New car review

Mini Cooper S hatch test drive

Mini has revamped its hatch and convertible range with more personalisation, premium appeal and patriotism.

What is it?

This is the facelifted and fettled version of the wildly popular Mk3 Mini three-door hatch. Having occupied a position in the UK’s best-selling cars charts on and off for many years, the Mini has a dedicated and choosy fan base who love its pastiche of retro design elements, perky engines and sporty driving dynamics.

With a brand-new Volkswagen Polo GTI on sale now, and the latest version of the Ford Fiesta ST on the way, this high-performance Cooper S model has its work cut out for it.

What’s new?

The only way this new Mini could shout about its British heritage more is if the horn played ‘Jerusalem’. The latest car is absolutely covered in Union Jacks, with the new LED taillights the boldest implementation of this.

Elsewhere, changes are relatively small. UK cars now get full LED headlights as standard, with an unbroken ring of LEDs functioning as daytime running lights. Mini’s new, simpler logo features throughout, and inside there are a few tech upgrades.

Personalisation has been ramped up, too, with the Mini Yours program giving buyers unprecedented levels of control over what their car looks like.

How does it look?

Those patriotic taillights are the big talking point – they make the Mini totally unmistakable, even from a distance, and are bound to be a bit of a Marmite choice.

The headlights now feature an unbroken ring of LEDs – a far more premium touch – but elsewhere the Mini retains its cute proportions and retro styling. Whether you prefer this to the more contemporary style of cars such as the Audi A1 is a personal choice, but sales figures definitely come out in the Mini’s favour.

The Mini Yours personalisation programme will allow you to add your own choice of design to the projector lights, indicator repeaters, door sills and dash – our test car was named after the Royal family, and proudly displayed ‘Phillip’ on the front wings. The programme launches in the UK in July.

What’s the spec like?

The new Mini features an improved equipment tally, but buyers should be wary of the extensive options list. As standard, the car comes with a six-inch infotainment display, DAB digital radio, LED lights front and rear, air-conditioning, and remote central locking.

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Equipment levels increase with engine spec, but most buyers will opt for the ‘Chili Pack’ of options. This adds rear parking sensors, automatic lights and wipers, different alloy wheels, improved upholstery and sports seats.

Personalisation is vast and varied, and with the Mini Yours pack, it’s possible to have as many as 12 Union Jacks adorning your car. Please don’t specify all of them, though.

What’s it like inside?

2018 Mini Cooper S hatch interior | The Car Expert

The Mini’s interior remains a sticking point, as its retro design hinders usability to a point. It’s characterful, but buttons and switches are scattered about the cabin. The small gauge cluster is hard to read, while the central infotainment display looks a bit lost within its vast surround.

Lighting is another issue, with an irritating strip in the centre console and a gaudily lit panel in front of the passenger clashing with the rest of the cabin backlighting.

Space for rear passengers and luggage is poor, but this won’t matter to most buyers – there’s plenty of room in the front, with comfortable and easily adjustable seats. Five-door models fix this to a point, but the Mini really isn’t a great family car.

What’s under the bonnet?

The entry-level 1.2-litre engine has been replaced by a detuned version of the Cooper’s 1.5-litre unit. The rest of the range is identical in power, though fuel economy has improved.

Our Cooper S model produced a hefty 192hp. Despite the Mini weighing a fairly porky 1,265 kilos, performance is sprightly, with 0-60mph despatched in 6.6 seconds. Top speed sits at 146mph.

The engine has plenty of low-down grunt, but doesn’t encourage you to rev it hard. The best progress is to be made in the mid-range, thanks to that turbocharged torque. All Minis get an excellent six-speed manual ‘box as standard, with rev-match technology in ‘Sport’ mode.

Most automatic models are fitted with a new seven-speed automatic transmission, which is smooth to shift but seemed too happy to change down unnecessarily. Hot JCW and Cooper SD models feature a heavier-duty eight-speed auto instead.

What’s it like to drive?

The Mini sticks to the road like glue in hard cornering – Mini says it handles ‘like a go-kart’ and has been trading on this since the brand was reborn in 2001. It’s fantastically entertaining on a twisty road, and the relatively stiff suspension ensures the car remains flat in cornering.

The steering is nicely weighted – albeit slightly too heavy in ‘Sport’ mode, and offers bags of feedback. It’s not a match for really hardcore hot hatches such as the Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport, but it walks all over the likes of the Audi S1 or Volkswagen Polo GTI.

That stiff suspension does mean the ride isn’t ideal for longer journeys, though. The Mini doesn’t exactly crash into bumps and potholes – it sort of bounces over them instead, courtesy of its short wheelbase.

Summary

The new Mini isn’t a big change over the old car, but it didn’t need to be. The updates help freshen up what’s now a four-year-old car, and the result is eye-catching and feels premium.

The best part of the Mini – the driving experience – has been left virtually untouched, and while it’s no luxury limo it remains amazing fun on a twisting road and more than accomplished in town.

Lower-spec Cooper would be our choice over the somewhat pricey Cooper S, but whatever engine or trim you go for the Mini hatchback is a great small car.

Similar cars

Audi S1, Peugeot 208 GTi, Volkswagen Polo GTI

Key specifications

Model as tested: Mini Cooper S 3dr hatch
Price (on-road): £20,630
Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol
Gearbox: Eight-speed automatic
Power: 192 hp
Torque: 300 Nm
Top speed: 146 mph
0-60mph: 6.6 seconds
Fuel economy (combined): 47.1 mpg
CO2 emissions: 138 g/km

Tom Wiltshire
Tom Wiltshire
Articles by Tom Wiltshire are provided for The Car Expert by PA Media (formerly the Press Association). They include test drives of the latest new cars and features on various aspects of automotive life.

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