BBC Autos

Review

Mini Cooper cracks the code

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Scientists at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico have attempted communication with extra-terrestrial life forms. Mini launched the latest iteration of its Cooper subcompact hatchback not far from the giant saucer in the jungle – and it may take Arecibo-calibre equipment for earthlings to discern the 2014 Cooper’s many improvements over the outgoing model.

There is nothing remarkable about a carmaker touting marrow-deep changes to its product, especially when these changes are outwardly reflected through a new design. Trouble is, the 2014 Cooper’s message of all-encompassing newness is being sent in code – the transmission encrypted in sheetmetal that is difficult to distinguish from that of the 2013 Cooper.  Spotter’s tip: the 2014 model features flared wheel openings with a distinct vertical edge. The headlights may also be ringed in optional LEDs, and the brake lights resemble eyes. Got it?

The Mini Cooper’s appearance, you see, is its signature feature, one from which it can deviate in only subtle ways. Mini is consequently charged with conveying to shoppers that this new yet virtually indistinguishable model addresses the many shortcomings of the old car.

Since being revived by corporate parent BMW Group in 2001, the Cooper has been fun to drive and cute as a garage filled with internet kittens. But the car has also worn cheap-looking plastics in its cabin, and dubious design and ergonomics decisions have made the car occasionally maddening to drive, shortcomings that even the car’s tropical surroundings would have been unable to camouflage.

Mini has addressed those concerns for 2014. No, you weren’t the only one who questioned the centrally mounted speedometer and power window switches, or the fact that a clockwise twist on the iDrive multimedia controller produced a zoom-out effect on the navigation system rather than the zoom-in that drivers intuitively expect.

Now there’s a gorgeous high-definition display in the circular binnacle located in the centre of the dash, and the speedometer has migrated to the steering column. An optional head-up display, directly in the driver’s line of sight, reinforces this newfound – and welcome – commitment to easy information relay. The navigation zoom-in feature is now – surprise – useful and intuitive, so that even the narrowest Puerto Rican byway renders crisply.

The central display screen is encircled by optional coloured lights that flicker upon engine start-up or when adjusting the climate control. It is a Wurlitzer jukebox rendered in LEDs, a sight that conveys the car’s newfound tech-savviness. Also striking is the vastly improved material quality of the cabin appointments as well as the aforementioned ergonomics.

Maybe the only remaining usability flaws are the tiny buttons surrounding the iDrive controllers, which are hard to see and harder to use while driving, and the turn signal stalk, which retains the corporate parent's inexplicable preference for stalks that spring back to centre rather than staying in position for as long as the signal is activated.

In addition to its terrestrial functions, the new Mini also functions as a time machine. The car forecasts the future of BMW, as it uses components that we will see on the propeller-badged cars soon.

The Mini’s engine is the first of the BMW Group’s new modular family of in-line engines, where cylinders are arranged next to one another rather than in a V. The base power plant is a turbocharged, direct-injected 134 horsepower 1.5-litre three-cylinder. The Cooper S adds one cylinder to the same basic design, creating a 189hp 2-litre unit.

All engines in the family will have the same direct injection and turbocharging for boosted power from smaller displacement, which the company says should provide good driving fun with attendant rises in efficiency; the three-cylinder is said to achieve a 27% increase in fuel economy over the outgoing unit. Critically for BMW fans, the brand’s award-winning in-line six-cylinder engine is a close relation of this family – being comprised essentially of two of the Mini’s three-cylinder engines, cast as one.

Both the three- and four-cylinder Mini engines produce seamless acceleration, attended by strong low-RPM torque, enthusiastic noises and a willingness to rev. One flaw is that in “Sport” driving mode, the throttle becomes a tad too touchy, making for slightly unsmooth going.

The family ties don’t stop in the engine compartment. When BMW rolls out the anticipated front-drive 1 Series subcompact (whose sales prospects for North America remain cloudy), it will not only use these engines, it will also be built on a version of the same platform, creating the first front-drive BMW. The good news for Mini buyers and BMW fans is that the Cooper drives really, really well.

It is a clear step up from the outgoing car in terms of maturity, stability and ride comfort, while still providing the corner-carving thrill Mini drivers expect. But owing to the refinement lavished on it, the Mini acts like a more settled, less punishing version of itself.

The all-new automatic transmission is seamless in its operation, and the spread of gear ratios from first to sixth is larger than in the old car, which contributes to improved efficiency and more exploitable performance. Further, the transmission discusses its shift plans with the GPS system, so it won’t upshift if it knows there’s a curve dead ahead and you’ll be slowing down. This is an inheritance not from BMW, but from the BMW Group’s crown jewel, Rolls-Royce, which introduced the technology on its $300,000 Wraith. Not bad relations for a car starting at $20,000 to have.

The manual transmission snicks through its gates exactly as an enthusiast would hope, with unambiguous, tight action. Less perfect is the clutch pedal, which has the light effort, numb feel and low friction point common to Honda’s cars. With any luck, some BMW know-how will be brought to bear on that pedal sooner rather than later. In Sport mode, the optional adaptive damping also sends a few too many shimmies through the chassis when travelling over broken pavement in the Puerto Rican back country. That setting is best saved for a track, where the marginal handling benefit might be discerned.

Yet the new Mini is so improved in so many respects that we are left picking at nits. The car represents a gigantic improvement over its predecessor, finally adding a premium sheen to the premium price it already commands over rapid minicars such as the Ford Fiesta ST and Fiat 500 Abarth.

And so, Mini’s interstellar dispatch may well reach its terrestrial targets. Those who receive it will know the Cooper has finally fulfilled its promise as a fun, high-quality subcompact luxury car.