The 2016 MINI Cooper range encompasses as many as 10 different vehicles, not only the classic “Hardtop 2-Door” but also a new “Hardtop 4-Door” introduced last year. There’s also a Convertible model, which is just being switched over from last year’s old version to the new design and will go on sale in March 2016. The two hardtop versions are the subject of this review. We’ve covered the much larger Countryman model separately; it’s the sole MINI offered with all-wheel drive.
Both MINI Cooper hardtop models are actually hatchbacks, with three and five doors respectively; the Convertible has two doors and a tiny trunk lid instead. Even in its third generation, the MINI remains a very small car, but it’s one that’s improved over the years, even as it retains the distinctive looks, rollerskate handling, and cheeky character of previous generations.
While the four-door hardtop model is new with this generation, it keeps the classic MINI styling idiom very much intact. Its upright windshield, long roof, horizontal window line, and oval front lights all shout “MINI,” as does the optional white-painted roof. Only its longer nose telegraphs the complete redesign it received during 2014, until you put today’s MINI next to an older version from 2007 or even 2002. It’s slightly larger in every dimension, and the less stubby front and longer hood indicate the stronger bodyshell and new crash structures underneath.
Inside, the current design brings the MINI up to par and beyond in several areas, including refinement, interior materials, standard and optional features, and general comfort. Its designers have cleaned up the ergonomics, which in earlier MINIs looked as though a box of switches and dials was tossed into at the dash and fastened where they landed. Now both a speedometer and a tachometer sit behind the steering wheel, at last, and the large round dial in the center of the dashboard shape houses only a display screen (of various dimensions depending on model and optional equipment).Three rotating knobs handle the ventilation system, and overall it’s far easier to understand how the various functions and controls actually work.
The two hardtop MINI models are powered by engines from a modular family shared with BMW. The base MINI Cooper has a 1.5-liter three-cylinder, while the more powerful Cooper S has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Either one can be ordered with either a six-speed manual gearbox (our preference) or a six-speed automatic. Both engines are direct-injected and turbocharged; the 124-horsepower three produces as much power as the base four in earlier generations did, but it’s peppier and considerably more fuel-efficient as well. The turbo four in Cooper S is rated at 189 hp.
MINIs have always been known for their roadholding and handling—remember The Italian Job?—and the urban rollerskate image remains intact. But the car is considerably quieter and more comfortable to travel in, with excellent electric power steering. A handful of optional suspension upgrades ensure that it’s all but impossible to disturb the MINI’s composure on almost any road surface. To our surprise, we ended up liking the base model better than the higher-performance Cooper S. The difference in performance between the two is smaller than before, at least until the higher-output John Cooper Works versions arrive, and the base car is lighter and less expensive.
The better-quality interior of the current car is one of its most appealing features. The driving position is close to ideal, and the front sport seats are superbly comfortable. Rear-seat riders now get 3 more inches of shoulder room, meaning it’s at least possible to seat adults back there. While there’s still a lot of black trim and upholstery inside the cabin, more soft-touch materials are used. Combined with the more logical layout of controls and switches, it’s just a friendlier place to be.
The IIHS gives the latest MINI Cooper its top rating of ‘Good’ on every test, including the tough new IIHS small-overlap front crash test. But so far, the NHTSA has not rated the 2016 MINI Cooper for crash safety. Eight airbags are now standard in the car, along with the usual suite of safety systems. But the MINI Cooper offers a few novel options as well. Befitting its performance aspirations, one of those is corner-braking control, in which each wheel’s brake force is adjusted to maximize traction even under hard braking, based on the car’s cornering attitude.
While the base MINI Cooper with the three-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual gearbox starts around $21,000, prices can mount quickly as buyers page through literally dozens of options, packages, trim levels, paint and upholstery colors, and appearance options to customize their cars. Standard features include LED headlights and leather upholstery.
The more powerful Cooper S starts about $3,500 higher, and an automatic transmission adds another $1,250 to either model. A reasonably equipped three-cylinder MINI should run somewhere in the high 20s, though a heavy hand on the options list will take that well into the 30s. A top-of-the-line Cooper S with lots of options approaches $40,000. We think the best value is the smaller-engined car, which is lighter, almost as quick as the Cooper S, and provides a quirky and endearing exhaust note on idle.
Whichever body style you choose, and however you spec the car, the 2016 MINI Cooper provides the cheerful character and urban-warrior handling the brand is known for, in a package with fewer rough spots and compromises than previous generations. It had to get a little bigger to do that, but we’re willing to trade all that for a little extra size.
The rest of the MINI range–including Coupe, Convertible, Roadster, and Clubman models — remained essentially unchanged over the last two years. For full details, see our 2014 MINI Cooper review. However, new Convertible and Clubman models are due very soon.
For a more detailed review of the much larger Countryman utility vehicle, the only MINI version that offers all-wheel drive, see our 2016 MINI Countryman review.