Test Drive: R56 Cooper S Automatic

Front R56

The car is a R56 2008 Cooper S Automatic. The color is Sparkling Silver, not my favorite, but not as bad as most of the press has made it out to be. It seems like a color that belongs on a Camry, not a MINI, but it sort of fits a theme: the Camryzation of MINI.

I should put my review in context: My car is a 2004 Cooper S (R53). It started with the Sport Suspension to which I added stiffer springs, camber plates, and a beefier rear sway bar. The net result is a car with almost no body roll. Contrary to popular belief, none of my passengers has (yet) lost a filling riding in my car, but the ride might be considered harsh. I consider it properly sporting. (I like that phrase, I’ll have to use it again elsewhere.) The supercharger screams like the dickens at red line; and the Alta exhaust has a throaty growl without drone. To ride in my car is quite a visceral experience. Most of these characteristics where present to a lesser degree before modifications were made — and now they’re gone from this new car.

Left Front

The Specs. This car has over 10,000 miles on it, so it’s been in the loaner fleet a while. It’s titled so there isn’t a spec sheet in the window, but a quick comparison to the MINI configurator, puts the car out the door at about $25,000. For that you get a Cooper S; Convenience Package; Winter Package; dual pane sunroof; automatic transmission with Agitronic paddle shifters.

To start the car, first insert the key fob thing into the slot and press start. I’m not clear on how this is more convenient than having an honest-to-goodness key, but my nine year-old daughter got a real kick out of pushing the start button so at least someone appreciates it. That got me to wondering: how do you get into this car when the battery is completely dead? There must be a real key somewhere. (No manual in the glove box either.)


The interior is a mixed bag. The seats are much wider and don’t have as much lateral support as the old ones. I suppose this is to compensate for the ever widening Arses of Americans. The interior is more spacious — I noticed I no longer hit the pillar with the knee of my right leg. The back seats have more legroom as well. Driving position and visibility are good. There’s even room for two decent sized cups in the cup holders.

Rear Seats

The redesigned center-stack seems like a half-baked concept you’d see from a school of design. The speedo is over-the-top large and the radio/computer controls are not intuitive. Most of the other controls are more or less where you expect them, except the turn indicator lever. All I want in a turn indicator is for it to click and stay on until I complete my turn. I’m not sure what this thing was doing, but it wasn’t what I wanted.

Center Stack

From the exterior, 90% of the population probably cannot tell the new and old cars apart unless they were parked right next to each other. The new car is like that cousin you have that looks just like you; only 20 pounds heavier. The higher hoodline for pedestrian safety has lead to a higher hip line. Those hips are also a bit wider. BMW designers saved some money by not including curved side glass and have added a bit of an aero flare to the C-pillar to deflect the air moving around the side of the car to the back.

C Pillar

The front end is also an evolution, though the factory hood scoop is vestigial now. The boot seems about the same, though the cargo nets are interesting.


The Agitronic paddle shifters provide a fun diversion while driving. Shifting is smooth if somewhat delayed, but you quickly learn to anticipate and shift a moment sooner than you would manually. If you come to a complete stop and forget to downshift, it will drop back into second for when you pull away again. Hit the “sport” button near the main shift lever and your shift points and throttle response change for the better. The electronic display at the bottom of the tachometer lets you know what gear you are in and if you are in manual or automatic shift mode.

Rear Left

The ride is very compliant. On the interstate, I’d say this is a big improvement over the previous generation. When you get to the twisty bits, there is quite a bit more body roll than the old car. I didn’t feel as connected to the road or that I was getting as much feedback through the steering wheel. Hit the gas at the apex and you get lots of torque steer. Braking seems improved over stock. The suspension is still biased toward understeer, but it’s manageable.

The engine has an amazing amount of torque from very low RPMs. (I’d like to take this engine and drop it in an old E30 318is if it weren’t driving the wrong end of the car.) It might even have too much torque. Torque-steer is much more pronounced than the old car. I found myself starting out in sport mode using the paddle shifters and once I was cruising on the interstate, I’d shift over to D and turn off sport mode. The car would shift into 6th and still have enough grunt to accelerate when needed. Interior cabin noise is low.

It was while I was playing with the paddle shifters (and tried unsuccessfully for the fourth time to turn down the radio) that I realized who they created this car for: It isn’t for the sports car enthusiast, it’s for the great motoring masses. It’s for the 95% of the population who want a transportation appliance, but want to have some fun with it. They want a Camry (reliability, build-quality, convenience features, comfort) but they want paddle shifters. They don’t want a Scion because they aren’t twenty-somethings.

As a commuter car that’s fun to drive, this car gets high marks. As a premium sports-car that gets good gas mileage, I’d have to say look elsewhere. It maintains some of those go-cart characteristics that made the original new MINI so much fun, but this is no longer a hang-on-for-dear-life go-cart ride. This is one of those safe-for-all-ages de-tuned go-carts the kind that has those bumpers that go all the way around.