A hint of heat: Driving the F56 Mini Cooper and Cooper Cabriolet

Hailing from ancient South America, the Peri Peri pepper might look like a diminutive little spice but take our word for it, this compact chilli can pack quite a punch, registering a decently mighty score of 175,000 Scoville units. Which might explain why it was previously known as the African Red Devil Pepper.

Blasphemous names aside, this little Peri Peri pepper has captured the hearts (and stomachs) of many who have come across its exciting characteristics. One of whom was a Portuguese-born audio engineer, Fernando Duarte.

Mr Fernando was so enamoured by this little spice that he brought his entrepreneur friend Robert Brozin to a Portuguese takeaway serving up a Peri Peri coated roast chicken. Long story short, the Nandos chain of restaurants was born on that very day in 1987, specialising in tasty Portuguese-style chicken laced with incremental levels of peri-peri marinades.

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Now… What’s a car reviewer doing talking about food and chicken? Stay with me on this, but may I propose a hypothesis that what Nando’s is to Chicken, Mini is to cars. Both taking a simple basic ingredient, both preparing it in a variety of ways and both finishing their end result off with a soulful dosage of their very own secret herbs and spices.

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And both bringing to the table various degrees of “hotness” for their clientele to choose from. On the Nando’s scale of excitement levels, these 2 Minis should register one notch above the original flavour with a “mild” rating. A mere hint of heat, but a tidal wave of flavour. It’s time for us to find out if that is true.

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First off, the Mini Cooper Cabriolet. Unlike other countries where a Mini Cabriolet can be had with the base level “One” trim, those wanting a convertible Mini will have to enjoy the cool drop-top experience with a touch of Cooper spiciness. How much spiciness? An extra bump in power over the base level One’s 101 horses to 134 horses and an additional 30Nm of torque for a total of 220Nm. All channelled through the front wheels via an excellent 7-speed DCT gearbox that replaces an older 6-speed automatic unit. A manual can, of course, be specially ordered which is a nice surprise given how rare such an option is today.

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Externally, small visual cues have been added, providing some added pizzazz to their already iconic design. A redesigned badge, new LED headlights with ringed daytime running lights and the beautifully done Union Jack tail lights complete the exterior flourishes while a new 6.5-inch coloured infotainment display brings the interior up to date within its segment.

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Staying inside, our test car came spec with a beautiful Malt Brown Chestnut leather with white piping which looked and felt great. A pretty good reflection of the rest of the interior, which mixes in quality and tactile materials with excellent build quality.

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Observers might have noticed Mini have kept to using analogue dials whilst many other manufacturers have started embracing digital screens but personally, I quite like the look of these “old-fashioned” instruments and feel that they do tie in with the vibe of the brand. Hopefully, when Mini does move on to the digital era of instrumentation, they would keep the central clock stubbornly analogue, ala Porsche. It’s just that little bit more charming don’t you think?

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Unfortunately, having a foldable roof does mean that some compromises have to be made in storage and interior space with rear boot space totalling a rather lightweight 160 litres and the rear passenger space looking rather, shall we say, snug.

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But if carrying groceries and hauling people aren’t quite your thing and driving enjoyment is, then you’ve come to the right place because putting a smile on drivers’ faces are where Minis excel at. With the roof down, the driving experience does become that little bit more visceral.

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Power delivery from the 3 cylindered 1.5litre turbo unit is smooth though the engine’s vocals can get a little rough and power does also start to taper off towards the upper ranges of its operating boundaries. With 134 horses and 220Nm of torque on tap, progress might not exactly set hearts on fire but is decently adequate in city traffic with 100km/h coming up in a decent 8.3 seconds. Having the drivetrain in its more entertaining “Sport” setting does help to liven things up too. Personally, I kept it in “Sport” whenever I was behind the wheel as I felt it suited the car’s personality to have the drivetrain constantly on the boil ready to respond to my every input with all that its got.

Steering feel on the Mini Cabriolet, like all other Minis in the range, carries with it a bit of heft and weight. Not too much to be a concern when navigating carparks but just enough to give the car a direct, solid and planted feel when carving corners. Feedback through the wheel is decent and loads up nicely through the bends.

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But while throwing this little Cabriolet into corners at wild abandon can get rather entertaining, the Cooper’s 134 horses do feel a little strained when you’re really pressing it on and at the end of the day, this little Mini does feel much more at home driving around with “mild” enthusiasm.

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With the Mini Cooper 3-door hatchback, things do get a little bit different since the Cooper is a notch above the base model Mini One which we’ve tested (and surprisingly enjoyed) a few months back, it might be raining the entire time we’ve had this Cooper but that didn’t stop us from finding out just how good this “mild” hatch is.

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Currently priced at S$131,888 the Mini Cooper hatch comes in at almost 30 grand more than the more modestly appointed One. Visually the same refreshes that we’ve covered on the Cabriolet are also reflected in its tin-top sibling which means, yes, those Union Jack tail lamps are here as well! What I didn’t mention earlier though is that colours have also been refreshed, with three new colours added to the Cooper’s portfolio. Emerald Grey, Starlight Blue, and our test car’s Sunny Solaris Orange.

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Without the 130kg weight penalty of a folding roof and the accompanying body strengthening bits that come along, our little orange hatchback does present a more spirited drive over the One with the century sprint coming up in 7.8 seconds over the One’s 10.2.

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This weight (and stiffer chassis) advantage also does translate to a slightly more keen driving characteristic, allowing the Cooper to translate engine power into speed better than the open-top. Allowing this little orange to squirrel in and out of bends rather well. Surprising plenty of other drivers on the roads when the bendy stuff appears.

This fantastic cornering ability does come with a compromise, and that, unfortunately, has to be the ride. On our test car’s Dunlops, the ride quality can get rather harsh on certain stretches of tarmac and it might not be a good idea to get into a Mini after a rather hearty Christmas meal.

Road noise over certain stretches of tarmac is also significant. I do wonder if swapping out to another set of rubber might improve both the ride and noise levels but on these set of OEM Dunlops, the roar from these tyres can reach rather intrusive levels.

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Interestingly, this was an issue we did not observe on the Cabriolet. Perhaps a change of rubber was in order.

Inside, most things are similar to what we’ve seen on the Cabriolet, except that rear passenger space is now, adequate. The black and greys on this car’s cabin does look slightly more sedate straight after stepping out of the Cabriolet’s beautiful Malt brown chestnut interior but build quality once again cannot be faulted.

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Storage space on the hatch is also improved over the Cabriolet with 211 litres of space and easily expandable by folding the rear seats down though it does fall short in this area when compared with its contemporary rivals.

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But of course, practicality reasons are not what Minis are about and what these two cars have set out to do, they have done rather well. Putting a smile of drivers’ faces.

In the case of the Mini Cooper Cabriolet, with no lower variant available locally, it represents a lovely introduction into a World of open-top motoring fun. But, more than once when we were driving it, we just kept wishing it had a little bit more power. So if you can afford the means, we’d recommend bumping it up to the Cooper S spec.

For the Cooper hatchback, we’re stuck with an interesting quandary as the Cooper sits in a difficult spot between the excellent base model One and the hotter but more pricey Cooper S. A difficult spot not because it isn’t a good Mini, it is in a difficult spot because of just how good its smaller brother One is, especially on the smiles per dollar ratio. And this is why we would suggest either going for the original “As mild as we go” Mini One or to stretch a little bit more for the more enticing Cooper S, which according to the Peri Peri scale, “Hits the spot, without scalding your tonsils”.

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Sometimes a hint of heat just causes you to crave for even more.

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