BMW decides it is time for a midlife facelift of the majority of the MINI range, except... hold on! Haven't we already had an update of the third-generation model? So precisely what is happening here, and why?
In the Metal:
No, you're not going mad. The third-generation MINI, codenamed F55 (5-Door), F56 (three-door Hatch) and F57 (Convertible), launched way back in 2014. And it has been updated once already, gaining the controversial Union flag rear lights and a whole host of other sundry revisions in 2018. So here we are, in 2021, looking at another facelift. And bearing in mind the MINI range barely changes aesthetically from generation to generation, you might be wondering why the marque would bother.
To clarify, as of right now this round of revisions applies only to the aforementioned three-door Hatch, the MINI 5-Door and the swanky Convertible lines, plus the newer MINI Electric; both the Countryman crossover and the Clubman estate are otherwise unaffected for the moment. Although they're sure to follow suit with their siblings in the coming months.
Anyway, what you're looking for is a larger, reshaped hexagonal grille at the front, the deletion of any fog lights in the MINI's chin (they're now incorporated into the round headlights on all models), a pair of vertical air vents in the outer edges of the front bumper and - perhaps the biggest giveaway - the body-coloured bar running horizontally through said radiator grille and behind the number plate.
Except... we were handed a 5-Door Cooper S with the optional John Cooper Works kit, which deletes the vertical air vents and the body-coloured bar, so it's hard to tell what has changed. Basically, MINI aficionados will be easily able to spot this is a third-gen 'LCI II' facelift from a great distance just by gazing at its geometric shapes; for the rest of us, you'll need to look at the registration to work out if it's a 'new-new' MINI or not.
There are minor detail changes at the back, too, such as a slim LED foglamp, and obviously there are new colours and wheel designs to further broaden customer options. A graded roof feature goes (from front to rear) through two shades of blue to black and MINI says, due to the environmental processes involved on the production line, no two roofs specified in this way will be exactly the same - meaning each one is utterly unique in its pattern.
Inside, an 8.8-inch infotainment screen and an (optional) five-inch digital instrument cluster (already seen on the Electric and John Cooper Works GP models) can be specified, while some minor tidying up of the switchgear and air vents has been enacted. But it's all pretty much the same as before: a beautifully stylish cabin made of solid structures and quality materials, liberally applied with lots of showy touches as befits a MINI, but rather poorly packaged. The Hatch and Convertible models are best thought of as strict 2+2s only, while even this 5-Door is not the most commodious in the back.
In essence, if you're wondering why we've got to another facelift on this MINI, it's because the company has announced it will be the first brand within the BMW Group to go completely electric by 2030. There will be no new combustion engines developed for any MINI after 2025, and so launching an all-new, fourth-gen MINI family at this stage probably wouldn't be the wisest idea on the part of the marque. Furthermore, it claims the Hatch, 5-Door, Convertible and Electric models continue to sell strongly across the world (even in the rubbish year, which was 2020, MINI shifted more than 292,000 units) and so the usual car lifecycle - where slowing showroom numbers necessitate a model's total overhaul every six or seven years - does not apply to the MINI. This all means the Mk3 MINI will now be on sale until at least 2023, meaning it will be a decade old as a product by then.
Nothing has changed under the bonnet. MINI got rid of the diesels in a surreptitious fashion in 2020 and so it's either petrol or electric propulsion for your 2021 model year car. The Electric is only available as a three-door Hatch, so anyone wanting a 5-Door like this or a Convertible has to have a petrol engine. There are more modest 1.5-litre, three-cylinder options available, but what we've driven here is the 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit, which means Cooper S badging.
Intriguingly, since the update in 2018, the peak power of the Cooper S has slipped back. It no longer makes 192hp, instead delivering just 178hp as a result of emissions-reg-satisfying changes to the exhaust system. However, maximum torque remains at 280Nm and the on-paper performance stats are exactly the same as they were before, so you don't really lose anything as a result of that 14hp deficit.
One thing that has changed is the suspension. On certain models, the frequency selective dampers (FSDs) are sold as Intelligent Adaptive Suspension, but these are a mechanical system, not one you can alter in the cabin with a button. They aim to offer smoother ride comfort when the suspension is put under greater loads, while maintaining the oft-quoted 'go-kart feel' of MINI handling.
This would be fine, except we kind of think that go-kart feel has been eroded from the MINI over many years through the nagging winds of increased refinement. In trying to make the car ever quieter, ever more plush and ever more premium - presumably to be able to charge more for it - the playful nature of the Cooper S has gone. It's fine enough in the corners, with good body control and an eager front end, but feel-free, stodgy steering controlled through a too-fat wheel and a rear axle that positively refuses to get involved in the action mean this is no longer a car that puts a massive great grin on your face when the right roads present themselves. It also seems to hunt out cambers more readily than we can remember in the past, which makes piloting it down a rucked-up back lane a more frenetic, untidy affair than it has been previously. OK, it's still more fun than a Volkswagen Polo GTI, granted, but that's a pretty low dynamic bar to have to clear. As hot hatches go, the Cooper S feels no more than tepid-to-warm these days.
You can rectify this with the increasingly playful 231hp John Cooper Works, of course, but that powertrain is not available to 5-Door buyers; the 178hp Cooper S is the ceiling here. Now we will freely admit that on the flip side of the kinematic coin, the longer-wheelbase MINI is a fairly civilised operator for urban driving and when out on the motorway, cruising reasonably comfortably, and minimising both wind roar and tyre chatter to a notable degree. But those special dampers hardly make it limo-like when the road surfaces deteriorate beneath its 18-inch Pirelli P Zero tyres, as you still get jostled about by the MINI from time to time and are also subjected to abrupt vertical movements in the suspension over faster crests.
What you get for your Money:
A full pricelist for Ireland is not available at the time of writing, but we do know that the 5-Door range will start at €23,135 and equipment lists are pretty generous across the board. A Cooper S like our test car comes with a whole host of kit as standard and it obviously has one of the best cabins in this class, and indeed a few classes above the MINI's station - so when you also factor in strong residual values then the 5-Door starts to make a lot of sense to fashion-conscious buyers.
It's not as if the MINI needed massive remedial work, but with a few more years on sale ahead of it, the marque decided another moderate refresh would keep it, well, fresh as we move further into the mid-2020s. It's a fine car all round but the 5-Door isn't the prettiest MINI of them all, while the zesty driving experience you used to get at the wheel of the Cooper S has been dulled over time in favour of grown-up manners. There are better options in the class, but, if you always loved the MINI, you'll love the new one just the same as ever.