Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The entry-level One uses a 101bhp 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine that needs working hard – something that can be tiresome on long journeys. The Cooper gets a 134bhp version of that engine and is our favourite in the line-up. It pulls strongly across the rev range without any of the annoying surges in power delivery that you often get with three-cylinder engines.
The 189bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine of the Cooper S delivers very impressive performance with a sporty-sounding exhaust note, but it pushes the price up considerably and can’t match the driving thrills provided by the Ford Fiesta ST. If anything, the bigger and heavier engine actually makes the Cooper S handle less sharply than the 1.5-litre Cooper. That also applies to the 228bhp John Cooper Works (JCW), which is the fastest Mini but can’t hold a candle to the overall performance offered by the best hot hatches, above all the Honda Civic Type R.
Suspension and ride comfort
Every Mini rides pretty firmly and subjects its occupants to a lot of vertical movement over typically undulating British roads. Thankfully, well-judged damping prevents the car from feeling like a pogo stick. In fact, the only time it gets uncomfortable is over a particularly vicious pothole or if you encounter mid-corner bumps at speed.
Enter town and you’ll find yourself jostled around a little on roads that the Volkswagen Polo would smother far more effectively. The Mini is affected a lot by the choice of wheels you go for; the 17in or 18in designs may look good, but they won’t do the ride any favours. So, we recommend sticking to smaller wheels for the best ride comfort.
If you’re tempted to splash some cash on big rims, consider the optional adaptive dampers. They provide a more pliant ride than the standard shock absorbers and can be flicked into a sports setting if you want a sportier driving experience. However, unless the latter applies to you 100% of the time, we recommend avoiding the fixed sports suspension, which comes as standard on the JCW and is a no-cost option on Sport trim, because it’s far too firm.
Mini’s trademarks have always included darty handling and a tight turning circle that helps with manoeuvring around town. While this is still the case with today’s models, the march of progress has complicated things a bit, with selectable driving modes optional on all trims apart from the range-topping JCW, which gets them as standard.
The system introduces three variable settings that you can engage depending on your mood. In Default mode, the steering is well weighted and quick off the dead-ahead but can feel slightly nervous on the motorway and tends to self-centre a bit aggressively as you exit tight, low-speed corners. By contrast, the Sport setting seems unnecessarily heavy.
Corners are taken in true Mini style with sharp turn-in and loads of grip. The Cooper actually feel a touch more nimble than the Cooper S and JCW, thanks to its lighter engines, but all wash wide in a fast corner sooner than you might expect of a car with the Mini’s sporting pretensions. The Audi A1 Sportback, for instance, has slightly more grip at the front and will resist scrubbing wide through a corner for longer than the Mini.
Noise and vibration
The engines in the Cooper is remarkably refined; you feel barely any vibration through the steering wheel or pedals, and a muted thrum is all you hear unless you really put your foot down. The Cooper S sounds suitably sporty, thanks in part to a system that directs engine noise into the interior. Wind noise over the windscreen and A-pillars is very noticeable at motorway speeds and an irritating trait across the Mini hatchback range.
The standard six-speed manual gearbox is a bit notchy and has a heavier shift action than you might expect of a small car. However, the light clutch makes it easy to drive around town and is matched with accelerator and brake pedals that are appropriately sensitive and easy to judge. The Cooper S and JCW get a rev-matching system to ensure the engine speed suits your chosen gear when you downshift. It works extremely well and makes for very smooth gear changes, even during hard driving.
The optional seven-speed Steptronic dual-clutch automatic gearbox is very smooth, providing slick shifts and coping equally well with smooth town driving and faster A-road trips. It’s available with all engines and trims but adds a considerable premium to the asking price. An eight-speed automatic ‘box is available on the JCW, but we’d recommend sticking with the manual if you’re after that degree of sportiness.