Mini’s middle-ground hot hatch is fun, but keen drivers will get more from a Ford Fiesta ST
Other hot hatchbacks come and go, but since BMW relaunched the Mini two decades ago, the retro hatch has been a constant fixture on the market. Only occasionally has it topped the table in group tests, but the Cooper S in particular has long been a fun, accessible and desirable alternative to the mainstream.
Now in its third generation and past its mid-life facelift, the current Cooper S is quite a different beast from those early, supercharged cars. The market too has moved on, with less competition these days, so the fact the Cooper S exists at all is worthy of celebration.
The current car might be large by Mini standards but it’s among the more compact superminis, while its retro styling hides technology, such as LED headlights and a comprehensive infotainment system, that make it feel surprisingly grown-up.
And naturally, there’s a good chassis too. Mini’s particular brand of tack-sharp steering and waspish agility are no longer unique these days, but they do mean the Mini DNA remains intact. We’d still take a Ford Fiesta ST for driving thrills, but to live with day to day, the Mini still has the edge.
Engine and Transmission
While 1.6-litre (and more recently 1.5-litre) engines have become the norm for hot hatch superminis, and indeed formed the basis of the last two generations of Cooper S, the current model instead uses a 2.0-litre unit.
Naturally, this is an economies of scale choice as much as it is to boost performance – the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder ‘B48’ power plant is used widely throughout the BMW empire in various states of tune, from this Mini through various 3-series and, amusingly, the four-cylinder variant of the Toyota Supra.
But it does mean extracting the S’s 140kW output is no great hardship when there are 225kW variants floating around the group. Likewise, the larger unit is good for torque; 300Nm of it, from a low 1250rpm, and while a 1205kg kerb weight is towards the upper end of this class, it’s not enough to hold the car back too badly.
Two transmissions are offered: a six-speed manual, and a seven-speed dual-clutch. Both drive the front wheels alone, and the latter naturally offers gearchange paddles behind the steering wheel. The behaviour of the engine, and in the auto’s case, the engine and transmission, is adjusted depending on the driving mode selected – the Cooper S has Green, Mid, and Sport options, with a corresponding change in throttle response and gearshift behaviour.
Performance and 0-100km/h time
Modest the Cooper S’s 140kW may be, but a sub-seven to 100km/h – 6.8 for the three-door, 6.9sec for the five-door – is nothing to be sniffed at. Nor is a 235km/h top speed; remember when only very high-performance cars used to knock on the door of 240km/h?
On paper the Mini might look brisk, but its on-road performance doesn’t feel quite as spicy as you’d maybe expect of a 2.0-litre supermini. Part of that is a particularly linear power delivery that, once boost starts to build beyond 1500rpm, seems to provide the same rate of acceleration all the way to the red line. And since the engine never feels particularly happy butting the limiter, you end up driving somewhere in the mid-range.
It’s definitely a quick car, and the healthy mid-range makes for easy overtaking performance. It’s at its best operated with the standard six-speed manual gearbox too, where a reasonably satisfying, notchy gearshift can be stirred around for a suitable ratio. The pedals are well arranged for heel-and-toe when you’re coming back down the ’box too, and in Sport mode there’s an auto-blip function to make things a little easier. The auto ’box isn’t quite as satisfying.
Just as the engine’s not at its most enthusiastic towards the redline, nor is it a particularly great engine to listen to. There’s a hint of induction honk at certain revs, and some exhaust noise just about filters through, but it’s all a little synthetic.
Slowing down again can be good fun though – not everyone gets brake pedal feel right, but Mini is a company that does. The pedal is firm underfoot and the stoppers have good power and minimal fade.
What’s it like to drive?
Minis have long been towards the top of the class for agility and fun. That remains unchanged with the current model, though it’s not without fault. That it remains one of the more entertaining hot hatches in this class on a twisty road is as much to do with the current paucity of rivals as it is the car’s inherent talents.
Things the Mini does well include steering response, agility, body control and a general sense of being ‘up for it’ – it’s the kind of car that, if it were to serve as your first taste of a hot hatch, would probably snare you as a hot hatch buyer for life.
It’s fun to drive at a brisk pace, feeling responsive and engaging and offering enough performance to punch hard out of corners, and good balance that offers some rotation without feeling edgy. With a compact body and good visibility it also feels at home on Britain’s B-roads in a way some larger hatches do not.
What it lacks is the same sense of focus that you get in something such as a Ford Fiesta ST, which feels perhaps less accessible initially but has a higher level of ability to match your own confidence and ability. We know the chassis is capable if given the right parts – the limited-run Mini Challenge demonstrated that – but as standard, a Cooper S doesn’t go as far as some. And while the steering is quick, it’s almost cynically darty, while it’s also a little short on off-centre feedback.
On the plus side, it’s among the more mature hatches, so ride and refinement are pretty good. The ride can feel a little bouncy over some surfaces, but in general it isolates you from the road surface and has enough control not to feel out of its depth on more challenging roads.