2021 Mini Cooper S review: small changes keep premium hatch feeling fresh
In an apparent effort to make me feel old, Mini’s PR bods pointed out that the day I drove the facelifted version of the hatchback was exactly 20 years since the production of the first modern Mini began.
It’s hard to believe that the instantly recognisable shape has been around for two decades and that we've had to put up with insufferable anoraks droning that “it’s not a proper Mini” for that long.
While we’ve had changes to the line-up, ranging from the Countryman SUV to the bizarre Paceman, the Mini’s identity has always been clear and, seeing the new car next to the original R50, it’s striking how much the design has managed to evolve while retaining the Mini’s instantly recognisable looks.
This latest facelift in some ways harks back to the first generation with a cleaner, less fussy front end than previously. That’s not to say it’s subtle. The Mini’s grille has expanded further, stretching from bonnet lip to bumper level and finished in gloss black, creating a sadly slack-jawed appearance. Standard cars get a body-coloured strip running through that grille but some trims, like our Sport delete it again.
Additional changes include new headlight units finished in gloss black and ringed by a light band that acts as DRL and indicator, with those items replaced by vertical air inlets in the front apron. Again, on our Cooper S, those slim intakes have been deleted in favour of broader scoops.
Other cosmetic changes for 2021 include five new alloy wheel designs and three new colours, including the spectacular Zesty Yellow exclusive to the convertible. There is also the option to choose a new multitone roof with a gradient finish.
Interior changes follow a similar pattern to those on the outside, modernising while maintaining a link to those first cars. The shiny chrome elements have been reduced in favour of gloss black, the old-style handbrake has been ditched and touches such as the air vents and audio controls have been better integrated to give the dashboard a smoother finish.
The dashboard still echoes the Mini badge, with two wings spreading out from the circular central binnacle but, like the grille, that display is now almost a parody of the original. On the first cars it was a nicely retro analogue speedo and substantially smaller, now it’s nearly the size of the wheels on the original Issigonis Mini and dominates the dash entirely. Making matters worse is that the 8.8-inch rectangular screen, updated with a new-look interface and features, looks lost sitting at the centre of the giant circle.
But while the central pod is over the top, the rest of the cabin is still a comfortable well thought out place to spend time with top-drawer materials and nice touches like the metallic toggle switches in the centre console. Bear in mind, however, that this is still a Mini so ever this larger five-door is tight on space and light on practical touches such as storage spaces.
While the latest update has brought visual changes, as well as spec and tech improvements, under the bonnet, the Mini’s engine line-up remains the same.
Entry-level One and Cooper models get a three-cylinder 1.5-litre petrol with 101bhp or 134bhp. Above them the tested Cooper S gets a turbo 2.0-litre putting out 176bhp while the JCW gets a 228bhp tune of the same four-cylinder.
On the road the Cooper S is lively and willing. Nought to 62mph takes a respectable 6.8 seconds and thanks to a healthy 207lb ft the Cooper S feels strong and responsive from low revs all the way up to the red line. A seven-speed auto ‘box can feel occasionally hesitant but you can take over via paddles behind the steering wheel.
From that cartoonishly thick wheel, you’ll experience the Mini’s trademark go-kart handling. While it is bigger and heavier than it once was there are still few mainstream cars that have the directness of the Cooper S. Even in five-door form its immediate steering and chuckability is enough to put a smile on your face on an even slightly twisty road.
Enhancing the handling is a new adaptive suspension system. Set up to offer a firmer sporty ride and body control in normal conditions, a mechanical valve within the damper can open in milliseconds to soften the blow of harsh bumps, offering the best of both worlds without the complexity of the previous electronically controlled setup.
It all adds up to a car that’s still great fun to drive, and while it lacks the ultimate engagement of the Ford Fiesta ST the Mini is more spacious, more premium feeling and has more kerb appeal.
That’s enhanced in Sport trim models like ours which come with a full John Cooper Works pack - essentially all the JCW cosmetics without the performance.
Other trim packs including the Classic and Exclusive have been enhanced with new cosmetic choices plus the chance to add high-tech options such as digital instrument binnacle, active cruise control and ambient lighting.
Prices for the three-door Mini One start at £16,605 and the five-door is £700 more. Our test car started at £24,380 but its on the road price of £33,000 is a cautionary tale for anyone exploring the endless options list.
There’s no doubt that in the 20 years since it was launched, the Mini hatchback has got bigger and more expensive. But from the way it looks to the joyous way it drives its key selling points are still front and centre. And with endless personalisation options, plus the choice of mild, sporty and even electric drivetrains it’s hard to see its appeal weakening any time soon.
Mini 5-Door Cooper S Sport
Price: £24,380 (£33,285 as tested); Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol; Power: 176bhp; Torque: 207lb ft; Transmission: Seven-speed automatic; Top speed: 146mph; 0-62mph: 6.8 seconds; Economy: 52.3mpg; CO2 emissions: 124g/km