In previous generations, if you were looking for the best BMW MINI to drive, you’d work your way up the price list; select ‘Cooper S’, add the Chilli Pack and perhaps top that off with the John Cooper Works kit if you were feeling particularly flush.
Cooper Cooper S £15,300 £18,655 1.5-litre 3-cylinder 2.0-litre 4-cylinder 134 bhp 189 bhp 162 lb-ft (170 lb-ft on overboost) 206 lb-ft (221 lb-ft on overboost) 0-62mph: 7.9 sec 0-62mph: 6.8 sec Top Speed: 130 mph Top Speed: 146 mph Economy: 62.8 mpg Economy: 49.6 mpg CO2: 105 g/km CO2: 133 g/km Weight: 1,085 kg Weight: 1,160 kg
I should know, we’ve owned two R53 cars – a Cooper S and JCW Cooper S – and currently have a R56 Cooper and R55 Clubman Cooper S in our driveway. For all their obvious faults, the fun-factor always improved by adding more.
One thing that didn’t improve was its standing against its key competitors. Despite the ‘go-kart’ feel described in the brochure it neither steered the best, cornered the best or made the most enjoyable progress along a twisty b-road.
But with the Mk3, nearly all of those flaws have now been exhumed.
How do they drive?
Where the electric power steering on the outgoing car feels artificial with an unsettling degree of kick-back over broken surfaces, the new car steers more naturally, much like the hydraulic setups of old.
Overall both Cooper and Cooper S flow through corners like the best in their class with a balance and fluidity that’s been absent from both previous generation cars. But it’s the 3-cylinder Cooper that really stands out, perhaps because of its 75 kg lighter kerb weight.
It turns more crisply, feels lighter on the nose and remains more balanced as corner-speeds rise. The Cooper S by comparison feels a little stodgy, less agile and less inviting to push on.
The revelation doesn’t stop with its dynamics.
BMW’s new 3-cylinder engine is a ‘peach’ – characterful, punchy and more enjoyable to drive than the 2.0-litre four in the Cooper S. Despite the shortfall in power and torque, the Cooper feels almost as quick as its pricier sibling, and yet revs more freely and feels more fun to drive quickly with a uniquely sonorous voice befitting of its demi-six design.
To be fair, the Cooper S is of course quicker but driving them back-to-back made me question whether the extra £3,355 was worth it.
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The previous generation auto could feel a little clunky and inert, but the new one is close enough to a good dual-clutch transmission, especially the sports-automatic, which comes with steering-wheel mounted paddles, reduced shift times and rev-matching on downshifts.
The six-speed manual is a £1,270 cheaper option (in the Cooper), but resurrects that old Mini bugbear; a clutch with an unforgiving bite-point – the shift quality is fine, but the concentration required to take off smoothly means I’d choose the sport-auto box every time.
Should I buy one?
The Mini has always been a compromised choice, more so because of the way BMW try and engineer in a ‘sporty-feel’ which at times makes it perform less well than it should. The Mk3 is the first that requires no excuses, it’s a thoroughly well-balanced car that’s easy to steer, rides remarkably well and features the best engine currently fitted to a small hatch.
My one reservation now is which one to buy. Looks-wise, the scoops and aerodynamic features of the Cooper S win hands-down, but dynamically the Cooper now represents the sweet-spot in the range.
That’s a conundrum for those of us who would naturally chose the top model in the range, but buyers of the new Mini Cooper are in for a most pleasant surprise.