In-depth reviews

MINI hatchback review - Engines, performance and drive

A brilliant range of engines and one of the best small car driving experiences there is – but comfort suffers

BMW has rung the ‘go-kart handling’ message dry since taking on the MINI brand in 2001, but it remains a very apt way to describe the driving experience. The latest MINI is one of the most all-out fun cars to drive at any price, with safe, predictable handling, near zero body roll and lots of feel through the seat and steering wheel.

Combined with its low-slung driving position and near-enough perfect ergonomics, the MINI is usually a smile-inducing experience. But that’s ‘usually’ because the ride quality can be firm, especially at lower speeds or on bad roads.

The ride quality is noticeably better than that of previous generation MINIs, but the car doesn’t have the sophisticated balance of bump-soaking comfort and handling feel that, say, a Ford Fiesta has.

It gets better or worse depending on wheel choice, so it’s up to you whether you want to choose the looks of 17- or 18-inch wheels from the options list, or the relative comfort of small-looking 15-inch wheels. Logically, 16-inch rims tend to be a nice compromise between the two.

The sports suspension on Cooper S and JCW stiffens and lowers the car noticeably, though optional adaptive dampers help because they let you toggle between a comfort and sports setting – pricey though they are.

The MINI isn’t usually uncomfortable, however. It’s nicely settled at motorway speeds, while the relative lack of wind and road noise makes it feel like a very grown-up small car. Factor in strong acceleration with most models (basic One variants aside), and this is a surprisingly relaxing long-distance cruiser.

Of all the engines it’s the three-cylinder petrol Cooper that shines brightest, because it’s quick and very eager to be revved – but not so powerful that it races to unnecessary or unmanageable speeds. It really suits the character of the car, and it sounds great.

Although lacking the terrific sound of the three-pot model, the MINI Electric brings the benefits of instant acceleration, cheap running costs and silent running. It actually rides quite nicely and is more comfortable than you might expect, especially if you’re moving to electric ownership from an older MINI.

The longer five-door petrol model feels no different to the three-door MINI from the front seat, with extra space between front and rear wheels having little discernible effect on handling – this is a car that cocoons the driver, in the positive sense.

Engines

There are four petrol engines to choose from. The entry-level MINI One gets a 101bhp 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo, while the Cooper gets a 134bhp version of the same engine. The Cooper S has a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine with 189bhp, and the JCW model, also a 2.0-litre, is boosted further to 228bhp.

The MINI One uses the Cooper's 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine, albeit detuned to 101bhp. It’s not very quick (in fact it's slightly slower off the mark than the old 1.2) with a 10.3-second 0-62mph sprint time (10.6 in the five-door). 

The 1.5-litre petrol in the Cooper really does shine, though. With 134bhp and 220Nm of torque from just 1,480rpm it’s quite strong from low revs, but the real magic is at the top end of the rev range. It sounds raspy and pulls strongly, with 0-62mph coming in 8.0s, or 8.3s in the five-door owing to its extra bulk.

The Cooper S engine perhaps loses some charm on account of being a four-cylinder, but it’s very quick, with a 6.8/6.9-second sprint to 62mph (3dr/5dr) and a more fiery tone from the twin central exhaust pipes. 

And then the JCW engine, a highly tuned version of the Cooper S unit, is positively rip-roaring, racing up the rev range, popping and cracking all the way. However, the ultra-aggressive MINI John Cooper Works GP model takes things onto another level. The front-wheel-drive racer packs a hefty 302bhp and 450Nm of torque, with MINI claiming a 0-62mph time of 5.2 seconds and a top speed of 164mph. It's festooned with aero kit including a striking double wing on the roof and, in the interests of weight-saving, there's no back seats, so while it will entertain the keen driver it's even less-practical than the regular three-door hatch.

The standard range now comes with a choice of a six-speed manual (all models) or a new seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox for the One, Cooper and Cooper S; the JCW carries over the pre-2018 facelift's eight-speed conventional auto box. The manual is more precise than the old one but isn’t quite as slick to shift, while the auto is more efficient but still never quite seems to know the right gear to be in.

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