Is the new MINI Cooper S the last of the authentic hot hatches? With the Ford Fiesta ST no longer in production, and the excellent Hyundai i20N withdrawn from sale, the MINI stands alone, the last torchbearer of the small, feisty hatch. To organise a group test with this car, you’ll have to call upon a Ford Puma ST crossover or dive into the world of EVs.
I have to admit, when I first saw the press release for the new MINI Cooper S, I thought I was looking at the cooking Cooper. I had to double-take, then check again that it wasn’t a typo. A slip of the finger. But zoom in, squint and you’ll see it on the grill, that little squiggle of an ‘S’ in red which confirms the pictures attached were indeed the genuine article.
Gone are all the hallmarks of the S that established an instantly recognisable hierarchy. Yes, the bonnet scoop has been redundant since the top mount intercooler of the supercharged R53 made it a necessity, but it still captured the imagination and attention of buyers. Also gone is the fuel filler cap, and moving to the rear, they’ve even binned off the signature central twin exit exhaust! At least the black stripes around the wheel arches have been retained, unlike on the EV.
So why has MINI tried so hard to disguise the Cooper S as a base model? Why is the firm not shouting about this being the end of an era? Alignment is the answer, and not of the tracking variety. MINI’s bigwigs have a split strategy for the new generation car as we first reported last year. On one side, you have the EV platform, which shares its underpinnings with the Ora Funky Cat. On the petrol-powered side of the fence, the older F56 generation lives on, only reskinned to look as close as possible to the EV. When you understand the design language for the EV is “charismatic simplicity”, you can appreciate how the new Cooper S looks so meek.
It’s all been done to make it look like the EV in showrooms and pull the wool over the eyes that this petrol version is still the same car, not a new model. It's like James Bond in You Only Live Twice having suspect surgery to look Japanese so he can go undercover.
The launch colour hasn’t helped, being the same hue as a bar of flowery soap just underlines the new car’s lack of aggression. A visit to the configurator restores a little faith, whereupon you realise you can specify a MINI Cooper S Sport (a Sport-Sport?) for an extra £2,500 which returns some of the err, sportiness to the design with an extra pair of intakes in the lower front bumper, and a different five-spoke alloy wheel design. This must-have hikes the price of the S to a not inconsiderable £31,035 before options - GR Yaris territory.
Worse still, this JCW embroidered styling pack is available for the base cooper too for the same outlay, and once specified, you can only choose from four colours; Midnight Black, Nanuq White, Legend Grey or Chili Red II. No silver, no blue, and no British Racing Green. If you desire a brighter colour, you’ll need to untick the Sport pack.
Moving inside, the steering wheel has developed elephantiasis. I’m not entirely against the trend for ever-fatter steering wheels, but those thumb grips are something Dumbo would be proud of. The interior also benefits from the new, giant OLED circular screen from the EV, which looks like a device you’d expect to find aboard one of the tripods from 1953’s War of the Worlds movie adaption. The new MINI drive/experience modes have also migrated across, accessed via a toggle switch. By all accounts, the interior is much nicer in person, so we’ll reserve judgement for now.
What else grinds my gears about the new Cooper S? Apologies for the cheesy Segway but it's the gearbox. The F56 ‘LCI-LCI’ is now only offered with an 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. And if you want that transmission to come with paddle shifters, then you'll need to specify the aforementioned Sport trim. A decision no doubt dictated by emissions, but a heart-breaking one no less. MINI claims the Cooper S will return 44 mpg and the 156 bhp Cooper is capable of 47 mpg (depending upon trim). Where the gear lever used to be, you'll now find space for wireless charging big enough to fit two smart phones.
Surely there must be some good news? Well, there is a small power increase, from 189 bhp to 204 bhp. The weight is also admirably kept in check despite the DCT, with MINI quoting 1,285 kg (DIN) for the S. This means strong performance of 0-62 in 6.6s and a top speed of 150 mph. The Cooper is punchy too, hitting the benchmark in a strong 7.7s whilst running out of puff at 139 mph.
I keep mentioning the 156 bhp Cooper alongside the S, because equipped with a three-cylinder, turbocharged engine, it now appears to be the pick of the range given it represents great value with prices starting from £23,135. Just remember to not get carried away with the options. For now, you can only order a three-door, although the five door is coming. Deliveries are set to commence in spring.
One hopes MINI is saving all its firepower and aggression for the forthcoming John Cooper Works variant, which has been caught testing with a large, single-exit central exhaust. As a former R53 JCW and F56 JCW owner, I hope the final ICE MINI variant is snuffed out with the torch burning at its brightest.