The term ‘new Mini‘ is still something I hear from time to time, but BMW’s reborn version of the famed British city car is a bit of an old dog now. The Mini hatch when into production just over 20 years ago, and in a matter of weeks, two decades will have passed since the world debut of the R53 Cooper S at the Tokyo Motor Show.
Neatly coinciding with this anniversary, Mini launched a facelifted version of its core car. Keen to see what 20 years and three generations of progress looks like, we brought one of these tweaked ‘F56’ Minis in Cooper S form to test against the original R53. Specifically, my R53.
Admittedly, this is a facelifted R53, rather than a 20-year-old. As we’ve explained before in our buyer’s guide, this is the one you want, as Mini made various quality improvements and extracted a little more power from the 1.6-litre engine. It’s still broadly representative of the experience delivered by the original, however, and pre- and post-facelift cars also look identical.
Parked up nose to nose with the F56, the R53 is noticeably more compact. This is mostly down to the newer car carrying increased visual mass - modern crash and pedestrian safety requirements mean it’s a lot more bulbous, with a significantly higher bonnet and larger overhangs. There’s also a lot more clearance at the front end, and that’s a good thing. Drive an R53, and you quickly get used to scuffing the nose on speed bumps even when riding them at a snail’s pace.
In reality, the F56 has grown by only around 150mm over the last two decades. Even though people still moan about the Mini ‘not being mini enough’, it’s still small for the class, with the cars like the Ford Fiesta and VW Polo dwarfing it. The current Cooper S is a great-looking thing, too, so long as you go for the ‘Sport’ trim. This ditches the weird body-coloured trim that fills much of the big grille and livens things up with a John Cooper Works aero kit. The big JCW badge on the grille seems a little disingenuous, though.
Under that loftier bonnet, displacement has grown from 1.6 to 2.0 litres. The supercharger is long gone, with the Cooper S switching to turbo power from the R56 onwards. The ‘B48’ used in the F56 can be found in all sorts of other Mini and BMW products (and the 2.0-litre Toyota GR Supra), but here it’s in a more modest state of tune, with the 192bhp figure of the pre-update car dropping to 176.
That’s a mere 6bhp more than the later versions of the R53, but thanks to a boosty mid-range and 202lb ft of torque, nearly 50lb ft more than the supercharged 1.6 manages, it feels considerably quicker. The trouble is, the soundtrack is uninspiring, even as far as inline-fours go. The electronic throttle is also slow to close, making for some frustrating rev hang and a general feeling of lethargy.
The F56 makes up for this with a fine chassis featuring an inherent sense of balance and a decent amount of traction despite the open differential. On the limit, it can be pretty playful, giving a little wiggle at the rear with a well-timed brake stab.
The electric power steering is nicely fast but over-assisted, and it’s too heavy in Sport mode. You’re better off in the ‘Mid’ setting anyway, as the damping can get choppy on some road surfaces in Sport. The latter mode also switches on an auto rev-matching feature which you can’t turn off without also completely disengaging the traction control. Speaking of gear changes, the six-speed manual is decent enough if not class-leading, with a reasonably slick and fairly short shift.
In terms of driving fun, the Ford Fiesta ST walks all over the Cooper S. Its true strengths lie in its plushness - it’s far posher inside than anything else in the class, even if some post-update elements like the cheap-feeling new steering wheel button pads aren’t so nice. I’ve always been a fan of the aircraft cockpit-style toggle switches, and the colour-changing ring around the central display (which briefly goes red when you turn the heat up, for example) is a nice touch.
All of this makes for a shock when getting back in the R53. There’s a similar overall ethos, at least, with a ‘floating’ binnacle behind the steering wheel, toggle switches and a big, round thing in the middle of the dash (here a speedometer, rather than an infotainment screen), but in comparison, the quality sucks. Everything feels cheaper and flimsier, and on the move, there are creaks and rattles aplenty.
Refinement and comfort are a long way off - it’s much noisier in here, the seats aren’t as supportive, and the ride is incredibly firm. Adaptive dampers were the preserve of supercars and luxury performance stuff back when this particular R53 was built, so it uses a set of passive shocks instead. Stiff ones, too, without a whole lot of finesse.
The going can get bouncy over bumpy surfaces, but the uncompromising setup does at least mean there’s little in the way of body roll. The hydraulically-assisted steering is more natural-feeling meanwhile, and also very heavy at lower speeds, which - to be fair to R53s as a whole - might simply be that my power steering pump is on the way out.
The pedal actuation requires more effort, too, and the gear shift isn’t quite as sweet as the F56’s. Where it pulls ahead of the newer car is internally-combusted charisma. The 1.6-litre ‘Tritec’ lump has a burly base engine note (enhanced on mine via a stainless steel cat-back exhaust I spent too much money on), accompanied by a lovely whine from the Roots-type Eaton supercharger. There’s a more linear power delivery, and a far sharper throttle response.
This isn’t a huge surprise - a supercharged engine from a couple of decades ago is always going to be more fun than a modern four-pot turbo, even with a big torque deficit. What’s more interesting is what happens when you plant it early in a corner. This rarely results in understeer, as it can do in the F56. Instead, the R53’s front end hooks up, digs in and helps chuck you out the other side of the corner.
There are a few reasons for this abundance of traction. For a kick-off, the F56’s front axle sometimes struggles with the punchy mid-range of the turbo engine. Secondly, this R53 has the optional mechanical limited-slip differential. If you want that on the current Mini, you have to spend a lot more on the JCW. Finally, it’s wearing decent tyres - a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4s we’re currently testing (more on those at a later date once they’ve had a track outing). Modern, premium rubber suits this car nicely.
We don’t want to be too down on the F56. The underwhelming engine isn’t something that can be helped given modern emissions regulations, and it is a well-sorted car on the handling front. The problem is the hot hatch field is a lot more talented than it was when the R53 was launched. If the way a car drives takes top priority for you, a Fiesta ST or a Hyundai i20 N will provide more thrills.
The big leaps forward made by the Cooper S lie in its useability, rather than outright handling genius. The R53 is more interesting to drive and in some circumstances more capable, but it’s a far less pleasant thing to drive day to day. Adaptive dampers give the F56 far more bandwidth, and the quality improvements over the last 20 years represent a galactic leap forward.
For an entertaining drive in the country, the R53 is in its element in a way the F56 just isn’t. The rest of the time, I’d rather be in the newer car. Is that progress? I guess that depends on what you’re looking for from a hot hatch.