The word "mini" is an adjective, a comparative word and not a unit of measure. My colleagues in auto journalism always squeal in delight at any opportunity to point out that the Mini Cooper has grown substantially since its launch in 1959. Jokes of the Maxi Cooper and Not-So-Mini have dribbled off reviewers' fingers onto keyboards since the relaunch of the brand under BMW ownership in 2001. The latest 2014 Mini Cooper S Hardtop is the largest yet, at nearly 152 inches long. That sounds pretty substantial compared to the original car's 120-inch length. Or maybe not, when you consider it's 30 inches shorter than a current BMW 3-series. It's even 16 inches shorter than a VW GTI. Among its contemporaries, the Mini is, in fact, still decidedly mini.
With my rant out of the way, let's get down to why we're here. Mini sent over a Cooper S Hardtop for us to test and see how this entirely new package performs. About the only carryover from the R56 to the F56 model is the ability to make you giggle in a way that nothing else on the road can. The bigger platform is stiffer and more refined. The 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder has given way to the 2.0-liter unit found under the hoods of several BMW models, just turned 90 degrees east/west in the Mini. The six-speed manual transmission is still from Getrag, but reworked to handle the extra torque.
Our tester is equipped modestly and carries a sticker price of $27,595—just $3,200 more than the base price. It includes the panoramic sunroof (probably the one option we would avoid) but not Mini's new Dynamic Damping Control System. Although the standard setup is pretty good, we would recommend spending the extra $500 if you don't have plans for suspension modifications.
The 17-inch wheel option for $750 is another good buy. Even if you plan on replacing them, you can sell them later and probably make money on the deal. Sadly, the Cooper S doesn't come with a spare, which means run-flat tires, and all-seasons at that. Past experience has shown that there is almost always a big performance gain from switching to a good stuck-flat summer tire.
Although the Mini's engine has gained 25 percent more displacement over the older car, it only picks up 17 hp for a total of 189 ponies. The 207 lb-ft of torque, however, is a bump of 30 lb-ft over the 1.6 liter. It seems like Mini has gone rather conservative with the boost. Low-down torque is fat and easy underfoot. At higher revs, it feels as though the boost disappears and the power curve flattens out. We're anxious to see what a software change will do to the horsepower peak. The sound is the familiar Mini growl and will make you want to stay on the throttle more often than the EPA would like.
In a straight line, the new F56 shows a modest improvement over the previous car, with 0 to 60 mph coming up in 6.3 seconds, compared with 6.4 seconds. The quarter-mile shows off the F56's legs a little better, with a time of 14.7 seconds at 95.8 mph, as opposed to the R56's 15.0 at 91.4 mph. The new car can brag about braking as well, stopping from 60 mph in 111 feet, which is a full 6 feet shorter than the older car managed.
Minis have never been about stoplight performance, though. You buy a Mini because the straight and narrow is boring. In figure-8 testing, this Cooper S manages a respectable 0.86 g around the skidpad sections. Previous versions of the R56 Cooper S we tested were able to manage 0.83 g. But for comparison's sake, the latest GTI was able to manage an impressive 0.96 g, proving there really is something to be said for a good summer tire. The new Mini betters the older car again in total figure-8 time, putting in a 26.6-second lap, compared with the R56's 27.2. If you're wondering what it might do with some strategically chosen modifications, the 2013 John Cooper Works GP was able to fly through a lap in just 25.1 seconds, putting it into some rarefied company.
With quantitative lap data out of the way, let's get to what really matters. The new Mini still feels much like a traditional Mini. Turn-in is as quick as anything on the road; the longer wheelbase hasn't dulled reactions at all. The slightest twist of the steering wheel results in an immediate reaction from the front end.
And that front end does run the show. The rear axle follows quickly, but without any rapid yaw rotation. This is where the Mini really shows its magic. There may not be another car for sale right now that will snap into a corner like a Mini. If lane changing were an Olympic sport, the little bulldog would be on a cereal box. It will dart around like an athlete on tiptoe and shoot from direction to direction with a pinball's ferocity. However, unlike most cars that move with this urgency, once you commit to a corner the tires sink into the pavement and the Mini hunkers down. You can still dance the car around with a modulated throttle and a flick of the wheel, but stay in it and keep it smooth, and it feels like the wheelbase suddenly stretched a foot. This split personality means the Mini is just as enjoyable as a parking lot performer as it is for autocrossing, tearing up canyons or even track days.
With all that said about performance and how it still feels like a Mini, some things have changed significantly. We can argue whether that's for better or worse. The central speedometer is gone and the window switches have migrated to the door panels. The dashboard is a big step up in terms of quality and design. The rest of the interior, while immediately recognizable as a Mini, now feels more BMW-ish. You can read that as either classier or more expensive. And complain about the bigger size all you want, but my 2-year-old, my wife and myself certainly didn't have a bad thing to say when we all fit comfortably on a weekend road trip with bags and associated child accessories.
The Mini has always felt a bit more premium than its Japanese rivals—the gap is now greater. In terms of driving, the Mini still delivers everything you expect in terms of great turn-in, good power and driver confidence. As for the rest of the package, you now get a nicer environment for enjoying those traditional dynamics.