Do you want to know the deepest, darkest secrets of the future of the BMW brand? With the possible exception of the i3 and i8, these secrets don't lie under the hood of any car with a roundel badge; they're hidden within this guy, the 2014 Mini Cooper. No, seriously.
It's going to be hard to avoid size-related puns when I write about the all-new Cooper. Yes, its name is Mini, which implies that it's small, but this one is more grown up than ever, both figuratively and literally. It's also a really big deal for the BMW brand, as its mechanical parts will underpin a huge family of new cars, both Minis and Bimmers.
Okay, so how is it to actually drive? Pretty damn good, it turns out. Both Cooper and Cooper S are quick, handle great, have a vastly improved interior and ride quality over the outgoing car, and boast a very impressive array of technology at a good price.
But the new car's size increase, as well as its newfound maturity, means it's not quite as tossable and ridiculous and prone to shenanigans as its smaller predecessors.
(Full disclosure: Mini needed me to drive the 2014 Cooper so badly that they flew me to Puerto Rico and put me up in an obscenely fancy hotel on the beach. I was just happy to not be on the frozen-ass East Coast anymore. I would have done this drive in a Zetas-controlled shantytown in Mexico if it meant warmer weather. I should also note that I own a 2008 Cooper S, which I rather like quite a bit, and I asked to go on this drive so I could compare the new one to my car.)
Few cars have had an evolution as strange and fascinating as the Mini Cooper. It started life as Alec Issigonis' ultra-tiny, ultra-efficient car, and then at the start of the last decade it was reborn as a sport-oriented premium hatchback that survived BMW's ill-fated and bizarre marriage to the Rover Group, may British Racing God rest its soul.
Over the years BMW has grown the Mini lineup to include convertibles, two-seat coupes, and even small crossovers — with extremely mixed results at times — but Mini has always kind of been out there on its own, doing its own thing with its own engines and platforms.
Not anymore! BMW has channeled its inner Bun B and told Mini, "Baby you been rollin' solo, time to get down with the team!" The new Cooper is now integral to BMW's future products.
Everything is new on the new Cooper. New transmissions, new engines, new interior, new chassis, and new electrics. It rides on an entirely new front-wheel drive platform called UKL that will underpin the next generation of Mini models and some BMWs, starting with a four-door Cooper and the 2-Series Active Tourer.
Yes, BMW is going front-drive, get over it. Frankly it's amazing they lasted this long, given the way fuel economy standards lord over everything carmakers do these days.
And for the first time ever, the Cooper's engines are all-Bimmer, all the time. Gone are the previous motors co-developed with Chrysler and PSA Peugeot Citroën. Now there's a 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine and a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, both with a BMW TwinPower twin-scroll turbo. That three-cylinder will go into the BMW i8 hybrid supercar, and the engineers heavily implied the new four-cylinder could see future duty in cars like the 320i or 328i.
This is why it makes sense that more than ever, the Cooper now drives like a small BMW. The first-generation R53 Cooper felt the most British, and this one feels the most German. (This was made painfully obvious by the fact that, despite the Coopers present at the launch decked out in the Union Jack flag, every engineer I met was a dude named Fritz or Klaus.)
Let's get the size thing out of the way first. The new car is larger in every dimension than the R56 Cooper it replaces. It's 4.5 inches longer, 1.7 inches wider, 0.3 inches taller and has a longer wheelbase. And it's 100 to 150 pounds heavier, depending on the model.
How did that happen? Two reasons, according to Mini engineers: to add more safety features and because their customers asked for a Cooper with more space. The last one doesn't make too much sense to me. The car's small size is one of the things that appeals to me most, but I must be in the minority in this.
To be fair, the 2014 Cooper is still a small car by modern standards, and every car is bigger than it was a decade ago. It's just harder for Mini to get away with this because small size is both the name of their brand and the entire point of the original Issigonis-designed car. It's still smaller than, say, a Volkswagen Golf, so it has that going for it.
Styling wise, it's hard to tell the difference between the old car and this one unless you look very closely. The general shape and details are the same, but the front fascia, tail lamps, side badges and other details are different, and it generally looks a bit more rounded, but it's still very clearly a Mini Cooper. People are still going to know what it is when they see it. Why mess with that kind of instant brand recognition?
Personally, I like the base Cooper's front end over the S's. The chrome horizontal bars and lack of big rectangular "dimples" on either side of the front intercooler make it look less, I don't know, scream-facey, if you catch my drift. The Cooper is a bit more understated, more traditional. I think it works better here.
It's a huge improvement over the old car on the inside. Lots of the interior quirks hated by Americans — the giant, center-mounted speedometer, window buttons on the center console, stuff like that — are now gone. The layout of buttons and switches is much more intuitive than past cars.
The new wheel-mounted spedometer is super easy to read, and the Cooper S I drove also had a nice heads-up display screen that showed me you how fast I was going. Still, a few interior quirks remain; the tachometer to the left of the speedo now feels like kind of an afterthought, and the gas gauge to the right isn't the most clear thing ever, either. But there are good quirks, too! I like the big LED light bar around the infotainment screen that changes colors when the car does different things and the bright red stop/start switch.
Most importantly, the overall quality is vastly better than the ones in the outgoing Cooper. The cheap, hard, rattly plastics are mostly gone, replaced with soft-touch materials everywhere. It's definitely more grown up, more BMW-ish, but still full of that unique Mini character.
Also: I kind of fell in love with the woven gray cloth seats on the Cooper that featured leather accents. To put it simply, they look classy as fuck. I want them on my car. I want them in my house. I want them inside me.
At the same time, the inside of the new Cooper is where the size increase becomes most readily apparent compared to the old car. When you sit inside, it's got noticeably more headroom and elbow room for you and your passenger, and the hatch area is a lot more substantial. I suppose there were enough people out there who said they were put off from buying a Mini by its small size that BMW decided it needed to get bigger.
Like I said, I feel like small size was a big part of its appeal, at least to enthusiasts who wanted a kind of Miata-esque car but needed something more practical.
We had two kinds of cars available to us on this drive: a base Cooper with a six-speed manual, and a Cooper S with a six-speed paddle-shifted automatic.
I started the day, as I figured one should, in the less powerful car. But the base Cooper's 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine was the biggest surprise of this experience. The 134 horsepower, 162 pound-foot three-banger was pretty impressive in terms of acceleration able to propel the Cooper from zero to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, which puts it extremely close to the Fiat 500 Abarth. It feels a bit gutless at very low RPMs, but once it gets into the midrange it packs an unexpected punch.
It also sounds good, too. The three is quiet at cruising speeds, but when you get on it there is a really nice growl, and its acceleration is smooth like a proper inline-whatever BMW engine should be. Mind you, you have to work this engine hard to get the most out of it, but it's always up for that kind of play. Will Americans get used to the coming onslaught of three-cylinder engines? If they're even close to being as good as this car's motor, we'll all be just fine.
The six-speed manual is a big help with getting the most from the little engine. Shifts are light, tight and relatively short. The clutch is easy to work and does its job without drama. All in all, it's a very good gearbox, and it's a worthy partner to this mill.
The Cooper S came with a big surge in power over the base engine: it's up to 189 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque these days, and torque can go up to 221 pound-feet with overboost.
The S is quick, hitting 60 mph in 6.4 seconds with the automatic, though it doesn't feel significantly faster than my Cooper S. It does have ample passing power and, like a good Bavarian motor, it feels comfortable and relaxed at high speeds. I do have to say that its sound isn't as interesting and compelling as the three, though it's an improvement over the odd, burbly spaceship noises you got from the old PSA engine.
As with every Mini Cooper, the automatic waters down the driving experience considerably. However, the new six-speed auto is a much better transmission than the one it replaces. Paddle shifts are tremendously quicker, almost DSG-like, and those paddles are on the proper left and right sides of the steering wheel instead of the push/pull system used in the old car. The throttle is also a lot more linear on the new Cooper S, whereas the old one's acceleration could be jerky out of the gate.
When it comes to handling... well, here's where the new Cooper (I'm talking about both the base model and the S now, to be clear) starts to fall down a bit if you compare it to older, smaller Minis. It's still remarkably flat in the corners, and it's nimble for sure, but its new, all-electric system lacks the feel, the tightness and the directness you got out of the outgoing Cooper.
Also, it handles like it's bigger and heavier than the old car. This is because it is in fact bigger and heavier, and when you make cars bigger and heavier, they lose some of their driving dynamics.
The new Cooper is still an extremely adept handler for its size — I was pulling J-turns in the base car just fine — but it's just not as razor sharp and, worst of all, only about 70 percent as fun as the car it replaces. The first time I ever drove a Cooper S, I felt like I could use it to run from the cops. That sense of vehicular hooliganism feels dulled on the new car. Like I said, it's grown up now.
I do have to give it praise for its improvements to the old car's weakest area: ride quality. The old Cooper, especially in S trim with a sport package, was so harsh that getting a root canal was almost preferable to driving one in a city with a lot of potholes. Both Coopers are now far more comfortable than the older ones, even when equipped with typically hard Pirelli run-flat tires as they were on my drive.
Mind you, things are still a bit harder than the average economy car, but it's much more livable. There are ways to tweak that, too, which I'll get into momentarily.
The Toys And Tech
You do get more tech stuff than ever in the new Cooper, and much of it is impressive. I'll start with the much-hyped Mini Driving Modes. By flicking a lever below the shifter you can set every Cooper and Cooper S to Mid, the default, Green, or Sport. These tune throttle response, adjust the tightness of the steering, and on Cooper S-es equipped with Dynamic Damper Control, tweak the ride quality for either optimum fun or maximum gas mileage. An adjustable ride is a first for the Mini.
The differences are stark, making each mode feel like a different car. On the Cooper S, Green Mode is slugglush and underpowered but also the most comfortable, and Sport Mode is louder and sharper, and it gives you a nice exhaust burble as you work through the gears. I kept my tester in Sport Mode most of the time because, well, you know.
Gone is that previously controlled the infotainment system, replaced by a large controller surrounded by buttons that's basically the same kind of iDrive they put on Bimmers these days. And it's quite good. It is not a touch screen, but the infotainment system is fast and responsive, though it does involve scrolling through a lot of menus.
There's also a ton of safety-related gadgets, like a backup camera, cruise control with distance control and automatic braking, and automatic parallel parking. I don't really know why anyone needs that. If you can't parallel park a Mini Cooper, you probably shouldn't be driving a car.
In the end, I generally liked the 2014 Cooper and Cooper S. In many ways that matter, it's the best Mini Cooper ever made. The tweaks to the interior and the ride quality are hard to argue with, as are the larger hatch area and the various tech toys. Plus, it's still very fun to drive.
I just wish it hadn't gotten so large, and I wish it retained a little more of the driving insanity of the R53 and R56 Coopers.
Here's the weird thing, though: I liked the three-cylinder engine better. Yes, the Cooper S has plenty of power, but wringing all the juice I could out of that eager little three-banger as I rowed through the gears was just way more fun. (For whatever it's worth, most journalists on this trip agreed with me.) If I were buying a new Mini Cooper, the three-cylinder with a manual is the one I'd get. It has a lot more character than the 2.0 four does.
I think the new Cooper will appeal to people who wanted something a little more refined and larger than the outgoing car, who were less apt to deal with its oddball interior ergonomics. Want the pure, crazy, pint-sized driving fun of the R53? I'm not sure there's anything currently in the market quite like that, but maybe the Ford Fiesta ST comes close.
I'd love to see Mini do something to make the super-small Mini Rocketman concept a reality, maybe with only the three-cylinder motor, but I get the sense from talking to engineers that it really isn't in the cards right now. In the meantime, expect to see a lot more of the 2014 Cooper, both in Mini and BMW forms.
Photos credit Mini