First Drive : MINI Cooper (R56)

While the rest of the world concentrated on the potent turbocharged MINI Cooper S, we took its normally aspirated brother for a thrash around the Spanish Pyrénées – and learned quite a bit about how the new car handled…

Words: Keith Adams
Pictures: Phil Weeden

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It's been changed - although you'd be hard pressed to tell from a distance...
It’s been changed – although you’d be hard pressed to tell from a distance…

IT’S been a long time coming – and on more than a few occasions we’ve wondered whether it was needed at all, but in late 2006, the second generation MINI (as opposed to Mini) was rolled-out to an expectant audience. Although it was a controversial car, and had more than its fair share of teething problems, the 2001 MINI has become one of the Millennium’s most endearing new cars – and unlike many high-fashion cars, it has remained en vogue throughout its lifetime.

Constant development of the original car – and a drip feed of new models sustained motoring press column inches, and that lasting popularity has resulted in over 700,000 MINIs rolling out of the former Pressed Steel plant at Cowley in Oxford.

So, with the original car performing so well on the forecourts, was there really any need to introduce a new car – after all, it was still the dynamic benchmark in its class, and unlike much of the opposition, there’s no way, you’d mistake a MINI for any of its rivals. Despite that, it did have faults – and the lingering deal with Chrysler for the Tritec engines were also an inconsistency ever since the American company became co-joined with German rivals Mercedes-Benz.

To most casual observers, the 2006 MINI isn’t a new car at all – but a further cosmetic tweak of the outgoing car. However, despite it’s same-again styling, it’s entirely new – sporting a new generation of PSA-BMW engines that have also found their way into the Peugeot 207. The body is all-new too – and swimming against the tide of ever-increasing kerb weights, this one’s lighter than its predecessor – although that was a particularly sturdy deisgn.

So, it’s a case of righting the original car’s wrongs, and improving its weaknesses? Probably. But you can also bet that this bigger more commodious car has been designed with the American market in mind (where it has proved to be a roaring success) – and is probably costing BMW an awful lot less cash to build, despite continuing with its beautifully engineered all-independent suspension set-up and largely bespoke interior.

Performance and Economy

118bhp from 1.6-litres is is barely enough these days - thankfully the handling makes up for the lack of outright grunt...
118bhp from 1.6-litres is is barely enough these days – thankfully the handling makes up for the lack of outright grunt…

Let’s get one thing straight right away – this is no performance car. Although the on-paper performance figures are reasonably respectable – with a 0-60mph time of around 9 seconds and a maximum speed approaching 130 mph, the sad fact is that if you get your kicks from savage acceleration, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. It’s not that the Cooper is any slower than its predecessor – because it isn’t – but compared with all of its price rivals (we drove the Cooper with the optional Chilli pack, pushing the price up to £14,870), its 118 bhp is simply not enough when 150 bhp looks like the minimum entry requirement for the class…

In isolation, though, it’s peppy enough – and there’s plenty of additional refinement compared with the older car. The Cooper revs more sweetly and cleanly, and there seem to be few holes in the power band – especially when coupled with the sweet shifting close ratio six-speed gearbox of our test car.

Out in the mountains and on its own, the lack of performance was only really felt on long climbs – and because the sweet engine likes to be revved, you find yourself using almost all of its performance as a matter of course, something that isn’t necessarily true of its more unrefined rivals. However, when tailing a Polo GTI, which was along for the ride, the way it was left behind on the straights was distinctly unfunny.

During the nine-tenths thrash, the excellent fuel consumption was something of a welcome bonus. The previous Cooper could drink with all the keenness of a thirsty alcoholic, especially when asked to sing for its supper, but this one was as good as gold, resolutely refusing to dip below 36mpg. It seems the engineers got their sums right here…

Handling and Ride

Grip and poise aplenty...
Grip and poise aplenty…

They were pretty handy too when it came to setting-up the suspension. Without putting too fine a point on it, the Cooper S is an almighty B-road machine, and proves once again that the MINI is a recipe for fun in the twisties.

The first thing that hits you is the bitey high-resolution steering set-up. Perfectly weighted and geared, there’s so much fun to be had flicking the Cooper through the tightest of bends that you’ll be posting impressive A-to-B times without even realising it. To the uninitiated, the steering feels voraciously over-geared, but within a few hundred metres, the rapid-rack seems uncannily natural. Gone is the electro-hyraulic whining of the old system, chucked out in favour of a brand new EPAS set-up – and with it, some of that car’s immaculate road feel has also been lost. But the trade-off in feel against turn-in is a worthwhile one… Let’s not also forget we’re talking in miniscule terms.

If it seems odd that we’re majoring on the steering in a section called ‘Handling and Ride’, that’s because we reckon this is where much of the MINI’s ability to pummel the opposition comes from.

It’s not the only enabler, though – because the chassis is a peach, too. There’s no roll to speak of, and levels of lateral grip are astounding – and its only when the going gets really hairy that there’s any sign of unruliness. Barrelling into a tight bend from a very high speed will have the rear end squirming in a fashion familar to all MINI drivers, but never is it alarming nor unexpected – and if you’re really brave, these back-end shenanigans can be induced with a touch of left-foot braking. Without doubt, this MINI out-drives the last one – with considerable ease.

In short, it’s a driver’s car – and if you’re in any doubt that agility makes up for its lack of power, consider that in the mountains, the Polo GTI (with a 150 bhp on tap) could be dispatched with ease once things started getting tight.


Inside, there are improvements galore, but your impressions will be dominated by the enormous central speedometer, the face of which could easily double as a Rover 800 wheeltrim. There’s an extension of the older car’s circular theme, too – with anything and everything styled to resemble a chrome ringed circle or a nicely machined ovaloid… it’s not unpleasant by any means, and you can’t accuse it of lacking character, but if this look isn’t your bag, you’ve even more reason not to go for the latest MINI.

Having said that, the build quality has taken a serious leap forwards, and you’ll be hard pushed to find the rough edges that were there before if you went looking. The driving position is also improved – although that was hardly a weak point before – a true sign that this car has been built with drivers first and foremost.

It’s a good job, too – because if you’re confined to the rear, there’s little joy. Yes, it’s larger than before, but it’s still not class competitive – although we’re not entirely convinced that this is paramount in the minds of many potential MINI owners, judging by the success of the two-seat Works GP edition.

Overall, the MINI Cooper can sit proudly at the top of the class in terms of dynamics and style, and near to the top for build quality. However, accommodation and performance are disappointing if you add some much-needed equipment to you Cooper. But don’t get us wrong – it’s an impressive achievement, and has moved the game on considerably. There are faults, but a lot less than its predecessor, and one gets the impression that MINI’s overlords in Munich wanted it that way… they wanted to tick all the boxes marked ‘Must try harder’, and have largely been successful in that aim.

However, in many ways it now feels like a small BMW to drive – and in becoming an honorary member of the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine Club’, one can’t help but wonder whether it’s lost a bit of soul in the process?

That aside, if you can afford one, buy with confidence.


At a glance…
Price as tested £14,870 (Chilli pack) CO2 emissions 139g/km
Options fitted None Fuel consumption 48.7mpg combined
Engine 1598 cc 16V four-cylinder Target Price (3 yrs) £8500
Power 118 bhp at 6000rpm Weight 1065 kg
Torque 118 lb/ft at 4250rpm We like Handling and steering more polished – slightly improved packaging.
0-62mph 9.1 secs We don’t like Outrun by all its price rivals, and same-again styling.
Top Speed 126 mph (claimed) Verdict Mightily capable – more like a baby BMW than a MINI, though…

Scores out of ten


The rivals

Ford Fiesta ST, £13,595A modern day XR2, and a helluva lot of fun to boot. The 2-litre normally aspirated engine dishes out plenty of on paper performance, but never feels quite as quick on the road. Dynamics and packaging are typically keen, and new price is tempting after discount.
Peugeot 207 GT 150, £14,345As hard as it tries, Peugeot has yet to manage to re-capture the magic of its 1980s and 1990s hot hatches. The 207 GT is civilised and accomplished, but lacks the real sparkle needed to become a class leader. For MINI Cooper money, you get the same engine, but with a turbocharger…
Volkswagen Polo GTI, £15,410 (five-door), £14,810 (three-door)It might look like a Golf GTI, but don’t kid yourself that the Polo is anywhere near as entertaining. However, the venerable 1.8T engine delivers plenty of power and torque, and road manners are more than capable enough to keep most owners happy. More of an all-rounder than a sporting superstar.

Thanks to MINI (UK) for the loan of the press car – for a full test of this car, compared with the Polo GTI, take a look at Modern MINI magazine’s January 2007 issue (back issues available through the website).

Keith Adams
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