From £14,6208
Latest generation of the three-door hot hatch has been refreshed but retains all of its familiar character
James Disdale
2 May 2021

What is it?

This is the latest version of the Mini, making its debut almost exactly 20 years to the day since the first BMW-engineered version of the car first appeared as a 21st century reinterpretation of the original Sir Alec Issigonis icon. 

Much ink was spent at the time pondering whether this Anglo-German creation could ever be a true ‘Mini’, but the reality is that it sparked a huge success story – one that went from a single model to a globally recognised brand whose line-up now includes crossovers, estate cars, PHEVs and EVs.

Yet at the heart of the line-up has always been the standard Mini: the simple three-door hatchback that comes closest to distilling the essence of that famous original, and remains the most popular, making up around 50% of production at the Oxford factory. Now approaching six years old, this generation of the model (along with the five-door and convertible) has been treated to a mid-life refresh. Nothing major - just a nip here and a tuck there - but it comes at a poignant time, shortly after Mini revealed that it would be the first brand in the BMW Group to go all-electric

With Mini's last new internal-combustion-engined vehicle slated for launch in 2025, bosses claim the whole Mini line-up will be electrified by the early 2030s, so while this isn’t the last chance to grab an old-school Mini, this refreshed car certainly represents the beginning of the end for the firm’s four-stroke fun.

As ever, there’s a wide range of engines and trims to choose from, but Minis tend to make the most sense when sticking to the keep-it-simple maxim. So that means, for our first taste, we’re sticking with that three-door body and plumping for the middle-ranking Cooper S, which historically has delivered the best blend of performance and price. 

So what’s new? Well, the bulk of the changes have been reserved for the exterior styling and, as is always the case today, the infotainment system. At the front is a wider and lower bumper design that aims to give the car a more aggressive stance, which it does, while a similar exercise at the rear also includes the addition (on Cooper S and JCW models) of a cartoonishly large diffuser either side of the trademark, centre-exit twin exhaust pipes. 

There's also a trio of new colours, including the retina-wilting Zesty Yellow on convertible models, and clearly the Mini procurement department got a good deal on gloss piano black trim because it’s everywhere on our Sport-spec test car. (There are also entry-level Classic and all-singing and all-dancing Exclusive versions.) The headlight internals and surrounds, front grille, door handles, badges, filler cap and door mirror caps are all dripping in the stuff.

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Inside, there’s more piano black, especially surrounding the updated infotainment screen, which is set in the familiar circular housing in the centre of the dash. It retains a similar 8.8in display as before, but the graphics have a higher resolution, while the operating system is new and faster acting. You can also customise the display and add widgets for quick access. It all works well, particularly when using the handy rotary controller, but the display is starting to look small beside the current fashion for ever-bigger tablet-style interfaces.

Particularly welcome is the new three-spoke steering wheel, which is great to hold and covered in soft leather that feels like it’s been sourced from BMW’s supplier, while the gloss black (natch) multifunction controls are larger and easier to use. Sitting behind the wheel is the same digital dial pack that was first seen last year on the Mini Electric - although in reality it's a hybrid display. The rev counter is actually analogue masquerading as TFT, the illusion being shattered only when direct sunlight falls on its tinted display.

And, of course, there’s the expected upgrade of the driver aids, with the optional Driving Assistant Pack adding a ‘stop and go’ function to the adaptive cruise control, plus lane departure warning. 

Also new are the upgrades to the Mini smartphone app. Not only does it feature the usual location and status services (such as fuel level or, on the Electric version, range), but you can now share access to the car with up to 10 people. Give them permission and they can unlock, start and drive the car as and when you don’t need it.

Mechanically, the only real change is the adoption of a new damper design. Called Intelligent Adaptive Suspension (standard on Sport-spec cars like ours and £400 on others), it’s arguably less sophisticated than the electronically controlled selectable set-up on the outgoing car. Essentially, it’s a similar system to that already seen on the Ford Fiesta ST, with a passive frequency-selective set-up that can open a valve in the damper in as little as 50 milliseconds to reduce damping forces by up to 50% during the fastest and most violent wheel impacts with the road.

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What's it like?

Get moving and you’ll be hard-pressed to sense those new dampers at work initially. The ride is still on the busy side, the short-travel suspension following the surface of the road rather than breathing with it. Although it is not quite as stiff-legged as the Fiesta, you get tossed around more than most. 

However, hit a medium-sized bump and you can definitely sense the dampers helping to round off the sharp edges that the previous, non-adaptive car would have transmitted through to the cabin. It still struggles with bigger imperfections, though, and deeply sunken manhole covers or sharp transverse ridges send noisy, wince-inducing shocks through the car’s structure. Road noise is an ever-present companion on motorway hauls, too.

Either way, this change has done little to alter the Mini's appetite for fun. It’s not as polished as some, but its hyperactive, puppyish approach means it’s difficult not to enjoy yourself when pressing on. As ever, the low-slung driving position (complete with all-embracing high-backed seats) places your bum closer to the action than most, making you feel like you’re travelling faster than you are.

That said, the suspension's underlying stiffness results in a propensity for being knocked off line by torn or heavily cambered Tarmac. This is not a car for carving a neat, precise trajectory through a corner, but its compact dimensions mean you can throw it around with abandon, and its short wheelbase and classic wheel-at-each-corner stance serve up fleeing-gazelle-like agility. 

It gives you options, too, with a judicious lift of the throttle or brush of the brakes getting you pointing even more eagerly into the corner - although you’ll need to be prepared for the rear to start moving around if you get too aggressive with your inputs, because the 205-section Pirelli tyres give up their grip sooner than you’d expect.

This up-and-at-’em approach is bolstered by the engine and gearbox combination. It’s not the most charismatic-sounding unit, but the 175bhp 2.0-litre four-pot gives the Cooper S a pleasing 'big engine in a small car' character. It’ll rev to just over 6000rpm but sounds a bit synthetic and actually does its best work between 1500rpm and 4000rpm. Within that rev range, a high plateau of muscular torque makes the Mini a rapid and relatively effortless point-to-pointer, the unit’s elastic energy allowing you to overtake slower traffic at will.

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The six-speed manual gearbox adds to the engagement, too. Its precise but slightly notchy action encourages you to keep the engine spinning in the sweet spot, while perfectly spaced pedals and progressive but powerful brakes are perfectly suited to heel-and-toe downshifts when you're in full back-road attack mode.

Only the steering disappoints. It’s quick enough, the fast rack amplifying the car’s natural nimbleness, but there’s a strange vagueness off the straight-ahead that forces you into making constant, tiny corrections, particularly through faster corners. It doesn’t offer the last word in feedback, either, and the Sport setting merely adds extra heft rather than increased chat.

Should I buy one?

The rest of the car is much the same as before. It remains a little smaller on the outside than most superminis and that’s reflected in the cramped back seats and small boot, but the trade-off is that the car is still packed with character, has a cabin that oozes premium appeal and now comes with a decent list of standard kit - although, as ever with Mini, you can customise it until your credit limit cries enough. 

A Fiesta ST still delivers more speed and chassis sophistication for less cash, but as an engaging driver’s tool that doubles as a classy runabout, the Cooper S still has a fair amount of appeal.

In many respects, these changes are mere window dressing because the Mini feels much the same as before - although the dampers are a worthwhile addition. It’s still not as accomplished or quick as some, and it costs a little more to buy, but it remains an endearing and entertaining choice.

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Comments
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Andrew1 2 May 2021
Why don't they give up on this pathetic retro look? And that round thing on the dashboard is an eyesore and makes the entire dash look very busy and tiring.
MkVII Golf GTI 2 May 2021

The F56 generation has been a disaster from the get go. It's never looked remotely as good as the first two generations, didn't drive anywhere close to the same level of excitement either, and the engines have been so milquetoast from day 1. The latest version of this 2.0T offering now even less power than before (175 vs. 192, wtf) is even more of a reason not to buy one. The old Prince 1.6T was a gem. It sounded good without any synthetic warble, it was feisty pulling hard from just off idle to redline at 6500rpm and it was quite delicate on consumption, easily hitting a real world 40mpg. The 2.0t never felt remotely as good. When I drove one back in 2014, it really put me off the car. 7 years later, I've been waiting for this generation to die off so hopefully a G56 could be released that harkened back to the R53/56 of yore. Doesn't seem like that will be happening unfortunately. 

Bimfan 2 May 2021

Good to see the Mini is still a unique automotive anachronism, as it always has been.

It is still friendly, familiar and gets the job done, even with modern power and tech grafted onto it's perennial hard riding, go-kart like chassis.

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