2021 Mini Cooper S Road Test | No, I'm not going to write all its extra names

James Riswick
·7-min read


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"Show me the bridge of the Enterprise you chatterin' piece of ..." Scotty demands of the holodeck computer in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Relics."

"There have been five Federation ships with that name, please specify by registry number," it replies.

"N.C.C. 1701. No bloody A, B, C or D."

I feel you Mr. Scott. This is the first proper Mini I've driven since 2014. And by "proper" I mean a Mini Cooper: no bloody 4-Door, Countryman, Clubman or whatever the Paceman was. Officially, it's a 2021 Mini Cooper S Hardtop 2 Door, but come on, this is the Mini. The original, or rather, the original re-creation. This is the car that spawned and inspired the others; that brought character and customization to a cookie-cutter, off-the-lot industry; that allowed a small car to be cool. Sure, this is the mid-cycle refresh of the third generation, but I'm happy to immediately report that despite gaining pounds and inches, the Mini still feels like a Mini.

It's still taut, tiny and easily chucked from corner to corner. It's impeccably composed, too, with no issues over big heaves that typically upset a chassis. The feelsome steering is tight and responsive on center, although as has regrettably been the case since the second generation, hitting the Sport button at start-up is a must to satisfy that worn-out go-kart-feel cliché. Ditto to get just-right throttle response.

The sophisticated, expertly tuned suspension is not only up to the task of whatever is thrown at it, but it also delivers a firm yet compliant ride. Perhaps this speaks more to advancements in run-flat tire technology over the years, but for those who remember older reborn Minis, especially the Flintstones ride of the first generation, this will clearly be the latest iteration's crowning achievement.

The Cooper S engine has always been a treat (the base engine not so much despite the excellent current one). Today it's a 2.0-liter turbo inline-four good for 192 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque, and in all honestly, that's excessive for a small, front-wheel-drive car like this. Hello torque steer. It'll tug the wheel in a straight line and when powering out of a corner. I haven't driven the 231-hp John Cooper Works, but that must be pure nonsense. Would I stick with the base Cooper's torquey little turbo inline-three? Probably.

Either way, it would have a six-speed manual transmission like this one does – and if I'm to think of the last time I drove a proper Mini with one of those, we're possibly going back to the Bush administration. Maybe that says more about press vehicle availability and writing assignments over the years, but this drought also seems pretty indicative of a brand that has spent years expanding beyond its original re-creation into new sizes and segments. The general concept of that is understandable: People are bound to outgrow their two-door subcompact with the rinky-dink trunk. Providing something larger with the same core attributes of nimble handling and quirky character makes a ton of sense. It's good for the company that sells them and it's good for customers, too. They can still have a Mini even if it's not the Mini.

Except it's hard not to think that BMW hasn't put enough effort in making sure the Mini remains desirable and relevant enough to bring in new people. Oh, it's added the needed infotainment and safety features, and refined the engineering to make sure each version is generally better than the last. However, like the myriad brand extension models, those efforts mostly speak to keeping existing customers in the fold. There's really nothing innovative in terms of feature content or design to attract new people. And no, Union Jacks in the taillights and the dash aren't innovative. They're a tad pandering and reek of a brand that's run out of ideas.

Mini used to have all sorts of ideas. Mostly zany ones. Toggle switches. Pie-sized speedometer in the middle of the car. Scottish or Puerto Rican flag decals on the roof. Ambient lighting before everyone had it. A chorus of characters that would say fun things as you drove along, from plugging in your seatbelt to taking turns quickly (seriously, you could get it on the 2010 Mini Cooper Camden and Mayfair editions).

Some of these things are still there; part of what distinguishes the Mini brand. Well, not "Mini Mission Control." As such, climbing into the latest Mini after a generation and many model years makes it feel like I never left. That might be comforting for me, but it's also part of the problem. For anyone not enthusiastic, nostalgic or at least familiar with the Mini shtick, this car is bound to seem bizarre.

I'm mostly talking about the interior here. There's just too many places that seem, perhaps fittingly, retrofitted. The digital instrument pod with fuzzy resolution that doesn't match the central screen. The center console infotainment controls that are basically Mini-fied iDrive, but located so awkwardly low and far back they're basically useless. And then, perhaps worst of all, Mini has literally put a square peg in a round hole: the infotainment touchscreen that resides in the vestigial dash circle.

And no, despite this generation getting on in years, it has always been this way. Basically, Mini didn't really know what to keep and what to move away from in terms of kitschy Mini-ness from the first two generations, so it basically just kept everything and shoe-horned in some BMW tech. It also never thought of (or chose to pay for) a round touchscreen, which is definitely something that exists. And it's not like the other Mini Men of the Club and the Country are any better.

Part of staying cool is to be new and different, and the Mini of 2021 is most definitely not. It's like a former fashion icon still rocking a trademark look from 15 years ago. Other retro-inspired enthusiast cars like the Jeep Wrangler, Ford Mustang and Porsche 911 have done a much better job of remaining relevant and cool, and I think a big part of that has been their interiors that have been much better at adapting themselves to modern conveniences and adopting new designs while retaining a few token retro touches.

Hell, each of those cars even has toggle switches. Would any of them if it wasn't for the Mini? Each of those also does a much better job of introducing new variants every year to keep them relevant. Mini's special design editions are fun and all, but it's not really something to get the typical car enthusiast excited. That said, even from a fashion standpoint, Mini seems to have lost its way.

The brand was as much made by the Mini's available bright colors, contrasting roofs and mirrors, bonnet stripes, ambient interior lighting and roof flags as it was the car itself. Such customization actually had American car buyers ordering their cars, which is basically a miracle. My wife happily waiting four months to get her 2005 Cooper S exactly the way she wanted it. Yet, check out the Mini configurator now: it's all so normal. Where did all the fun go?

That it's still tremendously fun to drive shows that Mini hasn't lost its way where it really counts. Taking a look across the corporate way at BMW shows how disappointing that can be. Yet, these two corporate siblings are fascinating in their seemingly opposite states of being. While Mini is too stringently clinging to the past and its existing customers, BMW has absolutely no problem boldly reimagining itself and not caring if it's cheesing off its change-averse faithful.

We know that a next-generation Mini Cooper is on its way and that a reimagined interior is a strong possibility. If so, it would make a world of difference. However, it's also possible that little will help a subcompact two-door hatchback be relevant and cool in a market hungry for big, four-door SUVs. An electric powertrain that builds upon the compelling if poorly named Cooper SE? Perhaps. I just hope that no matter what Mini the brand does in the future, it does a better job of making sure the Mini retains the driving fun and spirit of the original recreation without adhering too closely to its aesthetics. Hopefully I won't feel as at home next time I test the Mini.

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