The new three-cylinder turbocharged MINI Cooper proves to be the sweet-spot in the all-new MINI line-up.
In the metal 4/5
The familial look that so defines the MINI is as present as ever with this all-new fourth generation model. Evolutionary design is the byword then, so there are no surprises with the new car's look. Its form retains all the usual MINI cues including a large hexagonal grille and prominent headlights surrounded by chrome - and now incorporating daytime driving lights. No surprises around the rear, either. Larger tail lights, like the headlamps, are optionally offered with LED lighting. Contrasting roof and mirrors, black wheel arches etc. mark out the Cooper model.
The biggest change inside is the adoption of more conventional instrument positioning. The speedometer sits on the steering column - or above it, if optioned is a head-up display, while the large circular central display incorporates all manner of connectivity, infotainment and driver defined options. It's framed by an LED ring, which can display everything from parking distance to engine revs in a variety of colours. It's a love-or-hate it feature, which, if you're in the latter camp, can be switched off.
There's more boot volume, 51 litres of it, which helps but doesn't completely address the MINI's limited luggage space issue. The rear seats offer a bit more room, though it's still not exactly spacious back there, though the fit and finish in the interior feels in the premium league MINI is aiming for.
Driving it 4.5/5
Like the design there are no real surprises with driving the new MINI. It's a case of finessing the existing characteristics of its predecessor. So the suspension rides with a bit more composure, rolling over bumps that would have unsettled the old Cooper. That reduction in harshness is in part a result of longer travel suspension, which remains taut, but delivers finer control. There's some body roll in the bends, though the steering's weighting is nicely judged and there's even a modicum of feel through the wheel's thick rim.
Lift-off mid-bend and the MINI's line can be adjusted easily, the rear proving usefully and enjoyably mobile. Turn in is quick and grip high, while traction is improved thanks to the suspension's greater control. The biggest change under the bonnet is the reduction in cylinders from four to three, the turbocharged 1.5-litre triple only obviously so on start-up and under revs. Its smoothness and willingness to rev are particularly enjoyable and its performance notably more brisk than the car it replaces - that's underlined by a 0-62mph time of 7.9 seconds, which is over 2.0 seconds faster than its predecessor. That new engine is mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, which shifts with precision and has well-judged ratios. The pedals' spacing allows easy heel-and-toe downshifts too, so the Cooper can be a hugely entertaining car to drive. Failings are few; only the busy operation of that central screen via controls positioned awkwardly on the transmission tunnel and the flimsy feeling rotary switch for the Driving Modes (Sport, Mid and Green - subtly changing accelerator and steering settings) let it down.
What you get for your money 4/5
At €22,530 before you've ticked any options the MINI Cooper is an appealing package. There's plentiful opportunity to personalise and add to the infotainment functionality, but the basic proposition is decently equipped as standard, with 15-inch alloy wheels, push-button start with keyless entry, Bluetooth, USB connection, DAB radio and air conditioning. Options packs include Media Pack XL, Driving Assistance Pack and the self-explanatory Park Assistance Pack.
The Cooper's performance figures aren't the only ones that have improved significantly; it now uses less fuel and emits less CO2. On the official combined cycle the Cooper's figures are 62.8mpg and emissions of 105g/km.
It's not surprising that the new MINI Cooper improves on its predecessor; what is though is just how much. It feels more sophisticated on the road, refinement, comfort and quality all improving, while the drivetrain and chassis retain and build on the driver appeal that's always been core to the MINI. Add better economy and emissions, more equipment and luxury options and the MINI plant isn't likely to be quiet for the foreseeable future. It's good enough to make the Cooper S look relatively redundant, its steering in particular feeling more natural and responsive than its bigger-engined relation.