My favorite driving roads in the Austin area come up after Mopac dead ends into RM 1826 in Hays County. Then you're on some really nice, winding Hill Country roads down by Driftwood, Dripping Springs, and Wimberley. If you've ever heard of or eaten at the Salt Lick, you know what I'm talking about.
As I was driving on those roads a couple weeks ago in a 2014 Mini Cooper S Hardtop, I was remembering how more much fun they used to be a couple years ago. Back then, you didn't encounter much traffic and on a clear day you could drive at a pretty brisk pace, within reason. Then Austin started blowing up and became one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. The people moving here weren't all just displaced hipsters priced out of Brooklyn and LA. They were families, too, families who needed somewhere to live.
That meant subdivisions started popping up along those rural Hill Country roads, typically named after whatever had to be torn down to build them ("Fox Run", "Bear Creek," etc.) Now your spirited drive is likely to be cut short when you're stuck behind a Nissan Murano packed with kids going 10 mph under the speed limit.
For a lot of reasons, I don't have much desire to drive balls-out on public roads anymore, but I still enjoy a nice Hill Country run. The area's just grown up now, and isn't as crazy for driving as it once was. Much like this new Mini Cooper S.
(Full disclosure: I took my 2008 Cooper S to Mini of Austin for some warranty work and they gave me this 2014 Cooper S as a loaner. I had it for a few days and decided to review it. I've always had good experiences at Mini dealerships and they're no exception, so check them out for all your motoring needs.)
The Mini Cooper was fully redesigned for 2014. It's still a lot of fun to drive. It can definitely handle itself on a track. In many ways, it's better than it's ever been. It's just grown up in both dimensions and character.
I've never reviewed a loaner car from a dealership, but this one ended up being a good candidate because it wasn't as unrealistically loaded as press cars tend to be. It had the six-speed automatic gearbox, no paddle shifters, no sunroof, no infotainment system, leatherette seats and not a lot else.
I'd want heated seats and the center arm rest if this were my car, but I'd be happy otherwise. There are tons and tons of options if you want more.
Worth noting is Mini's new Driving Modes, standard on every Cooper and Cooper S. It's a little ring below the shifter that lets you put it in Mid, Sport or Eco mode. You know how I feel about sport modes, but on this thing I had it in that setting all the time. In Mid it's just too floppy, too much like a Golf, and not the GTI kind. It really comes alive in Sport mode without losing its balance or its fuel economy, which was great as Minis tend to be.
When you step inside, you'll find that build quality is noticeably better than the outgoing car, but with fewer quirks. The famous big central speedometer is gone, replaced by a stereo or a screen for the multimedia system. The window buttons are on the doors now. Everything's a little easier to figure out than it used to be, but it's a nicer place to be.
Here's the big difference — literally, in this case. The new Cooper is now 4.5 inches longer, 1.7 inches wider, 0.3 inches taller and has a longer wheelbase than the old model. It's also about 100 to 150 pounds heavier depending on the model. That doesn't sound like a lot but it adds up to a car that just feels significantly beefier than it once was, especially from the driver's seat.
It's still indisputably a small car, though. It's nine inches shorter overall than a Ford Fiesta and 17 inches shorter than Volkswagen Golf. Somehow it just feels bigger than that.
Why is this such a sore point? Cars get bigger all the time. Blame safety regulations and the demands of the car-buying public. At the launch last year, Mini engineers told me that their customers wanted a bigger Cooper, so they gave the people what they wanted.
It's just that any time you take a small car famous for its driving dynamics and increase its size, it's going to lose something in the process, especially when smallness is in the name. If ever there was a car that should have stayed small, it's this one.
They've made a much better car, but I'm not sure they've made a better Mini.
Exterior - 6/10
Gaaaaah! That face! What happened, Mini? This car used to be cute, now it looks kind of horrified. The proportions just feel kind of off, like the traditional Mini styling cues were applied to a generic hatchback through brute force.
It still stands out on the road as unmistakably being a Mini, and it even looks good from the side or the rear, but that face really mucks things up. For it's worth, I much prefer the understated face of the standard Cooper to the S.
Interior - 7/10
A gigantic improvement over the old car. Everything in the interior feels vastly more solid and well-built. Cheap plastics are kept to the barest minimum. Rattles are nowhere to be found. The cabin is far quieter than it used to be, with less wind and road noise. All the famous switches seem easier to use. And the seats are fantastically bolstered without being too uncomfortable.
Like I said, it's less quirky, but as a whole it's better. There's also a red missle-switch toggle thing that starts the engine and an LED ring around the stereo that flashes different colors in different situations. Fun!
The modern Cooper has always been billed as a premium city car, and this interior delivers on that promise in a stronger way than ever. The only thing I didn't really like was the wide, deep dashboard shelf in front of the driver. It just takes up too much real estate and goes a long way toward making the car feel bigger.
Acceleration - 6/10
This 2.0-liter, 189 horsepower turbo four may be a BMW engine, but it's a different motor than the one you get in the 328i, 228i, 320i and other roundel-badged cars. Equipped with this car's six-speed automatic transmission, it hits 60 mph in 6.4 seconds.
It just never really feels that quick. This new engine is smooth and punchy, with plenty of low and mid-range torque, but it kind of runs out of steam up top. It feels like it should be faster. It's never manic in its power delivery the way some hot hatches are.
The new Mini John Cooper Works should remedy this, but until it does, I'll find myself wishing it was more like the 240 horsepower turbo four that goes in the -28i BMWs. That would be fun here.
Braking - 6/10
The brakes are good. They aren't super grabby, but suit the car's sporting intentions. They stop just fine. What else can I say? Go, brakes!
Ride - 6/10
Far and away the thing I hate most about my own Cooper S is its ride quality. The R56's ride is atrocious. Its suspension is made of wood and cement; I'm fairly certain of this. Everything else feels like a goddamn Rolls-Royce compared to my car.
This new Mini is so much better in the ride department. It's far smoother, less likely to be unsettled by big bumps in the road. It's still kind of on the harsh side, but when you're buying a small car with fun driving in mind, this is to be expected. At least it's much more livable than it used to be.
Handling - 7/10
I walked away genuinely impressed with the new Cooper's handling. It's one of the better-cornering front-wheel drive cars I've sampled in a while. Compared to its predecessor, there is far less body roll, more confidence on the road, and steering is much tighter, more direct and less twitchy. The old R56's electrohydraulic rack was never the last word in road feel, but in every way the new electric steering is an improvement.
At times it truly felt like the cliche "scalpel" on the road (who is doing all this surgery on highways?), the kind of car that will do exactly what you tell it to every single time. It's flatter and more composed at speed than the old Cooper.
But there's a certain handling quality in cars — tossability, chuckability, whatever you want to call it — that only comes with being small in size. And when you make a car bigger, you lose some of that, and nothing can ever really bring it back. This thing just feels larger when you're behind the wheel, and while every other handling metric is an improvement, it just can't be thrown around with the ease it once could.
Gearbox - 7/10
PROTIP: Always buy a Mini Cooper S with a manual. But if you don't for whatever reason, this all-new six-speed automatic is pretty good, too. Like I said, mine didn't have paddles, but it had a manual shift mode that's the correct up for down/down for up setup and it's quite good. Shifts in that mode are very quick and responsive.
It's not quite as good as the magical ZF 8-speed gearbox that goes into other BMWs, and in sport mode it can be a little jerky in normal driving, but it's pretty good.
Toys - 7/10
Like I mentioned before, this loaner was kind of sparse in the toys department. I was totally fine not having the Mini Connected system, essentially their version of iDrive, since I like modern cars that don't have screens staring me in the face all the time. It had Bluetooth phone calling, USB connectivity, the sport/eco modes, stop/start, launch control, rain-sensing wipers and a few other goodies I liked.
I'll bump it to a 7 because of the endless array of options you can get on a Mini, including a HUD, JCW interior goodies, an available adjustable suspension, a rear-view camera if you somehow have trouble parking such a small car, exterior stripes and mirror caps, and the ability to basically customize every aspect of how the car looks inside and out.
It remains the only car I'm aware of where you can choose from six different Union Jack roof decals.
Audio - 6/10
This car didn't have the optional Harmon Kardon sound system, and as such the standard stereo wasn't really that great. It's got decent bass, but it's tinny-sounding. Spend some cash on the upgrade.
The turbo four has a nice growl to it under hard acceleration, but it's also kind of indistinctive, generic. It sounds like every other turbo four out there. It's a nice sound to get when you're driving hard, but it's also fake, and that's disappointing.
Value - 6/10
As has always been the case, you can make a Mini Cooper pretty expensive if you start piling on options. This car was unusual as far as testers go because it didn't come with a spec sheet. If I optioned it right – and I think I did — this one came out to around $28,000. Base price on the Cooper S Hardtop two-door is $24,100.
You'll see that as either being overpriced, but I see it as about right for what it is now: a small, front-wheel drive BMW hatchback. And BMWs aren't cheap when it comes to base prices or options.
You can get more hardcore performance out of a Subaru WRX or something similar, and somehow more tossability out of a Ford Fiesta ST despite it being larger, but neither are as premium, well-equipped or customizable as the Mini.
As I drove it I kept asking myself if I would choose it to replace my own Cooper S. I think I like it enough that I'd at least consider it. In a perfect world, if I could buy a Cooper S that had this car's interior, ride quality, engine and handling, but was the same size as my car, I might even probably be angling for a trade-in right now.
I'm also reviewing this car from the lens of a current owner. I think that if you're a total newcomer to Minis, and you drove this thing, you'd be pretty impressed with it. I also think you'd like it more if it happened to be smaller.
Maybe the car and those Hill Country roads have grown up, but I haven't.
(Update: Turns out this loaner car was a 2014, not a 2015. It's hard to tell when you don't get the sticker. The review has been updated to reflect this.)
Total - 64/100
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged I4
Power: 189 HP at 6,000 RPM/207 LB-FT at 1,250 RPM
Transmission: Six-Speed Automatic
0-60 Time: 6.4 seconds
Top Speed: 142 mph (limited)
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 2,854 Pounds
Seating: 4 people
MPG: 29 City/33 Highway (About 29.5 MPG average observed)
MSRP: $24,000 base, about $28,000 as tested