be good news.

However, while it’s great for play, the other good news is that the new MINI is also excellent on the motorway, astonishingly so. Improved refinement and stability all round make this an excellent long-distance car. Ride quality is also up a notch or three, with tyre and suspension noise markedly reduced. Combine this with the bigger, more supportive driver’s seat, and you’ll step out after a motorway run no more stressed than had you been driving a much larger car. To combine this long-distance refinement with fun handling in the corners really is quite an achievement.

As before, the MINI’s baseline price can be seriously bumped up by plundering the options list. You can specify a BMW-style 8.8-inch screen infotainment system and get it working with all manner of Apps via the MINI Connect and Connect XL systems. You can also add a head-up display (a first in sector), upgrade the stereo, specify auto-braking, auto parking, and variable damping, which reduces body roll in corners. These all come at a healthy cost, of course, and you need to ask yourself whether you’ll need all of it – especially considering the return on them at sale time.

Prices have risen across the board, with around a two per cent premium over the outgoing model, with £13,750 being the new entry point for an un-specced MINI One and the Cooper starting at £15,300. The old entry-level MINI First has been quietly dropped and, from launch, only the Cooper, Cooper D and Cooper S will be offered, with the One and One D following in the summer.

The good news is that the new MINI is a major improvement in all areas. Moan all you like about the way it looks, or the fact it’s 12cm longer than before, but the facts are undeniable – it’s more tightly screwed together, feels to have been made from higher quality materials and is both more refined, comfortable, economical and powerful than before. It’s not quite perfect but, importantly, it drives as a MINI should in tight spots, but with some of the old model’s rough edges ironed out – especially inside – and feels hugely well-engineered for the money.

It’s still a premium small car ideally suited for singles or couples without children – if you want practical, or inexpensive, you already know the MINI is not for you. Existing MINI owners will love it, though, and will find it a whole lot easier to live with – ultimately, that’s great news for Cowley, where the new car promises to be produced in ever greater numbers.

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Keith Adams
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  1. It’s a great shame the direction MINI are taking, but I guess (as was stated in the other article) MINI is clearly moving into the A1 territory, so with every evolution this car is going to become more and more like an A1.

    Personally I do not agree that this is what MINI should be doing nor do I like this new variant one bit.

    To me, without the quirky features; the central speedo, the retro switches and dials, the un-refined go-kart feel and the noises and bumpy ride which put a smile on my face every time I drive my R50, this car is nothing.

    It’s another refined soulless, drab product designed with no passion and no flair. Where is the Joie de vivre of this car?

    I’m sure it will sell well and the generation-selfie clones will love it, but personally, as a life-long mini and MINI fan, I feel a bit gutted by this car. It encapsulates everything I hate in a car.

  2. @2,
    Does it matter? The car disappoints him.

    Its like saying some horrid footballer is ok because he earns £200k a week.

    The penny is dropping that its the same old same old, reheated and growing.

    How long before it becomes an also-ran and another car maker just makes something altogether more appealing, more individual?

    Looking at the Twingo MK3 conjures the senses far more for me.

  3. A three cylinder diesel – hark do I hear the wittering of balance shafts and more economy wasting quick fixes?
    And lets be fair – most of the girls I know who drive a MINI or, heaven forfend, the 500, think that short shifting is something to do with their grandmothers risque underwear, double declutching relates to an oversized handbag & indicators are specifically designed to be used 2 seconds *after* they took your front wing off.
    When a person cannot get a Fiat 500 into a space 4ft longer and 2ft wider than the car you have to wonder at their abilities in other areas – something that a fast rack is not going to enhance..
    That and the fact even the Panzerkampfwagen III would be dwarfed by a Countryman and go running back home.. and this is called a MINI why again?
    I suppose the only bright spot is they haven’t done a hybrid – or put those bloody ridiculous eyelashes as a no cost option. I’m amazed there arent feminist death squads hunting people down for those, those and pink Harleys..

  4. Addendum – anyone who is unable to park anything smaller than a Mondeo unaided should have their drivers license taken outside, placed up against a wall, and shot!
    If you can’t judge distance, width and positioning at 5mph how in hell are you going to do it at 70mph? I know at least one girl around here who’s killed so many wing mirrors she’d have Ace status & the Blue Max (probably without even noticing)..
    I predict it won’t be a pandemic disease that decimated humanity – it’ll be a bad app update to the auto driving cars that forces manual mode – a grisly cross between the Battle of Kursk & the 1919 pandemic flu – guts and halfords wheeltrims as far as the eye can see..

  5. Thanks for an interesting review Keith, sounds like this could be my next MINI to replace my 2002 R50 and park alongside my cherished classic Mini (owned by me for nearly 30 years now!)…..shame we have to have the usual pointless, same old boring comments from the vocal minority on here. After 13 years of the MINI helping to boost the UK motor industry and exports you would think they would have got over it by now? 🙂

  6. @8,
    Its called opinion. We don’t all have to deep throat everything that comes out of the MINI factory.

  7. As a happy R56 Cooper D owner I am reading this with interest, and will be taking a close look at one of these in flesh in the near future. The new Clubman also looks very tempting!

  8. I agree with the detractors, I dislike the bulbous nose and comedy tail lights. But don’t panic, it’s by BMW so it will still sell millions.
    If it keeps growing, in another five years we’ll see a new car enter the market alongside the MINI but the same size as the R50 called something twee like “MINI Elf” !

    P.S. I think I’m in love with Jemma 🙂

  9. @1

    As someone who really enjoyed their R50 and R53 MINI’s from 2004 and 2010, I went to look at this car with some interest today.

    However, for a ground up redesign, I was expecting a little more. When the only feature that raised a smile was the way that the rim of the central “speedo” gradually lights up in an arc, to reflect the increase in radio volume, then you know something isn’t right.

    My wife, also a lapsed MINI enthusiast, summed it up by saying it’s a bit like the revamp of the Golf every few years – predictable, unremarkable and of little interest.

    Of course I want to see the MINI continue to be a success, especially with rivals now coming from China, as well as Germany & Italy/Poland, but fear that the quietness of the showroom on the first day that test drives were available might be a reflection that prospective customers are a little underwhelmed.

  10. @14
    You could say the same about the new Audi TT or Porsche 911 but German designed cars have always tended to evolve rather than radically change with every new model update. It has not harmed sales and minimises depreciation of older models….unlike the cheaper car brands like Ford, Vauxhall, Peugeot, etc which are often total re-vamps but date and depreciate rapidly thereafter.

    Compare a 2001 R50 MINI against say a Ford Fiesta of the same era, the MINI still looks good while the Fiesta looks dated and has lost far more in depreciation.

    F56 MINI is reported in Oxford Mail to have 4000 advance orders even before todays showroom launch.

  11. Just been to a dealer launch event, so not pretending to be unbiased. Pluses- 1) the interior is much much better than outgoing model. 2) The snout is ungainly compared to R56, but the poor thing looks better in the flesh than in the photos. It is CERTAINLY still MINI sized- not the giant some people assume it must be. 3) Families that squeezed their 6-year-old kids in to a R56 will be pleased to know that their grown up 10-year-old kids will continue to fit in the back of the new F56. Adults who want a lift will still ask for taxi numbers instead.

    Negatives: 1)dashboard- the lack of a decent touchscreen entertainment centre without forking out £1500+ REALLY RUINS THE CAR- even the base-model Peugot 208 I rented with work last month had a 8 inch colour touchscreen. 2) it might just be slightly too ‘executive’ inside- the letterbox windscreen and the low driving position took me by surprise. Very unMINI-like.

  12. This 3rd Generation MINI, has the looks a cheap Chinese Toy maker would be proud of, for me the rear of the car is the better end, the front looks too much like a childs toy.

    The whole essence of the brand has been lost, when MINI ONE was launched it was at under £10k, the cheapest is now over 30% dearer, and thats a whole lot of money, the centre console switchgear is, um, challenging, and quite off putting, when trying to find a particular switch way down there, dangerous was a word used.

    Also, the new MINI is not as user friendly as the original Mini, its vast compared to its forebear, not too comfortable, the run flat wheels are so spinethumpingly horrid, and the lack of decent boot space for a car that size is laughable, but like others have said, it will sell, and continue to do so, until something better comes along….. Anyone for a CityRover ?

  13. @15 I’m very familiar with the predictable and conservative evolution of the usual German suspects. I’ve bought a great many new cars over the years and I’ve never bought one of these.

    Just before I bought a new Mk2 Focus RS in 2010 (since replaced with a Land Rover, I’m pleased to say), we went to have a look at a new Golf GTi and neither my wife or I felt sufficiently inspired to get out of our Cooper S to look at it! Talking of depreciation, the Ford suffered a total depreciation of 28.5% from RRP, over 3 1/2 years, when it was finally sold – eat your heart out VW / BMW!

    I wouldn’t take the comment of the 4,000 advance orders from BMW’s PR department too seriously – it’s a good PR spin on the advance sale to their dealers of just over 4 week’s production and will include all their dealer’s stock orders and demonstrators (world wide) and all pent up demand after relatively slow sales of the current MINI hatch in its run our period. I would rather have hoped for figures at least 2-3 times 4,000.

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