Mini Cooper S F56 Long-Term Review
The third generation of the 'new' Mini is the brand's most stylish and capable yet to don the famous Cooper S badge.
It’s not uncommon to see businesses changing direction to align with the current trends in the market. Out of all brands on the market, I’d have thought Mini would be exempt from this shift since people generally associate the brand with one single vehicle. Under the rule of BMW since 2000 it initially started out that way, with only their standard hatchback on sale until 2007. From this point on, though, BMW started introducing new models to the range like the classic ‘Clubman’ name, the Countryman, the Paceman and the Roadster.
For me, this has somewhat spoiled Mini’s identity a little. From my personal point of view, the modernised Mini styling only works on the two-door hatchback and anything else looks too swollen and awkward. The worst thing is that it’s not just Mini who are opting into this trend, and the roads are now awash with small, so-called ‘retro’ crossovers that share a name with legendary marques. The Fiat 500X, the Ford Puma… hell, Ford are even at it with the new Mustang Mach-E. Seriously?
Let’s not allow this to distract us from the point of this article, though, which is to assess the car that I’ve had the pleasure of owning for the last eighteen months – the two-door Mini Cooper S F56. Before choosing the Mini I had owned a Mark-7 Ford Fiesta ST which will go down as one of the best hot hatches of its generation, so I’ve got a great foundation to compare the Cooper S. If it can get anywhere close to the Fiesta as a complete package, then it’s done pretty well.
I can start immediately with good news, which is that it looks just as good as the Fiesta aesthetically, if not better. Looks are always subjective, of course, but the aggressive body kit and retro feel suits this particular car down to the ground. My example came with plenty of spec including the John Cooper Works styling pack, giving it beautiful 17-inch alloys, branded scuff plates and steering wheel, panoramic sunroof and boot spoiler. I would advise buyers to look for the heated leather upholstery, Media XL pack and Xenon headlights in any purchase, whether it be new or used. Style is always subjective but these three valuable options helps make the Mini feel premium, much more so than the Fiesta ST ever felt in the highest spec.
The Mini range has BMW’s famed iDrive system in the options list, which is absolutely brilliant. It’s much simpler to move through the menus and select the options than any of its immediate rivals, though it doesn’t have a touchscreen. Personally I prefer that, as the joystick and dash-mounted buttons are easier to manage on the move. The sat-nav is large and simple to use, with good graphics and the ability to trace letters on the joystick for ease of use.
The older versions of the ‘new’ Mini had the speedometer mounted in the middle of the dash like the original, but the F56 is the first to shift this behind the steering wheel. It still manages to maintain the classic Mini feel by incorporating the media package in the central circular structure. The quality of the materials are good on the most part and everything feels well-built and well-designed – I haven’t had anything break except for an infotainment glitch, which was solved through a simple software update that I downloaded online. I personally think it has the best interior in its class.
On the inside at least, that’s where the positives end. The driving position and view out of the front took a lot of getting used to, particularly because of the large pillars and upright curved windscreen. I don’t dislike it, but the Fiesta was definitely more user-friendly when it came to visibility. The Mini has slowly grown as it adheres to modern requirements and safety regulations, but there is so much less space compared to rivals. For what is a pretty small car, it’s also not the easiest to park with its big pillars blocking your view and the wing mirrors ominously seeming to make aligning with a parking space difficult when reversing. Perhaps that’s just me, but I found it took a lot of adapting.
My Fiesta was a little longer and wider overall but the Mini’s wheelbase is actually slightly longer – particularly in two-door trim, I can’t help but think they’d have been better off adding a bit more metal to improve its usability. I’m over 6 feet tall so perhaps this was a major oversight by me when I bought the car, but the back seats are unusable, the boot is tiny and cabin storage spaces are small and scarce. Don’t buy this car if you’re carrying bikes or a couple of sets of golf clubs, because they simply won’t fit.
Strictly speaking, though, those details are blatantly obvious to a customer on the forecourt. Let’s not forget that it’s just a supermini after all, so assuming you’ve accepted these shortfalls and are still interested, things do start to look up again. Out on the road, the Mini strikes a perfect balance between sportiness and comfort, agility and composure, playfulness and maturity. This was always my biggest downfall with certain rivals of the Cooper S and particularly the Fiesta ST, that over time it wore you out and was inappropriate for poor road surfaces, but the Mini handles this very well. Some rivals are stronger when it comes to driveability and raw capability, but the Mini still has plenty of potential and is much easier to live with. If the Fiesta ST was a feisty Alsatian unfed for a few days, the Mini is a soft but lively Labrador puppy.
The F56 has the largest engine ever fitted to a Mini, with its 2.0 litre 4-cylinder petrol pumping out 190bhp and 207lb-ft of torque. My car joins that with a 6-speed manual gearbox, though a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic has been available since 2018. The manual gearbox in the Fiesta was better for me, but the Mini’s isn’t bad. I feel like it has a slight offset which takes a little getting used to, still catching me out on occasion when driving hard. The throw is quite long but precise, while I find the narrower gears in the Fiesta added to the driving experience but efficiency is compromised compared to the Mini. The engine produces a nice tone, but it’s not as loud as I would like it to be from the cabin. Perhaps a softer note aligns the car more with its grown-up persona, but a few more decibels would have been nice without having to opt for a new exhaust. The pops and bangs in Sport mode add to the excitement slightly, but it still leaves me wanting more. The drivetrain has been completely reliable thus far and, despite being a 2.0 litre, it remains one of the most efficient engines in its class.
The suspension rides nicely and the car isn’t flustered by uneven road surfaces. Sound proofing is pretty good too, but as I said earlier this does make it feel a little too toned down compared to rivals. The Cooper S comes with three driving modes named Eco Pro, Normal and Sport. As a fan of driving I never use Eco Pro – it gives good economy but the throttle response is terrible, as if the engine is a bit confused that you’re using that mode at all. The term ‘smiles per gallon’ becomes relevant here, because I’d rather sacrifice a bit of fuel (in what is a pretty economical car anyway) to have a lot more fun.
There now lies a bit of a problem, where the perfect compromise of settings for maximum fun lies somewhere between Normal and Sport. There’s no way to adjust settings for a custom layout either, so what you see is what you get. Normal mode has a nice weight of steering but the response is lethargic, while in Sport it is direct but a little too heavy. If you leave the car in Normal then the car feels nice on initial turn-in, but steering feedback is hard to predict and the weak throttle mapping means you need a lot of input to accelerate out the other side. It doesn’t exactly breed confidence, so you’re best sticking with Sport and putting up with the weighty steering. It feels like there’s some play in the brake pedal when you first drive the car, but there isn’t. It just takes more pressure to get noticeable braking action than you’re perhaps used to – it’s in no way unsafe, but it is a bit abnormal.
All-in-all, though, I think it’s a pretty good all-rounder. I don’t think it does any one thing exceptionally well like others in its class, but it does everything to a good standard. It’s more like a large city car than a supermini in terms of practicality, but it drives in a much more grown-up manner than other similarly priced hot hatchbacks. The second-hand market is full of used Cooper S’s with low mileage and you’re likely to find a decent 3-year-old example for about £14,000. That might creep up a bit as you look for better spec, but it’s not a bad buy for that kind of money. If you’re buying, look out for problems around the doors and seals, as the frameless design and shape of the door can cause problems through general wear and tear. There’s a lot of sharp edges and crevasses in the designs of the bumpers on a Cooper S, so make sure to carefully look for any signs of damage around these areas as it might not be immediately obvious. The engine is chain-driven so be wary if you hear a particularly noticeable 'ticking' noise at idle.