First Drive : MINI Cooper S (R56)

After five years in production, a new MINI, codenamed R56 is just about ready for launch at the Paris Motor Show this autumn.

MIKE DUFF was granted an exclusive technical drive of the new car at Holland’s Zandvoort racing circuit. He came away impressed…

Evolution, not revolution

Keen handling was a design priority in the R56...
Keen handling was a design priority in the R56...

THE motor industry normally operates under the sort of near-paranoid secrecy of a spy trying to spy on another spy. New models are jealously guarded from prying eyes throughout their development programme, put through their paces on remote test tracks in the far corners of the earth and protected from roving prototype photographers by barbed wire and brawny security guards.

The logic is simple enough. Carmakers don’t want rivals to know what they are up to – but nor are they exactly keen for punters to see a forthcoming new model ahead of time, in case it puts them off purchasing the current car.

Not this time. Because, after an impressive outbreak of throwing corporate caution to the winds, BMW has let us have a go in the almost entirely new next generation MINI – two months before it is unveiled at the Paris motor show and nearly half a year before it goes on sale.

Yes, that’s right, the new MINI. You might well be squinting at some of the photos that accompany this story at this point, with your brow furrowed as you try to spot differences. But BMW assure us that every single visible panel is different. The interior, long one of the weakest areas of the outgoing car, has also been given a very welcome makeover.

More excitingly, this MINI has also had a total mechanical overhaul. One that includes the welcome arrival of a completely new 1.6 litre engine – turbocharged in the Cooper S – plus uprated suspension and a standard six-speed gearbox.

Okay, so the cars that we were invited to drive were still wearing some disguise tape, mostly covering up badges and brightwork, but more than enough was on display to make it clear that BMW is sticking closely to the visual look that made the previous generation car such a success. And you can’t blame the company for that, considering punters have so far proved themselves happy to spend a good 30 percent more on a mid-spec MINI than they would for a conventional supermini.

You’ll need to look closely to spot the differences between the outgoing MINI and the new one. Look closely and you’ll see a slightly lower, sportier glassline complete with a longer rear window. The biggest structural changes have happened at the front of the car, where the MINI’s headlamps are now mounted to the body and shine through holes in the bonnet – promising vastly improved illumination than the infamously wobbly bonnet-integrated units of the old car.

Inside the changes are more obvious, with a higher-quality feel to the cabin and some well-designed new switchgear. A central speedometer dominates the cockpit as before, although this one is now even bigger and features integrated controls for the audio system. Underneath is a well-designed mini console for the (optional) climate control system, with toggle switches for the reading lamps and interior light now housed on the ceiling, next to the rear view mirror. Another switch up there has the neat ability to vary the colour of the interior ambient lighting all the way from orange to blue, or any point in between.

And this MINI will be far easier to spend time in, too – BMW obviously listened to criticism levelled at the current car’s poor seats and cramped driving position. Not only is there more room around the pedals for drivers with bigger feet, but the improved driver’s seat offers far better support and comfort over longer journeys.

And it’s all change under the bonnet with the arrival of an all-new 1.6 litre petrol engine to replace the crude Chrysler-built lump that powered the previous generation car. This one has been developed by BMW in conjunction with Peugeot-Citroen. The Cooper will feature a normally aspirated version and a version of BMW’s innovative “Valvetronic” throttle system, giving a total of 118 bhp. And at the top of the range a turbocharged version of the same motor loses Valvetronic but gains direct injection, producing a very healthy 173 bhp. A lower powered base version of the engine will come out later for the “One”, although its power output hasn’t been confirmed yet, and buyers will be able to choose at least one diesel, too.

Cute interior detailing...
Cute interior detailing...

Anyway, onto the main course. BMW helpfully laid on a chance for us to drive put the new car through its paces around the demanding Zandvoort circuit in the Netherlands. Surrounded by sand dunes and next to the sea, this was the location for the Dutch Grand Prix until 1985, and is still used for local racing and the occasional round of the DTM German Touring Car championship, so it should be an ideal place to put the new car through its paces.

Only the Cooper S was available to test – no great hardship, if I’m being honest – meaning that the first item on the agenda was working out what has been gained or lost through the replacement of the previous S’s charismatic supercharged engine.

The new turbo motor is massively more advanced. It features flow controlled oil and water pumps, which automatically shut down when not required in order to save energy. The turbocharger itself features what’s called “twin scroll” design, with two separate channels feeding it exhaust gas from two cylinders each to reduce turbo lag. BMW claim the net result is to keep pretty much all of the old car’s low-down grunt while improving top-end response, and the torque curve is certainly impressively flat – with the peak 177 lb/ft available all the way from 1600 rpm to 5000 rpm, with a brief “overboost” to 192 lb/ft available to aid overtaking.

Not that there’s going to be much passing today at Zandvoort as BMW’s well-organised marshals do their best to ensure every MINI has a nice, big patch of clear track in front of it. Which is a shame, really – the Cooper S feels well up to slicing and dicing – or trading some paint with one of its fellows into the circuit’s tighter turns.

First impressions are that MINI v3.0 feels pretty much exactly how I remember a MINI feeling. The engine delivers strong, linear punch all the way through the rev range. The lack of supercharger whine feels like a bit of a loss on the track, where the only aural accompaniment is now a generic four-cylinder exhaust soundtrack overlaid with the squeals of tortured rubber. But on a long motorway journey the quieter soundtrack will undoubtedly be more welcome.

The steering now uses electric power assistance, rather than the previous car’s electro-hydraulic set-up, but there’s a nice weight to work against and some very keen cornering responses. And the fun doesn’t stop once you’ve turned into the corner, with the accurate throttle pedal and neutral, adjustable chassis making it easy to make the back end tuck in by easing off the gas. The DSC stability control system works well during this kind of abuse, allowing a certain amount of slip before stepping in to try and sort everything out. And turning it off opens up a whole new world of tail-out possibilities.

Granted, if you turn up the pace to 11 then the MINI still understeers at the limit. But thanks to an (optional) limited slip differential it can also deliver phenomenal traction considering the inherent limitations of its front-wheel drive chassis.

The six-speed gearbox is less impressive. The gearchanges themselves are nice enough once you’ve got used to the slightly long throw of the shift action. But now reverse has been moved to the left of the selection pattern, next to first, and there’s no locking collar to protect it, meaning that hurried downshifts from third to second tend to get lost in the cul-de-sac that heads towards reverse until you find the knack. The brakes are brilliant – new, larger discs helping the MINI to scrub off speed like never before. Small wonder that this Cooper S is reckoned to lap the notorious Nurburgring Nordschlieffe no less than 15 seconds quicker than the previous car.

Pricing details haven’t been issued yet, although BMW hints that increases over the current car will be minimal – and offset by improvements in standard equipment. Other versions will follow, including a cabriolet and a very cool-sounding ‘Traveller’ estate version.

We look forward to driving the rest of the range – and if they can match the high standards set by the Cooper S then the continued success of what’s become Britain’s greatest automotive hit is all-but guaranteed.

Thanks to Mike Duff – an article that originally appeared on the Fifth Gear website.

Keith Adams

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