New Mini Cooper S: it may be an inverted Tardis, but boy is it fun to drive

In a deviation from our usual programming this edition of TechRadar Drives is written by our resident smart home expert Andrew London who was mostly just glad for some time outside, soaking up some vitamin D.

Ah Mini, the little car that can. When I found out I was going on a trip to drive the new Mini Cooper S 3-door Hatch and convertible, I instantly started thinking about all my best Italian Job puns and Jason Bourne references.

A brand that sits firmly in the iconic bracket, it’s difficult to shake the cultural history of this car and just look at what it is now, but once you do, you see a little (and sometimes not so little with the Countryman) car that’s full to the brim with technology.

The issue I had is that when you cram a butt-tonne of technology into a tiny chassis, you end up with a lot of buttons, switches and knobs in your face. And no one likes driving with knobs in their face. 

In-your-face design

Mini has clearly decided that there’s no point trying to disguise how packed this car is, instead opting to make every dial, toggle and design feature really stand out. Partner this with how disproportionately large the Mini feels once you’re inside it, and you end up feeling like you’re sat in an inverted Tardis.

More than a little crowded

More than a little crowded

From the outside the Mini (both the Hatch and Convertible) look compact. Not quite as small as the original Mini, but still, small. Step inside and it’s like you’re The Doctor in an episode where everything’s backwards, the controls are all too close and the Tardis feels much bigger than it looked from the outside.

But then you turn the engine on and all is forgiven. It’s got torque by the bucket, sits tight to the road, and when you put the Cooper S into sport mode, the engine gives you this gorgeous little gurgle that I just couldn’t get enough of.

The soft top is sturdy, with a satisfying control

The soft top is sturdy, with a satisfying control

For me, the convertible was the far more favorable of the two, giving you more space around you, making the closeness of the console seem insignificant and giving you amazing aural access to every purr of the engine.

The convertible was slightly more skittish than the Hatch, but that’s to be expected really, the aerodynamics of a convertible are never going to match up, but for me that was a price totally worth paying. 

All the buttons, so many buttons

Once you get used to the design and actually start exploring, you realize that behind each of the many buttons are brilliant features like a very capable adaptive cruise control, voice control, fantastic CarPlay integration, and even ambient light functions to change the internal mood of the car. 

I was left wondering if Google had done something to upset Mini, as when I asked if Android Auto was available, I was told that it wasn’t, and that it isn’t going to be. 

Apparently, the vast majority of Mini owners are Apple users, so there isn’t the need for Android integration. Which makes sense, but as an Android user, it made me feel like the car wasn’t for me, which isn’t something I’d expect.

The controls for the HUD in the infotainment system

The controls for the HUD in the infotainment system

One of the huge standouts for me in terms of the tech was a heads-up display that pops up from out of the dashboard. This is different from in previous models where the HUD was projected directly onto the windscreen. 

The HUD is an optional extra, not included in any of the customization packs, at £490 (about $650, AU$880) but needs one of the Nav packages. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it. Not only does it show you speed limit thanks to road sign detection, it also gives you navigation information, and pertinent info from the entertainment system. 

The effect of this is that I found myself barely ever having to look away from the road, even when changing tracks or using the sat-nav. There’s even a little countdown icon that shows how quickly you’re approaching your next junction. 

A slight problem with the HUD is that polarising sunglasses block the light, making it difficult to read, even on full brightness.

There are worse places to get a little lost. Yeah, I was at cloud level. No I wasn't driving when I took this

There are worse places to get a little lost. Yeah, I was at cloud level. No I wasn't driving when I took this

The sat-nav countdown isn’t perfect, and I found that I frequently thought that the junction was coming up sooner than it actually was, but it’s a useful feature, especially as the sat-nav isn’t the best I’ve ever used. The map is a little too vague for my liking, meaning I often ended up taking the wrong exit on roundabouts. 

Now, as I was driving around the staggeringly beautiful hillsides of Mallorca, that wasn’t too much of a problem, but I can well imagine if you’re running late on a grizzly day, it would be more of an issue. 

A screen to be seen

The infotainment system comes in a couple of different variants, and I was using the larger of the two, an 8.8-inch touchscreen which enables a split-screen function so you can have your map and your Spotify album information displaying at the same time. 

And the Spotify integration is genuinely brilliant. A lot of work has clearly gone into the Mini connect app, allowing you to locate, lock, unlock, and even send maps and apps to your car. Spotify is one of these, and it’s one of the most seamless Spotify integrations I’ve seen. 

The feature-packed and user-friendly Mini Connect app

The feature-packed and user-friendly Mini Connect app

A cool feature that I didn’t get to use is that Mini Connect can sync with your calendar and using traffic information, can send you notifications about when you need to leave to arrive on time, then will automatically load up the route so as soon as you hop in the car you’re ready to set off. 

All of these features come together to create a small car with the smarts of a premium vehicle. 

Suits you sir

One of the things that Mini has added to this generation that I’m a really big fan of is a new level of customization. In previous generations you’ve been able to make a Mini your own, but the new model really takes this a step further.

Sitting on top of the indicators there are 3D-printed panels that you can have your name (or anything else you’d like) emblazoned across. I asked if there are things you’re not allowed to have, and swears are out, although “Back the heck off, buddy” would apparently be fine (if a little small).

Or you could just go for your name

Or you could just go for your name

In the driver’s wing mirror is a light that you can customize to show a message, an image, even your signature. Once the door is open there are customizable foot guards, and the panel on the passenger side dash is customizable too. 

One of the pre-set options for the dash panel is a union flag that illuminates in the color of ambient light that you’ve chosen. This matches the union flag tail lights that come as standard in the UK.

I'm British mate, can't you tell?

I'm British mate, can't you tell?

I’m a convert

Because I went into this drive with so many preconceptions about what a Mini was, I was a bit taken aback by what the Mini Cooper S actually is now, but once I got used to it, I fell in love with it a little bit.

While the Hatch was fun to drive, I have to say, my hands-down favourite was the convertible. Make no mistake, you’ll be making the sacrifices you’d expect from a Mini convertible; the trunk is tiny, and you’d need to be extremely petite to fit in the back seats, but for driving experience it was just brilliant. 

It was punchy but smooth, wonderfully responsive, with technology that you’d expect to see in a BMW 5 series. If it weren’t for the Google aversion and the less-than-perfect sat-nav I’d be totally smitten. 

  • John McCann (and for one week only, Andrew London) is getting behind the wheel to give you an alternative look at the wealth of cars – and the tech inside them – available today. From super-fast sports cars to tech-packed hatchbacks, he'll take you through a range of makes, models, power and price tags in his regular TR Drives column.
Andrew London

Andrew London is a writer at Velocity Partners. Prior to Velocity Partners, he was a staff writer at Future plc.