2011 MINI Cooper S Review [Video]

Updated MINI range builds on strengths, ignores weaknesses

2011 MINI Cooper S Review [Video]
Share this Article

It’s new? Are you sure?  But it doesn’t look new. Then again, MINI hasn’t really come up with an original design since the ‘new’ Cooper debuted in 2001. And even then one could argue it was just a modern interpretation of the classic shape.

FAST FACTS

1. Power gets a slight bump to 181-hp with a solid 6.6 second 0-60 time.

2. Fuel economy is also improved at 27/36-mpg for the manual and 26/34-mpg for the automatic.

3. MINI Connected designed with Apple products in mind and can even read your Tweets to you or stream webradio.

4. The Cooper S gets a slight price increase to $23,700.

OK, so the 2011 model is just a mid-cycle refresh. That being said the Cooper, not to mention our more fun Cooper S test car, gets a long list of small upgrades in numerous areas that help add-on more of what the car does best. Unfortunately, MINI has done nothing to address the car’s few, albeit important, drawbacks.

Design wise, it’s barely worth noting the changes to the Cooper S with adjustments so minute it’s even hard to tell this year’s car apart from the 2010 model when parked side by side.

TURBOCHARGED ENGINE GETS MORE ‘POP’

More, slightly less-insignificant changes have been made under the hood, with the turbocharged 4-cylinder now getting BMW’s Valvetronic variable valve timing technology, resulting in a bump in power of 9 ponies. The new total is 181-hp, delivering a 6.6 second 0-60 mph time. Like all MINIs, it feels much faster though, and with a curb weight of just under 2,700 lbs the thrust from the turbo will keep you excited well above anything remotely legal.

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Yet as much straight-line acceleration as the Cooper S brings, it absolutely excels on winding roads – especially with the sport button pressed, tightening-up the steering and throttle response to near open-wheel levels.

Adding to the enjoyment, MINI has enhanced the popping sound from the engine when under deceleration or when you lift off the throttle. From a technical standpoint, it’s completely irrelevant, but from an ownership perspective its value is huge. Not only adding to the uniqueness of the car, it speaks to a level of performance well beyond the cutesy shape. Every pop tells those around you that this is not a “chick car” and that, when asked, it can mess with some pretty serious metal.

IMPROVED STEERING, BUT GRIP STILL HARD TO COME BY

A more functional improvement is new anti-torque steer programming that keeps the wheels pointed forward under hard acceleration. The car does pull to the side far less than in the past, unfortunately, however, MINI has done nothing new to combat that spinning inside tire.

For several years now no mechanical limited slip has been offered on the MINI lineup and the Electronic Differential Lock Control (EDLC) system, essentially an electronic LSD, is engaged only when the DTC is shut completely off. MINI engineers insist it works as well as the real deal, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way and as it stands you’ll get plenty of wheel spin or DSC interference in low gears, when you input lots of steering and throttle. Besides, it would be nice to have the properties of a limited slip without having to turn off all the safety gear. Just because you’re in the mood for a spirited drive it doesn’t mean you’re at the track. Thankfully it’s by no means as unmanageable as the MazdaSpeed3, but it’s hardly ideal.

Even with the added power for 2011, MINI managed to eek out a little extra fuel economy – always a plus. The 6-speed manual now gets 27/36-mpg compared to 26/34-mpg, while automatics see a similar jump rising to 26/34-mpg from 24/32-mpg.

NEW TELEMATICS SYSTEM TO KEEP YOU ‘CONNECTED’

The single largest addition for 2011 is MINI Connected, a new telematics system designed to integrate everything from Bluetooth, to audio, to navigation. It does not, however, include controls for the climate control system, which would be nice as the joystick (however silly a method of operation) is infinitely better than the standard MINI controls. In fact, MINI ergonomics are so bad that if the interior design team had been in charge of the tires, they’d be square.

As for the ‘Connected’ system itself, well, it does look out-of-place, with the rectangle display jammed into the circle hole that is the hideously-large and terribly-located center speedometer. Designed to work with Apple products like the iPhone, other smart phone owners need not apply. That might sound harsh, but it’s reality and reflects the fact that in market studies the vast majority of MINI owners are also Mac loyalists. (They needed a study to tell them that?)

With the MINI Connected App for the iPhone, the system will do cool things like read tweets or RSS feeds to you, let you access webradio and even give all kinds of fuel economy info on the car.

If you do live by your iPod and want MINI Connected then we absolutely insist upgrading the audio system. At $750 it’s not cheap, but the factory system has about as much bass as a Rock Opera sung by the Chipmunks. The amp cuts power to the speakers at even modest levels of volume, meaning that if you’re the karaoke type, you’ll find yourself belting out “Bohemian Rhapsody” without a digital accompaniment. And let’s face it; you don’t have the chops of a Freddie Mercury.

PREMIUM PRICE

As for the drive, it’s as fun as they come, delivering incredible balance, tight and responsive steering, plus the ability to speed through corners well above what you thought was possible. The suspension is a bit stiff though – MINI did nothing about that. The cabin is airy and spacious, which is always surprising for such a small car. It’s also ‘airy’ in another way, with a significant amount of wind noise generated by that upright windshield. One small feature we love is the hill-start assist, something every manual transmission car could use.

The price for the Cooper S seems reasonable at first for $23,700 but that number is rather misleading. That harmon kardon audio system, paired with a sunroof and automatic climate control in the Premium Package adds on $1,750; with $1,000 for MINI Connected ($1,750 with Navigation); plus an additional $1,000 (or more) for leather. And while unique, the leather just looks and feels low grade – all for something that’s going to cost roughly $30,000.

For a lot less you can be looking at a VW GTI, or one of many Japanese sport compacts like the Civic Si or MazdaSpeed3.

THE VERDICT

Improving on its strengths, MINI has made the Cooper S an even more attractive package, with technology that’s sure to please urbanite Mac geeks, more fuel economy to appease your inner Al Gore and an excessive amount of metrosexual style. Oh, and let’s not forget a touch more performance, in case you’re actually thinking of buying a MINI for the best reason there is.

More than pleased with all these improvements, our continued complaints fall on deaf ears and are likely to do so for some time. A slightly softer ride (not worse handling, just softer) would help make the Cooper a more livable car for a lot of buyers and please, please, scrap every notion of what a MINI interior has been for the past decade and start from scratch.

For now, let’s just say the 2011 Cooper S makes the good better, and forgets about the rest.

LOVE IT
  • More power
  • Improved fuel economy
  • Incredible driving dynamics
  • MINI Connected brings unique features
LEAVE IT
  • A bit stiff
  • Brutal ergonomics
  • Leather just seems cheap

RELATED READING

2010 Volkswagen GTI: First Drive
Audi A3 2.0T
2011 MazdaSpeed3 Review
2009 Honda Civic Si
2011 Lexus CT200h Review – First Drive
2011 Scion tC Review: First Drive

Get Autoguide.com in your Inbox