In the Santa Cruz mountains south of San Francisco, I switch the the 2015 Mini Cooper S' drive mode to Sport and the car exclaims, "Excellent." What follows is a torture test of four squealing tires on tight twisties, ostensibly the Mini's favorite arena, the 2-liter engine sending ready power to the front wheels. BMW's British marque has equipped this model with an automatic transmission, so it isn't quite as fun as the manual, but I do find second gear is too low for the speeds I can carry through most turns.
That bit about the car saying "Excellent" wasn't just in my head. I'm running the Mission Control feature of the Mini Connected app while I drive, which serves as an Artificial Intelligence-like companion. Less "2001," more like the movie " Her," Mission Control is a committee made up of a female voice for the car and male voices for engine and climate control, all with British accents.
While Mission Control merely delivers some randomized responses to specific car events, I can imagine it evolving to be an active racing coach, or a means of keeping drivers attentive on long road trips.
And this Cooper S really does come with a 2-liter engine, rather than the 1.6-liter engines of the previous generation . Mini fits these new Cooper Ses with a dual-stage turbocharged direct injection 2-liter four-cylinder engine, good for 189 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. That represents a more substantial torque increase than horsepower, but fuel economy sits at a respectable 26 mpg city and 33 mpg highway for the automatic transmission-equipped model, about the same as the previous generation.
There is yet another wrinkle to stun the Minirati -- this Mini Cooper S comes with four doors and does not include the term " Countryman " in its name.
In the US, where we call this model the 2015 Mini Cooper S 4-door, the starting price is $25,100, but the example I tested came with navigation, a head-up display and panoramic moonroof, bringing the total to a pricey $35,900. That's a good chunk higher than the base $20,450 for the non-S Mini Cooper Hardtop .
In the UK, where this model is more properly called the Mini Cooper S 5-door Hatch, the base version goes for £19,405. For a little more money, lucky Brits can opt for a diesel version, the Cooper SD. And in a land down under, Australian buyers will have to come up with AU$38,050 for the Cooper S 5-door Hatch, and a couple thousand more for all the add-on fees.
This generation of Mini Cooper S has grown up a bit, and its extra set of doors means the whole thing is about a foot longer than the previous two-door Cooper S and weighs 200 pounds (90 kilograms) more. That larger size and weight certainly affects handling, as the Mini Cooper S is now less go-kart and more hot hatch. Even with Sport mode engaged, the steering didn't feel quite as responsive as I would have liked, showing a bit too much play as I aimed into the turns. Likewise, it felt like there was more car around me than I would expect from a Mini, insulating me from the road.
At the same time, it was ridiculously easy to get the tires squealing, amping up the excitement. I felt the extra weight in the way the car responded to initial turn-in and subsequent inputs throughout a turn. Trying out a bit of trail-braking leading into a turn, the Mini Cooper S got all out of sorts, showing no desire to kick the tail out, none of the sense of play for which the brand is known. The Mini Cooper S has become a more mature car with a comfortable everyday road character, which will likely endear it even more to the people who buy it for style, but for handling acumen I would lean towards the latest Volkswagen Golf GTI .
Switching between Sport, Green or Mid drive modes had little effect on the handling, but changed engine response considerably. In Sport, the engine sent a whole lot of grunt to the front wheels at even a quarter throttle, while in Green or Mid modes, I could modulate the power through the entire travel of the accelerator pedal.
As a further fuel-saving measure, the Mini Cooper S comes with idle stop, shutting down the engine at traffic stops. I generally like this feature because who would want to burn gasoline while sitting at a long red light? I did have to switch it off when going up one of San Francisco's notorious hills, as traffic and stop signs would have had the engine frequently restarting while also negotiating a 25 percent grade.
Mini's dual-stage turbo helps maintain fairly smooth acceleration, as it lets the engine more steadily ramp up power than a typical single-stage turbo engine. The 189 horsepower output seems like plenty for the Mini Cooper S, even if you take advantage of the rear doors to load the car with your friends. The rear seat includes lightly molded buckets, discouraging you from cramming three passengers in back, so helping performance.
The six-speed automatic shifted quietly, working unobtrusively in the background. When I moved the shifter to Sport, along with the car mode, it was willing to hold on to the low gears a little longer, although wasn't terribly aggressive. Going to the paddles for manual gear selection, I found the gear changes typically soft. The too-low second gear meant I was usually going too fast to make use of it, so third became the sweet spot for the twisty mountain roads.
My constant companions from Mission Control chimed in with useful comments about how much gasoline I had left and fun facts about Mini's history. Mini Connected adds a ton of other features, ranging from the very useful, such as online destination search, to the purely social, such as Facebook integration.
Getting Mini Connected to work, however, requires jumping through a few hoops. You need the Mini Connected option in the car, the Mini Connected app on an iPhone, and that iPhone cabled to the car's USB port. Mini offers the app for Android, but it lacks all the features of the iPhone app and gets poor reviews on the Google Play store.
A head-up display makes an interesting new option for the Mini Cooper S. Similar to that offered in the Mazda3 , it projects vehicle speed, route guidance and voice command prompts on a little transparent shield sticking out of the dashboard. With its speed display, I began ignoring the actual instrument cluster altogether. Visual prompts for voice command were a useful addition to the system, as it showed me available commands.
Mini gets most of this cabin tech from brand owner BMW, and it shows in the excellent quality of the maps in the navigation system, featuring detailed rendered buildings in urban areas. Similar to BMW models, the wide LCD in the center dash can show a split screen, with main content in the left two-thirds and auxiliary content on the right. A dial with a touchpad set into its top, accompanied by a few shortcut buttons, sits on the console, a duplicate of the latest iDrive controls found in BMWs. The touchpad on the dial let me enter alpha-numeric characters for destinations and other inputs, recognizing my finger-tip scrawls with a high degree of accuracy.
While the online destination search feature from Mini Connected sends the addresses it finds to the Mini Cooper S' navigation system, Mini doesn't include online search as an item in the main destination menu. You will have to dig through the Mini Connected menus to find it.
Listening to music from my iPhone over the cabled connection or Bluetooth, or HD radio stations, the premium Harman Kardon audio system included in this Mini Cooper S delivered satisfying sound, although not of pristine audiophile quality. I particularly like how this generation of Mini lets me access a full music library interface on its dashboard whether I'm using the USB port or the Bluetooth connection. Only a few automakers have adopted this more advanced Bluetooth system. Mini Connected also gave me the option of listening to online radio stations from all around the world, with a smaller list curated by Mini.
I could rant about how the 2015 Mini Cooper S changed, how it doesn't drive quite like the previous generation, but there are plenty of used Minis out there for those who crave that style of engaged handling. What we have here is a mature car with expanded utility and broadened appeal. The extra set of doors will make it easier to get people in the back, and the extra size makes for more cargo space. Mini keeps its iconic styling, complete with hood stripes and Union Jack details, a draw for the brand extending back to its 2001 revival.
Mini went with a bigger engine for this generation of Cooper S, gaining a little horsepower and a lot of torque, but not sacrificing fuel economy. That engine will handle the increased passenger and cargo capability better. The driving character may not be what it once was, but the car remains reasonably responsive and adds comfort.
The Mini Cooper S can boast a set of advanced cabin electronics not readily available in this segment. Navigation, audio, communications and driver assistance are all first-rate, especially throwing in features such as the head-up display and available automated parallel parking. The phone connectivity through the Mini Connected app adds an element of fun and real utility. However, you will need to pick and choose options carefully, lest the car gets well into premium pricing territory.
|Model||2015 Mini Cooper|
|Powertrain||Turbocharged direct injection 2-liter four-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmisison|
|EPA fuel economy||26 mpg city/33 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||27.7 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based streaming, Bluetooth audio, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Harman Kardon 480-watt 10-speaker system|
|Base price||$25,100, £19,405, AU$38,050|
|Price as tested||$35,900|