Above is our R56 JCW, its a 2009 running KW ClubSport suspension, Akrapovic exhaust with carbon/ titanium trims, a Manic Motorsport intercooler, Manic Motorsport De Cat with bespoke Stage 2 Manic software....and thats about it. Oh, and flames, big big flames on upshift/ overrun :)
The first thing you notice with the R56 is that it is much larger than the R53, it looks more robust. Its another step away from the Mini look and what the original Mini stood for. This is something new, a taste of things to come...
Get in the R56 and it feels bigger, some of the nasty plastic remains but on the whole its a nicer place to be. It feels more German, more function and a lot less in the way of rattles. EU crash regulations may have made it larger, the new 1.6 Turbo engine may have made it more efficient, but on the whole the cabin feels like a Mini. The centre dial has grown too large but the optional Media housed within it has come on leaps and bounds.
BMW still did not have a 4 Cylinder suitable for this car, so it opted to develop the Prince engine with the PSA group. This was more cost effective, met emissions and could be developed further in later life with the LCI models. In my mind, that was the switchover point. From English N14 Mini made by a German company ( From American and English parts). To an EU N18 MINI, made by the English in Oxford, by the German's using a French engine.
Straight away on the road you can tell its vastly different to the R53, its not as precise on turn in but it holds its line much better overall. Understeer is still present and coming onto the throttle a little early on a wet road, with the extra low down torque from the turbo'd motor, will bring the over sensitive traction control into play, so its best to switch that off straight away in an R56.
Although its not so 'go kart' like the R53 is, it more than makes up for it at higher speed, feeling much more stable. No longer do you have to wring its neck either, 3000 RPM upwards and its ready to go in an instant. It will pull clean to the red line, this JCW will see off some much bigger German cousins from the lights, on country lanes its losing most things. The brakes feel better, it needs it too because you can cover ground very quickly in this car. legend has it that the original English Police Mini's would keep pace with the larger engined Jaguars used by the Criminal gangs. Once again this Spirit is awakened and it will see off all but the very expensive Jaguars. On a Country lane, those too of course :)
Other things to note over the R53. The Harmon Kardon is not so low frequency, it loses a bit of Bass, but gains some clarity. The Recaro seats are not as good, ( unless you get the hard back ones). The lights are a big improvement, visibility is better on the whole and you can fit a 12" Subway meal deal in the boot now, not just the cookie and a packet of crisps like the R53.
For me, the biggest change is the engine though, the turbo motor shows up in other cars, like the RCZ R producing around 280BHP. That level of power in a MINI makes it faster than any MINI ever sold from the factory, including the F56 JCW Challenge Edition. This motor is really tunable too. ( In the right hands). Software only upgrade is now a viable option. Suitable for the modder wanting a moderate increase, all the way up to the customer who wants a 400 BHP Meth breathing dyno warrior. Its all attainable with the R56 1.6 Turbo..
As well as the Black R56 JCW, we are lucky enough to have the Cooper S R56 above. This car is Laser Blue and has a fully built motor, reworked head, Manic Hybrid Turbo, custom Manic exhaust, custom Manic intercooler, KW ClubSport suspension and a ranch full of horses under the bonnet/ hood. Its crazy fast, high end performance car fast. For some reason, Ive found not many people mind getting smoked by a MINI. Everyone likes them, they are the underdog and have always been considered that way, in a world of bigger is better. People like to see them win, racing/ motorsport is a part of the MINI brand history, every Mini Challenge event we attend is testament to that. The passion is second to none.
So, its to the scores. 74/100 to beat from the R53...
Exterior 8/10 It looks more robust but not as pretty
Interior 8/10 Plastics improved, its starting to become a premium car
Power 9/10 A lot more usable power and torque at all RPM
Weight 7/10 Still trim but starting to get a muffin top
Handling 8/10 Stock its good, with ClubSports its fantastic
Sound 9/10 Guy Fawkes would love it :)
Practicality 8/10 Its a 2+2 still but the extra space matters
Tune-ability 9/10 The turbo motor... the tuners delight :)
Cost to run 7/10 EU rules and PSA small engine knowledge cut running costs
Smile factor 9/10 Faster, more efficient, more tunable, more reliable etc etc
Total score 82/100.
As great a car as the R53 is, ( And it really is). The R56 slightly beats it in all departments in my opinion, just about. Sure its not as pretty, its not quite so go kart like either. However, the xtra oomph from the turbo motor, coupled with the more premium feel and lower running costs push the R56 ahead. Media options are more like its German BMW cousins too, its a car that has become easy to live with on a day to day basis. Don't get me wrong, all Mini's are fun and worth owning, but they are not always 'easy to live with' as most Generation 1 BMW Mini owners will tell you.
Technology and design progress win this time, but will the F56 follow the trend? Or will EU regulations make it too difficult to make a true MINI hatch worthy of the badge? Is the R56 the pinnacle, the best of the Modern BMW MINI? Next time, we get the F56 verdict and the crown of Oxfords finest will be decided, for now...