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Driven: MINI Cooper S 3-Door 2018MY. Image by MINI.

Driven: MINI Cooper S 3-Door 2018MY
Updated and customisable to the nth degree, but is the facelifted Mk3 MINI Cooper S any good?

 



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MINI Cooper S 3-Door 2018MY

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MINI has decided it doesn't need to do a great deal to its big-selling models - the 3-Door, 5-Door and Convertible - for their third-generation midlife facelift, instead choosing to ramp up the customisation factor with its latest 'have it your way' service and adding a dual-clutch gearbox to the company's tech roster. This, though, is the Cooper S 3-Door (hatchback, to you and us) in manual form - MINI's everyday performance motor, updated for the 2018 model year.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: MINI Cooper S 3-Door manual
Pricing: from 15,900; Cooper S manual from 20,630
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: three-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 138g/km (VED 200 first 12 months, then 140 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 47.1mpg
Top speed: 146mph
0-62mph: 6.8 seconds
Power: 192hp at 5,000-6,000rpm
Torque: 280Nm at 1,350-4,600rpm (300Nm on time-limited overboost)

What's this?

A MINI Cooper S 3-Door, in the company's preferred use of all capitals and incorrect numerals, but let's just say it's the revised MINI's range-topper... at least, until all the changes we're about to outline are applied to the inevitable John Cooper Works. The Cooper S is a 192hp, 146mph hatchback with a sporty exhaust note and an emphasis on sporty driving, so it's undoubtedly a rapid supermini that deserves consideration with the class elite. By which, we mean something with a Blue Oval on its nose that's to be found in the shape of a Fiesta.

Strangely, the Cooper S manual as tested here is one of the cars in the range that benefits from the fewest amount of updates as part of the overhaul; it's largely the same as the machine we tested in the same location three years ago. Handy for benchmarking if it feels like it has moved on, then, but at the same time worrying that MINI hasn't decided to give the S more power or a chassis tweak or two.

So what is new? The LED daytime running lights are for a start, forming (as they do) complete circles in the front clusters now, where previously they didn't quite meet at the bottom. The indicators are also circles in the headlights and those latter items can be upgraded to elaborate Matrix LED 75-diode units. Buyers can also choose from three new body colours, which are Starlight Blue, Emerald Grey and Solaris Orange (that's the one you can see in the pictures here), and from some very tasty, fresh designs of 17-inch wheel - the MINI we drove sat on the brand-new Rail Spoke two-tone light alloys, which we happen to think are an extremely attractive set of rims.

A Piano Black exterior package (yep, it's fitted to this car...) coats all the hatchback's lamp cluster surrounds and the frame of the radiator grille in black, which helps to tone down the rather busy-busy look of the Cooper S model's front end, while inside there's an additional colour line for the leather (not fitted here), a new three-spoke multifunction steering wheel, sharper graphics in the centre console's infotainment screen and the (optional) head-up display, plus the removal of the old rotary collar Driving Mode selector at the base of the gear lever. You'll now find Green, Mid and Sport modes on a metallic toggle switch at the bottom of the centre stack - and some good news; here, MINI has toned down the enforced wackiness we used to have to endure. Click the Cooper S into Sport and the graphical car on the infotainment display no longer thinks of rockets and go-karts, but instead adopts white for its bonnet stripes, door mirror caps and its roof. This is preferable to the cringe-worthy 'maximum go-kart fun' legend, we can tell you.

However. We've kind of been avoiding the elephant in the room. Or the Union Flag in/on the MINI. Yup, fans of vexillology might rejoice at the 'Jack' being a big part of the new car's identity, but in a post-Brexit-vote era, when national tensions are at their peacetime peak, the UK's flag is not always a welcome emblem in all quarters of this fair isle. And while the rear clusters are an option in all other markets, here in the UK they're standard-fit. Now, we can't believe the UK would be so bold as to enforce these lights on all buyers, because they're... well, they're questionable, aren't they? We mean, we're all for pride in our nation and our flag, but permanently there in the rear lights? Strong, strong look, that. As is an illuminated Union Flag (it's only technically a Jack if it's flying from the flagstaff of a Royal Naval vessel and, the last time we checked, the MINI Cooper S wasn't a light frigate) on the dashboard in the cabin.

Yes, we fully expect a strong debate on this one and plenty of people telling us we're mad (or worse) for denying/denigrating the national flag - but we genuinely think it's a very risky move for MINI UK to take, no matter how well intentioned. Although you could say it's no different to having a gigantic Union Jack... sorry, Flag, on the roof of the car, which the company has offered since time immemorial (all right, 2001, to be accurate). So, on that note, we'll let the matter rest.

How does it drive?

Right, back to the Cooper S. This particular model didn't have the new DCT Steptronic gearbox and so it is 'as you were' on the driving front compared to that three-pedal Cooper S we drove back in 2014. Except, this time around, be it because of less sand on the roads of Mallorca or some subtle improvements to the car's underpinnings, the S felt more cohesive as a sporty hatchback. There's a reduced (but not eradicated) amount of push-on understeer and less feeling of the car being too readily traction-limited in lower gears than before, and more of a sense of balance from the front axle to the back. The steering is excellent, although we prefer the more natural weighting in Mid mode to the artificial meatiness of Sport. Problem with that is, as a manual, you can't knock the gear lever over into 'Sport' and match the sharpest engine response and naughtiest pop-pop-bang-bang exhaust noises with the purer steering feel of Mid. So you either go for the sharpest drivetrain and wrestle with steering that feels like the power assistance might be slightly broken, or you have the sweeter turn-in feedback and yet a throttle that's ever so marginally fuzzy.

No matter; whichever mode you opt for, you'll never unlock driving nirvana with the Cooper S. We said it about the Mk3 on first acquaintance and we'll say it again here: there is absolutely no doubt, no doubt whatsoever, that it's a far nicer thing to live with on a day-to-day basis when compared to the original 'R53' Cooper S of the early Noughties. That old trooper had a rough-as-a-badger's-backside Chrysler-sourced 'Pentagon' 1.6-litre supercharged unit, a power steering pump that used to whine incessantly and ride quality straight out of the 'Manual of Bouncy Castle Damper Set-Ups.' It was an unholy mess on a motorway and ridiculously thirsty to boot. This current, 'F56' generation is much more luxurious in the way it traverses lumps and bumps in the road, far less nervous in the steering corrections department and way quieter in the cabin than any of its predecessors, while being relatively parsimonious on a steady-state cruise.

All very lovely. And all the sorts of things you don't really want from a hot hatch. The Cooper S is good to drive, unquestionably, as that steering and some really high-quality body control in all situations ensures it's by no means a dynamic duffer, but at no point does it ever get you grinning from ear-to-ear as you cob it into bends with wild abandon. And yes, for all its considerable refinement flaws, the R53 most surely did - we've had some of our most seminal drives in examples of that 163hp 'old-timer' MINI. Anyway, taking the rose-tinted specs off for a second and coming back to the modern-day S, even with its DSC disengaged, the MINI doesn't move about under lifts of the throttle as much as a keen enthusiast would like and it always feels as if it's holding a tiny bit back from its driver. Almost as if it were leaving room for something hotter and feistier in the range, like a John Coo... ah. Right.

Verdict

There's still rather a lot of OTT iconography and 'love me' attitude to get over if you're going to fully engage with the MINI Cooper S, but love these things plenty of people do - MINI has consistently sold between 22,000 and 25,000 units of the 3-Door alone in the UK for each of the past four years the Mk3 has been on sale. So the updated 2018 version is nailed-on to continue that trend.

And the updated version remains a thoroughly amenable, deeply talented machine. It looks better on the outside, now MINI has toned down some of the front-end design excess with the Piano Black pack, the interior (as badly packaged as it is for rear passengers and boot space) is a really exceptional effort in terms of its fit, finish and appearance, the chassis is an impressive one and the 2.0-litre drivetrain is as strong, punchy and refined as you could hope for. Nonetheless, the Cooper S, MINI Yours Customised gewgaws all over it or not, is a little bit too urbane for its own good. We've bumped it up half-a-star since our last encounter with the F56 in the Balearics because it does feel a more resolved machine in the handling stakes, but if you want the ultimate in driving thrills from a facelifted Mk3 MINI 3-Door, you're going to have to wait and spend even more cash on the John Cooper Works.

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Exterior Design

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Interior Ambience

3 3 3 3 3 Passenger Space

2.5 2.5 2.5 2.5 2.5 Luggage Space

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Safety

4 4 4 4 4 Comfort

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Driving Dynamics

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 26 Mar 2018









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2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.

2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.2018 MINI Cooper S 3dr drive. Image by MINI.








 

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