After spending precious time inside the new MINI Cooper S in both 3-door and 5-door guises, we thought it was time to put the value champion of the range should to the test as well. Therefore, we took a 2015 MINI Cooper Hardtop out for a road trip to see if we still get those fun moments behind its wheel.
Thing is, back when it was initially launched as a brand, Mini offered cars that solved a lot of problems with a single package. They were small, economical, cheap and fun to drive. Such a combination was really hard to find, especially during those days, marked by a severe lack of resources of all kinds, with the world still recovering from World War II.
Therefore, we could say that the original MINI was launched at the right time, with the perfect offer on the table. As time passed and the crisis transformed into a distant memory, the economical car was no longer viewed as a problem solver. Sure, it kept almost everything intact, especially the size and styling, but with technology advancing and wages increasing, people started looking at other cars.
That’s how the company went through various ownerships and ended up being bought off by BMW in 2002. The Germans had big plans for it and, along with keeping its go-kart feeling untouched, they decided to try and make it a premium offering. How? With a new design, styling and more optional features that you could even dream of before.
Unfortunately for old-school fans of the brand, that also meant that BMW wanted the car to be usable and comfortable as a daily driver. Therefore, the beloved hatch (or hardtop) started growing in size. It wasn’t only to allow people to have more room inside but also to fit safety and commodity features and all sorts of things that youngsters in the 21st century would find attractive.
After two generations, BMW unveiled in 2014 the third version of the MINI since they took over. As I said, we’ve already tested the Cooper S versions but didn’t really get to see how the Cooper alternative handles itself, especially since it received a new engine under the bonnet, a 1.5-liter 3-cylinder turbocharged mill that replaced the ubiquitous 1.6-liter 4-cylinder unit developed by BMW together with PSA. That was our primary goal: to see if the 3-cylinder mill can handle the ever-increasing-in-size Cooper in all its glory, without feeling like a snail on the road.
In short: the MINI Cooper delivers all the fun an average person would need on the road, without breaking the law.
This particular engine is shared by the Cooper with a host of other cars from the BMW Group offering. Having been built on the UKL platform, the MINI is sharing the engine and transmission choices with the likes of the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer for example, but with other cars too, even with rear-wheel drive setups, such as the 118i or the 218i Coupe.
Trying to describe how it feels on the road takes us back to the tuning days of old, only combined with new tech. A premiere for the MINI brand as a whole that came out with the Mk3 version of the hardtop is the fact that you can now get adaptive dampers for any model and that’s something you should ponder when purchasing one of these.
Switching between the new Green, Normal and Sport driving modes will change the character of the car accordingly. Green mode is only intended for those that want to achieve the EPA mpg numbers. It turns the lively MINI into a lobotomized being that is basically pushed down the road by inertia. Nothing fun can come of it, not even with the green lights that pop up around the large central navigation screen that replaced the traditional speedometer.
Normal mode is a little better, offering proper throttle response and a rather comfortable ride, but it’s nothing compared to Sport mode. Oh yes, this is the winner, by far.
Even though I had some pre-conceived ideas about the 1.5-liter engine under the bonnet of this new, bigger MINI, I was dead wrong. The mill makes 136 HP
and 220 Nm (162 lb-ft) of torque which, at first, might seem like too little but then again, despite the increase in size, the Cooper version of the hardtop weighs just a little over 1 ton (2,392 lbs).
Couple that with the fact that the full amount of torque is available at just 1,250 RPM and you get a quick little bastard that will get your heart pumping in no time. As a matter of fact, the MINI Cooper will do 100 km/h (62 mph) from a standstill in just 7.9 seconds with the manual gearbox like the one we had. That’s a fast trip to the benchmark speed and the best part about it is that you actually feel it. Sitting behind the wheel of this car is a thrilling experience. Sure, it may not be on par with its most extreme brother, the John Cooper Works version or with the Cooper S but it’s more than enough for an average person that wants to learn how to control a manual car with front-wheel drive.
The kicks it provides are plenty, especially for its price tag and we never felt the need for more power. What was even more surprising was the fact that the fuel consumption didn’t vary by extreme lengths depending on the way we drove it.
Between the Green mode and the all-out Sport mode, we noticed a variation of 1 l/100 km which is not a lot by any means. Yes, the overall fuel consumption is higher than what MINI claims but the good news about it is that it won’t climb exponentially if you drive it more aggressively, tapping out at around 10 l/100 km (23.5 mpg).
There are a couple of downsides as well. The interior is unchanged compared to the Cooper S models and if we complained about the ergonomics of the center stack on those cars, things didn’t change here. Furthermore, those testers had automatic gearboxes and you only had to slide the gearshift lever into Drive and that was it, you didn’t notice how annoying the layout was. However, on this model, we were treated with the manual gearbox and that was quite a “joy”.
We found that the best way do deal with this issue is just to adjust the armrest in the completely upwards position and just don’t use it anymore. However, after a while behind the wheel, it gets tiring and it becomes apparent that it’s just a temporary solution. Another way to get around it is to tilt the armrest as low as possible, but then it becomes a matter of personal choice as not everyone has the same arm length.
As far as the gearbox goes, the six-speed manual on the MINI Cooper is sharp, precise and it makes it really hard to miss a gate.
For the 2015 model, the Brits also decided to fit the manuals with a rev-matching feature which left us undecided on whether we like it or not. For a beginner that just wants to learn how to drive stick, it might come in handy when he wants to show off in front of his unknowing friends. However, if you’re used to rev-matching yourself, it is kind-of annoying. Furthermore, no beginner will ever get the chance actually to learn how to heel-and-toe with such a feature fitted to his car.
One thing we found particularly annoying was the fact that the rev-matching function made our engine stall at times. That’s because the software is apparently set up to work at any speed and when you’re trying to drive on narrow streets, slipping the clutch, the engine will stall at one point or another.
Otherwise, there’s little we can complain about. Coming to a stop from a high speed going through all the speeds will be a joyful moment as the sound the car makes in Sport mode is quite nice and everyone at the stoplight will think you’re a pro driver. Speaking of which, the exhaust could use a little more attitude and that’s probably where the tuners can step in.
Another thing we didn’t like was the ride. At times, it’s a bit harsh even though this model was fitted with adaptive dampers and the suspension was not setup as on the Cooper S. We had to mark this fault on the 17” wheels that definitely weren’t helped out by the run-flat tires. The problem is, if you get the 16” wheels your car will look rather weird. Therefore, you have a rather hard choice to make but either way, don’t go for 18” wheels.
As for the steering, it is direct and precise but a bit on the heavy side. What we noticed was that it didn’t tend to change its resistance factor no matter the driving mode we were in. That seemed peculiar and we think that there might’ve been something wrong with our particular tester as we didn’t encounter such problems on the other MINIs we tested. As such, the steering was rather heavy but enjoyable nonetheless.
The UKL platform does a magnificent job at modulating the power through the front axle. Unlike on the Cooper S where the wheels did seem to struggle with the 192 HP, on the Cooper model we encountered no such issues. As a matter of fact, torque steering is a thing of the past if you will, with the car having no issues putting all of its horses down.
That being said, the 3-cylinder engine feels strong throughout the rev range and the car will accelerate at a rapid pace up to around 140 km/h (87 mph) and then start slowing down gradually. On highways, you’ll be surprised of how quiet the ride is, with wind noise being reduced to a hum. That’s impressive, considering that the windows are frameless. Overtaking at higher speeds won’t be a problem either. Since the torque is available in full from 1,250 RPM, you don’t even need to switch down a gear to do so. Of course, that applies to speeds up to around 80 mph (130 km/h), after that you’ll have to take your time. As far as fuel consumption goes, we were impressed to see that outside the city, the Cooper is quite frugal, returning 43.5 mpg (5.4 l/100 km).
The short wheelbase (98.2 inches or 2,494 mm) also helps keep things nice and tidy and with more weight tipped towards the front of the car, you’ll be able to get in touch with that legendary go-kart feeling rather easy. As a matter of fact, during our test, we went down to a karting circuit and wanted to put this bad boy through its paces on it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get onto the track due to size limitations but we still got some karts around the car to take some pics with them.
Inside the cabin, things are the same as on every other MINI. The amount of ‘funkiness’ that will be found in there depends solely on your personal taste and on your budget. Our car was fitted with standard cloth/leather seats and we were rather pleased with them while optional features included chrome line trims, Dark Cottonwood interior surfaces and the lights package that makes a whole lot of a difference.
It allows you to change the mood inside the cabin by switching the color of the ambient lighting through a rather varied palette. That goes flawlessly with the new LEDs stuck around the central instrument panel. They actually react to what you’re doing.
For example, when in Sport mode, they act as a sort of rev-counter, going from white on one end to red at the other. They also turn green when entering the Green driving mode and fill out as you adjust the AC. The possibilities are endless.
Therefore, there isn’t a shortage of gadgets. You can have almost everything its bigger brothers come with and for an active lifestyle, we’d go for the USB and Bluetooth integration and the Navigation system that works just right with the new infotainment that is in fact iDrive with a MINI face on.
As far as the safety goes, the MINI Cooper received only a four-star rating from the Euro NCAP body, scoring just 56% in safety assist. As standard, you get front airbags, belt pre-tensioners, side airbags, side chest airbags and Isofix in the back. Of course, the seat belt reminder comes as standard too, along with ESC (electronic stability control). At no point during our test did we feel unsafe, despite the NCAP rating.
The car feels planted on the road even in Cooper guise and the UKL chassis is rather stable most of the time, acting up only if you want it to.
So, is the cheaper, 3-cylinder alternative worth it? That’s the one question that’s incredibly hard to answer. The main problem is the price tag. In Europe, the MINI Cooper starts at around €19,900 including VAT depending on the market. Keeping options in check, you’ll end up spending around €28,000 on one, which is close to the price tag of our tester.
In the US, the Cooper hardtop starts at $20,700 and goes up to roughly $28,000 with the options we ticked, so there’s little to set the two markets aside.
Unfortunately, the only competition for this model in the premium segment is the Audi A1. To be able to keep up with the Cooper, you’d need to get the 1.4-liter TFSI 125 HP engine that has a starting price tag of €19,300. That’s just €600 less than the MINI Cooper but, the Brit accelerates to 100 km/h (62 mph) nearly one second faster (0.9 seconds to be precise).
On top of that, we’re pretty confident that the German is also down in terms of driving excitement so you’d be better off buying the more non-conventional MINI. And don’t be afraid to go with the Cooper model. While it might lack the power of the Cooper S version, it still has plenty of grunt under the bonnet to provide that adrenaline rush you’re looking for. Just go for the manual if you really want to have fun!