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New MINI Cooper S 2021 review

The MINI has been facelifted as part of its 20th birthday celebrations. We try it out in Cooper S guise...

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

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Verdict

The MINI hatch family is still one of the most convincing takes on the premium small car formula, and these latest updates are well received. As a hot Cooper S, it lacks the interaction and feedback that makes a Ford Fiesta ST so brilliant, but on the other hand, it feels more grown up and is better finished inside. The Cooper S isn’t our pick of the range, however - the 1.5-litre Cooper is still the best all-rounder.

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April 2021 marked 20 years since the first BMW-developed MINI rolled off the production line in Oxford. Perfect timing, then, for MINI to gift the third-generation version of its popular supermini a facelift for its final few years on sale.  

The main changes are cosmetic, but the update also includes a few modest tech and mechanical upgrades. In terms of design the biggest changes take place at the front. As is the current trend across the new car spectrum, the front grille grows even larger, in this case it now drops right to the lower edge of the bumper. The “safety bar” that cuts through the middle is body coloured instead of black as it was before.

On the 176bhp Cooper S Sport version we’re driving here in five door form, the grille is swapped out for a mesh item incorporating a pair of upright intakes at the lower outer edges, inspired by the bodykit on the Cooper Works GP. The foglights are now integrated into the headlights with black bezels, and are now full-LED as standard across the MINI range.

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New slim vertical vents appear, which are designed to improve aero efficiency by channeling air through the bumper and around the wheels. The wheels come in one of five new designs, while around the back there’s a new rear apron which mimics the hexagonal detail of the updated front end.

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The paint selection includes three new body shades to choose from, and a new triple tone contrast roof. This merges from dark blue at the front, to light blue in the middle, to black at the back and continuing over the redesigned rear spoiler.

Inside, the MINI range gets a new infotainment system. As before, the round centre pod is crying out for a round touchscreen to fit within it, but instead there’s a new 8.8-inch rectangular display surrounded by updated switchgear. The software on the system is MINI’s adaption of the BMW iDrive user interface, so it’s slick to use as ever and the MINI-specific graphics look fantastic.

The MINI interior ambient lighting package has been updated too. Previously, the car’s interior surfacing was backlit by adjustable LEDs, but now there’s a gentle glow of underlight around the cabin. The centre bezel around the infotainment screen glows different shades depending on the selected driving mode, and flicks between different colours as you flow through various menus and settings on the display. The steering wheel is new, too. Not only is it available with heating elements for the first time, but the buttons on the spokes now sport a much cleaner piano black finish. 

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Out on the road, the most significant change comes via new damping. MINI has ditched the electronically adaptive setup, which adjusted through the Eco, Comfort and Sport drive modes, for passive dampers with a special valve, which opens over sudden compressions. In theory, this means that the dampers can be set up firmly to keep the handling sharp, but the valve opens over the harshest bumps, reducing the rebound in order to smooth out the ride when necessary. 

It seems to work well. The ride comfort feels a touch smoother than it previously did on the adaptive setup, while maintaining a flat attitude when cornering hard. It’s not quite as playful as the Ford Fiesta ST, but the Mini is more than willing to tuck its nose - or waggle its tail - through a corner by playing both with the throttle or the steering.

As before the MINI’s steering rack is very quick, giving the car its characteristic darty feel through the turns. However, there’s not much feedback offered through the chunky wheel rim, so you never feel quite as immersed in the action in a way the very finest hot hatches can.

That’s not the only problem with the steering. That new switchgear on the spokes may look fancy in the piano black finish, but the buttons are too sensitive. Take a corner keenly, and you’ll find yourself blasted by radio noise as you inadvertently squeeze the volume up button with the fleshy part of your thumb.

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But that’ll only drown out an engine that doesn’t sound particularly inspiring. The engine in this Cooper S is unchanged from before: a 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder unit with 176bhp. Performance is great thanks to a healthy dose of torque and a keenness to climb to the red line, but the exhaust note is a little flat by any standard, and especially so for a hot hatchback

A Seven-speed ‘sports’ automatic gearbox is an option. Shifts through the gears are smooth, though it can be slow to respond - especially on kickdown. You can take over control of the shifts with the steering wheel mounted paddles, which introduce a bit more involvement. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard. 

Prices for the Cooper S start from what seems like a reasonable £23,805 in the entry equipment level, called Classic. That’s a few hundred pounds less than the Ford Fiesta ST-3. However, to get the new dampers, you’ll need to go for either the top-end Exclusive trim or this Sport model, which costs £26,355. 

Get trigger happy with the options list and things can get out of hand quite quickly. The car in these photos adds among other things, 18-inch alloy wheels (an inch larger than standard - £700), Navigation Plus pack (wireless smartphone charging, real time traffic data, head up display and more - £2,400), and Comfort Plus pack (heated front seats, electrically folding door mirrors, rear view camera - £1,600). Throw in the £1,700 automatic gearbox, and the Cooper S will set you back £32,480. That’s worryingly close to very capable hot hatches from the class above like the Volkswagen Golf GTI and the brilliant Honda Civic Type R

Model:MINI 5-Door Hatch Cooper S Sport
Price: £26,355
Engine: 2.0 4cyl petrol turbo
Power: 176bhp/280Nm
Transmission: Seven-speed auto, front-wheel drive
0-62mph: 6.7 seconds
Top speed: 146 mph
Economy/CO2: 46.3mpg/138g/km
On sale: Now
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Chief reviewer

Alex joined Auto Express as staff writer in early 2018, helping out with news, drives, features, and the occasional sports report. His current role of Chief reviewer sees him head up our road test team, which gives readers the full lowdown on our comparison tests.

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