Second generation BMW Mini Cooper S is a riot to drive and more affordable than ever, but not without its issues...
8 October 2018

The Mini is such a friendly little thing that it comes as a shock to discover that the minute your back is turned, the Cooper S of 2007-13 likes to throw its timing chain.

It’ll give you a few hints first, like a brushing noise or perhaps a rattle, from cold at idle. I once owned a Vauxhall Zafira 2.2 that did the same thing. The noise came and went and then one day the pistons and valves shook hands, and that was that.

The same will happen to the Cooper S’s engine, although more likely to any fitted before 2011, after which a revised chain tensioner was installed.

That’s right: it’s the hydraulic tensioner rather than the chain that’s the culprit. It doesn’t help that the engine likes a drink – as much as a litre of oil every 1000 miles. That’s a healthy engine, by the way. As the cars get older, experts say the engines are springing oil leaks in most un-BMW-like ways. Fail to keep your eye on the level and a red warning light will be the least of your worries.

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The second-generation R56 Cooper S was launched in the shadow of its predecessor, the popular R53 of 2002-06. That earlier version was powered by a Chrysler/Rover-developed supercharged 1.6-litre engine made by Tritec. Its successor dispensed with that in favour of the new BMW/Peugeot-developed Prince engine, a turbocharged 1.6 making 173bhp, with 177lb ft from 1600-5000rpm or an overboosted 192lb ft.

Its codename is N14 and it has BMW’s infinitely variable single Vanos valve timing. This is important because, in early 2010, as a result of what at the time BMW doubtless referred to as ‘continuous product improvement’ but what you and I might call a barrage of complaints, it replaced it with a revised version called the N18.

Happily, the uprated engine produced 182bhp and, among other things, had a double Vanos system controlling both intake and exhaust valves to provide a more even spread of torque and lower emissions.

But it also gained mods that looked suspiciously like a ‘fix’ to an unacknowledged problem. Changes included redesigned pistons, an uprated boost line to the turbo, improved crankcase ventilation, a heat shield over the turbo oil pipe and a rigid instead of flexible turbo intake pipe. Experts reckon the N18 is the engine to have. You can identify it by its large plastic cover, while the N14 is ‘naked’. Meanwhile, onthe transmission front, the manual gearbox gained an improved clutch for better gear synchronisation.

Bizarrely, the changes were followed a few months later by a full facelift (new bumpers, revised interior, LED tail-lights with pulsating brake lights to indicate the force being applied and additional air intakes). As already noted, in 2011 a revised timing chain tensioner was fitted. Now, at last, the R56 couldn’t spring any more surprises except the one common to any well-bought R56 Cooper S, and that’s just how much fun it is to drive.

How to get one in your garage: 

An expert’s view, Alex Castle, MASTERDRIVER.CO.UK: “The R56 timing chain can let go at around 80,000 miles. The plastic tensioner guide is the culprit. If you hear a brushing sound, it’s on the way out and you should change it without delay. The later N18 engine is much improved but the tensioner wasn’t upgraded until 2011. Fortunately, owners are enthusiastic and look after their cars. There are plenty to choose from so you can afford to be fussy. New, options were pricey, but that cost evaporates as the cars get older so fully loaded Coopers aren’t much more expensive. My favourite extras are the panoramic roof and Harman Kardon sound system.”

Buyer beware...

TIMING CHAIN - The timing chain, or more specifically the tensioner, is the weak spot. Keeping the oil topped up is vital but ultimately poor design is to blame. A rattle and brushing noises at idle from cold is the tensioner’s ‘death rattle’.

OIL LEAKS AND MISFIRES - Oil leaks are becoming an issue on older cars. Check the rocker cover, crank seals, sump, turbo oil feed, front and rear main bearing seals, solenoids and cylinder heads for drips. Valve stem seals are starting to fail on older cars. Permanently low oil allows sludge to build up in the Vanos valve control system, affecting performance. Hesitation, uneven idling and misfiring could be carbon build-up on inlet valves or failing coil packs.

COOLANT SYSTEM - Look for cracks on the plastic coolant thermostat housing. Check if the water pump has been changed; it’s best done at around 50,000 miles. Check the plastic lower radiator support – it’s prone to kerb damage.

TRANSMISSION - Check the clutch operation – failure as early as 20,000 miles isn’t uncommon. Worn synchros are rare so graunching suggests seriously hard use. Feel for a harsh shift on autos, often caused by a faulty valve body which could require a rebuild or replacement of the gearbox.

SUSPENSION AND BRAKES - Check the front wishbone bushes, which have to work hard. The anti-roll bar bushes have an easier time.

Also worth knowing:

Earliest R56s are 12 years old and the suspension, while sophisticated, isn’t the most adept and will probably be in need of a refresh. For less than £1000, you can replace wishbone bushes, springs and dampers with upgraded polyurethane bushes, Koni shocks and Eibach springs.

How much to spend:

£2300-£3495 - Launch cars with around 100k miles, generally good histories and in serviceable condition.

£3500-£4995 - Lots more lower-mileage 07 cars (circa 75k miles), with more lower-mileage 08s and 09s towards £4995.

£5000-£6995 - Very low-mileage 07s but many more 08 to uprated 10-plate cars with decent mileages.

£7000-£8995 - A good choice of proper 10 to 13-plate cars.

£9000-£10,500 - Plenty of low-mileage 11 to 13-plate cars here, the most expensive being a 2012 with 19k miles and £5000 of extras including powered panoramic sunroof.

One we found:

MINI COOPER S, 2010/10, 45K MILES, £6900 - Not only has this got the uprated N18 engine but it’s also the later facelift car with revised interior, fresh bumpers and LED tail-lights. Has full Mini history and eye-popping red leather too.

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Comments
13

8 October 2018

There's a lot to look out for on this supposedly reliable high quality sports hatch, I assume the same engine woes afflict the RCZ? 

8 October 2018
So my Cooper S cost me close to £4k for new 2 turbos on a car less than 3 years old , had water pump issues and timing chain issues traded it with 33,000 miles. While a far better looking car than it's successor it simply can't be recommended. A friend ignored my advice and a year later his S was suffering the dreaded knocking noise...i don't thing the so called mini tlc package helps either, extended service intervals and this engine don't mix... half the time I took mine in for a service it turned to be a visual brake inspection or some codswallop. If they had checked the oil levels and timing chain tension that may have been more helpful ....

8 October 2018
Sundym wrote:

So my Cooper S cost me close to £4k for new 2 turbos on a car less than 3 years old , .......

Don't BMW's have a minium 3 year warranty like everone else?

typos1 - Just can’t respect opinion

8 October 2018

If the timing chain is seen as Un BMW like how come the 120/320/520d were notorious for timing chain failures? This is the problem with journalism that runs 6 month old factory backed demos. 

A simple Google search within throw up timing chain, swirl flap and dpf issues on BMW diesels familiar to owners of cars 4-8 years old. What is up for debate is how much better / worse they are compared to diesels of a similar vintage from Mercedes, Audi, Alfa,JLR etc....

289

8 October 2018

Ah, but that would involve real journalism....rather than publishing Manufacturers PR releases Sam!!!

I have never understood why premium (and BMW are not the only one), brands would choose to co-operate with manufacturers who have a poor reliability factor for their engines. Its utter madness, (and consequently Mini's have never been on my horizon as a car for my wife)....of all the brands to choose - Peugeot!....why not work with a Japanese company, at least you have a chance of engine longevity. Just speak with any local independant service station to find out how enthusiastic they are about French product reliability....make sure you have plenty of time.

8 October 2018
SamVimes1972 wrote:

If the timing chain is seen as Un BMW like how come the 120/320/520d were notorious for timing chain failures? This is the problem with journalism that runs 6 month old factory backed demos. 

A simple Google search within throw up timing chain, swirl flap and dpf issues on BMW diesels familiar to owners of cars 4-8 years old. What is up for debate is how much better / worse they are compared to diesels of a similar vintage from Mercedes, Audi, Alfa,JLR etc....

Have you met Symanski?

8 October 2018

We had one of these for a bit, a 2012.  Didn't see any of these mechanical gremlins, but plenty of other reasons to get rid of it after a year or so.  Mainly - it was just such a pain in the arse on a daily basis.  More irritating than a yappy aggressive Yorkshire Terrier.  2 biggest gripes :

- 17 inch wheels give a truly horrid ride.  Everywhere.  All the time.  If you really must have one of these, at least get 16 inchers which feel far better

- Steering feel = literally zero. Steering input angle had to be based on a visual comparison between the position of the front edge of the bonnet relative to the edges of the road as it curved.  Exhausting due to the concentration needed.  I'm sure it's not the only electric steering setup to be as awful as this, but it's by far the worst I have ever experienced personally.  

Motoring mags seem amazingly forgiving of such rubbish and rarely comment on it, but it's a fact that there remains no substitute for proper mechanical steering.

8 October 2018
Lessis More wrote:

- 17 inch wheels give a truly horrid ride.  Everywhere.  All the time.  If you really must have one of these, at least get 16 inchers which feel far better..

The ride has improved substantially in the latest genereation of Minis.  I got to drive an eight month old Cooper for a bit (just the plain version, not the S), and it rode ok for a small hatch.

8 October 2018

Owned two MCS's as daily drivers for 5+ years. 40k+ miles covered 

Timing chain is a design flaw but is not the massive issue its made out to be, BMW paid 50% of my replacement £450.00 to me, in and out in a day same as a service. Latest tensioner, never had a problem since.

Oil consumption, likes a drink for sure, keep it topped up, 5 mins a week.

Ride, remove the run flats replace with something decent - PS4's on mine, while still no RR, the trade off is that it that it really does handle properly now.

Steering, you should driving a Toyota (duller than ditchwater), you obviously don't like driving!  

8 October 2018
smallblock wrote:

Owned two MCS's as daily drivers for 5+ years. 40k+ miles covered 

Timing chain is a design flaw but is not the massive issue its made out to be, BMW paid 50% of my replacement £450.00 to me, in and out in a day same as a service. Latest tensioner, never had a problem since.

Oil consumption, likes a drink for sure, keep it topped up, 5 mins a week.

Ride, remove the run flats replace with something decent - PS4's on mine, while still no RR, the trade off is that it that it really does handle properly now.

Steering, you should driving a Toyota (duller than ditchwater), you obviously don't like driving!  

 

None of its tyres were run flats.  Summer wheels were 17", Winters 16", all tyres same rolling circumference so I could make the direct comparison - winters were infinitely preferable.  I agree that Toyotas are dull as ditchwater and instead drive a 1986 Carrera 3.2 which I hope you might accept provides plenty of steering feel.  Kindly keep your insults to yourself next time please. 

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