MINI Cooper 5-Door: long-term test review

Final report: Departure of our MINI Cooper 5-door makes it an unhappy start to 2019

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.5 out of 5

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In half a year we’ve rediscovered our love for the MINI Hatch. The 278-litre load area and fuel economy aren’t its strongest suits, although it’s smart, solid to drive and radiates charm.

Mileage: 7,960Economy: 38.5mpg

I’ve got the January blues. Nope, it’s nothing to do with an already-broken New Year’s resolution, a distinct lack of mince pies in my cupboard, or the terrifying thought of a dry month ahead; the MINI Cooper 5-Door is departing our fleet, and a little earlier than I would have liked.

I’ve chalked up a few thousand miles in the baby Brit since its arrival on a scorching August day last year, right in the wake of our feel-good World Cup summer. It feels bad having to wave goodbye in the cold depths of winter. This is a car I’ve really warmed to, and would love to have spent a bit more time with over the impending cold snap.

• The best hatchbacks on sale

Before my six months with the MINI, I’d only ever had a brief taste of BMW’s modern interpretation of the British icon. Yet on its departure, I’m convinced that this is one of the best superminis you can buy.

While the best-selling Ford Fiesta is the class’s top all-rounder, with its slightly more entertaining driving experience and keener price, I see the MINI as being a rung up the ladder in terms of desirability.

Posh small cars aren’t the easiest sell these days, especially now that the Fiesta is more capable than ever. However, when it’s lined up next to rivals like the Volkswagen Polo and the new Audi A1, the MINI remains the most convincing small premium car on the market. The reason for this is quite simple: it’s a car on a charm offensive.

The Polo and the A1 both hang a lot of their upmarket statuses on borrowing from bigger siblings, be it interior tech, materials or switchgear. However, given the width of the Volkswagen Group and the existence of cheaper siblings such as the SEAT Ibiza, they don’t feel as unique as the MINI.

Put simply, the MINI excels as a small posh hatchback because it feels like a star car in its own right, rather than a smaller, cheaper member of a premium brand’s line-up. It also doesn’t get hung up on using materials and modernity alone to sell itself as a premium item; instead, it uses smart, endearing, timeless design to set itself apart from the crowd. The model feels like a mission in fun, rather than function.

The MINI is one of the most customisable new models on sale, too, and it’s well suited to being injected with its driver’s personality rather than its maker’s. We took this to another level by fitting our car with some of the new MINI Yours Customised parts the moment we got it last summer.

Six months and thousands of miles down the line the parts themselves remain in good nick, so top marks for durability. However, as fun as it was to dress the MINI with some personal paraphernalia, I’m not sure the Yours Customised service will be an enormously popular option with buyers.

There’s no denying that it’s expensive. We opted for just two items off the menu: the side scuttles and cockpit facia, rounding up to £260 of 3D-printed plastics. This is, of course, because the parts are handmade in small batches, but it’s a lot of money for a little bit of fun. The slightly unconvincing stick-on illuminated scuff plates are £260 alone, and like the 3D-printed parts, you have to fit them yourself at home.

That said, the rest of the MINI package remains as strong as ever, as the third-generation BMW-made car enters its fourth year on the market. From the driver’s seat, the popular Cooper mixes a sensible engine with sweet steering. The 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol is noticeably quiet and makes for relaxing company on a motorway, while selecting the Sport setting unlocks a decent lick of pace.

It’s not truly exciting and there’s a definite gap between the Cooper and Cooper S, but as sub-hot hatchbacks go, you’ll struggle to find much this side of a Fiesta EcoBoost 140 that’s as much fun to drive as the Cooper.

Since we took delivery of the MINI, the brand has changed its trim structure in the UK. Our car would now be equivalent to a Cooper Classic, the entry-level model. There are also Sport and Exclusive versions that cost extra. Some of the option packs have been shuffled around as well.

Third report: MINI Cooper 5-door

Paint helps our MINI stand out in November rain

Mileage: 5,280Economy: 36.4mpg

When I initially took delivery of our MINI Cooper 5-door back in August, I couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t have chosen the bright orange paintjob if I’d been let loose with the configurator. 

A £525 extra on the options list, Solaris Orange Metallic is a retina-scorching shade and not one for the faint-hearted. However, after spending a day on the road in the MINI recently, I’m now quite smitten with this finish.

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A visit to Aston Martin’s new St Athan facility in south Wales meant a 350-mile round trip in the car. My journey out to Wales was hit hard by what is probably the heaviest and most unrelenting rain I have ever driven in. 

For many stretches, the M4 was a total washout. It wasn’t too busy, but the pace was changing suddenly and without warning as visibility got so poor that tail-lights were virtually impossible to see, let alone other cars. What started out as a long day on the road had quickly become a dangerous one.

One of the reasons for this is the sheer number of white, black, silver or grey cars on the road; they can easily be lost in the murky backdrop of a motorway deluge.

According to the latest data published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, an overwhelming majority of new cars registered in Britain – 70 per cent, to be precise – are one of those four dour shades, chosen mainly because they’re safe options when the time comes to sell on.

I like to think that other motorists caught in the downpour had no such problems picking me out in the colourful Cooper. It may seem a bit of a stretch to imagine, but one day, buying a bright and highly visible car may save you from a bump or worse.

Second report: MINI Cooper 5-door

Night-time is the right time for our MINI

Mileage: 4,800Economy: 36.1mpg

If there’s one thing our fleet cars are tasked with regularly, it’s airport runs. We travel all over the place to get the latest stories, scoops and car reviews. Often this means travelling out of Britain and back in one day, and that guarantees some very early starts and equally late finishes.

Quiet and comfortable cars are in demand as a result, and the MINI Cooper I’m running is making the grade as an airport shuttle. The five-door’s 1.5-litre three-cylinder motor is a very mature small engine. It’s particularly smooth and quiet for a three-cylinder, making the pre-dawn dashes to Heathrow and midnight trips back into London fairly tranquil.

The fuel economy is starting to improve, too. We were a little unimpressed with the 29.9mpg recorded over several long motorway trips when we first got our hands on the MINI, but the more varied running it has been exposed to recently has bumped the figure up to 36.1mpg.

It’s not just the smooth, grown-up engine that takes the edge off longer and potentially more stressful drives in the dark in our Cooper. While we don’t have the optional LED matrix headlights (£490), the standard LED units on the facelifted car are still impressive, channelling bright white light straight on to the tarmac.

The cruise control that is part of the optional Chili Pack (£2,800) on our Cooper model is refreshingly straightforward as well. There’s no need to fiddle around with various stalks and switches; just one prod of a big button mounted on the steering wheel sets the pace at a constant level, with the buttons for adjusting the speed also easy to use. Cruise control can be added on its own for £185 if you don’t want the other Chili Pack extras.

First report: MINI Cooper 5-Door

Mileage: 4,166Economy: 29.9mpg

Say hello to the latest addition to the Auto Express fleet: our new MINI Cooper 5-Door. I’ll be spending the next six months getting to grips with the hatch, and learning what the current-generation MINI has to offer as it enters the second part of its lifetime following its recent facelift.

Those Union flag tail-lights are the dead giveaway that this is the updated model. However, infotainment and technology updates aside, there’s one thing in particular that interests me about this refreshed MINI.

The best hatchbacks on sale 2018

Announced late last year, the MINI Yours Customised programme is the brand’s latest customisation service. Although it arrives virtually in sync with the updated model, all of the parts can be fitted to any third-generation car, even one made before the facelift.

For now, MINI offers customised 3D-printed side scuttles and dashboard facias, plus you can personalise illuminated LED doorsills and puddle lights. Just how expressive can you be? The truth is that it’s a mixed bag.

Customising 3D-printed parts such as the side scuttles and dashboard piece leaves you limited to the box of tools issued by MINI. That means a choice of five colours and five background patterns, a handful of icons and logos you can superimpose on top – plus, of course, the ability to enter text.

You can’t have any rude words printed on your parts, but the puddle lights and doorsills can be customised with a freehand signature. Still, with the tools MINI gives you, I managed to get creative, and before I knew it I had come up with a decent set of designs.

Our car has been kitted out with personalised versions of what we’re told will be the two most popular parts for customisation. Inside, you’ll spot a red 3D-printed dashboard, unashamedly branded with an Auto Express design.

Being a Sheffield United fan exiled in London, I managed to express some local pride in the side scuttles. And most excitingly of all, I visited MINI HQ in Munich to see our parts being made in a surprisingly intimate production process.

Project manager Thomas Schmitz told me that this is something MINI has wanted to offer its customers since 2010, although it can only be a small-scale operation for now, even eight years later than first planned. Just 15 people work in the 3D printing facility producing the custom parts. It’ll be difficult to make the department any larger in the brand’s current facilities, but a new, bigger home for the project is opening in 2019.

Producing the side scuttles requires a surprising amount of craftsmanship; your design isn’t just spat out by a computer in an afternoon.

New MINI 2018 facelift review

There are seven major steps. Firstly, your design is reviewed by a human to ensure it doesn’t break any rules. Once signed off, the printing process begins. The parts are made of a powder-based nylon, thinly clumped and glued into shape. This leaves the parts encased, requiring a brushing down by hand, followed by a spin in an air blaster.

They are then passed on to the paint workshop, where they’re sanded smooth, again by hand, and painted. Once they are dry, final assembly takes place.

Understandably, the whole process can take days. It’s completely separate from the production line, which is why you can’t have the parts fitted from the factory; you have to sort it out yourself at home after buying them online.

Is it idiot proof? Not entirely. Swapping out the scuttles is a little fiddly, and it’s vital that you make sure the rain cover goes back in place perfectly, which is a bit awkward. The dashboard piece pops in and out with one tool and is overall very simple, and although we don’t have the doorsills, we did have a go fitting them on a car in Germany; they stick on top of the old ones with strong adhesive, so it’s best to take your time lining them up.

*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

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