Engine of a Mini Seven racing Mini
Photo: Copyright © 2009 Eelke Blok

The new Mini "R56"

Last week, I finally got the chance to take a more thorough look at the new "R56" Mini, which was introduced for model year 2007. The Checkmate had to go for a big checkup, the one that comes at 100.000 km, although due to large distances it asked for it a little later - I'm now at 110.000. As a loaner, I got an R56 Cooper with what looked like the Chili pack. It had lounge leather seats, a little spoiler and only 145 km on the odometer. After returning the car, I ran into Jesse, my Mini sales guy at Jan de Jong Mini in Hilversum. Having announced earlier I wanted to drive an R56 S, it was quickly agreed that the next day would have to be the day, so on saturday me and Jacomien returned to pick up an R56 S.

Less than thrilled

To be perfectly honest, I am not too thrilled about the R56. There are few areas where I think it's an improvement over the old R50 and R53. In some cases, it's just different. In others, it's a slight deterioration. In yet others, it's a big disappointment. I actually feel bad about this, because I really do want to like this car. Whether or not my next car will be a Mini again, though, will largely depend on whether I can either learn to live with the differences, or whether the upcoming facelift addresses some of my gripes. The facelift is predicted for the 2010 model year, but since I'm certainly not the only person that has expressed some of these gripes, fingers crossed that a facelift might come a little early (the Checkmate is due for replacement by the end of 2008).

As far as improvements over the R50/R53 go, I think I can, sadly, be brief. The car feels a little more mature, with slightly better build quality. Ironically, improved maturity is also a downside; while growing up, the Mini seems to have lost some of its bad boy character. Sometimes, I also think I like the R56 back end better than that of the R50/R53. It has a little more aggressive look to it, although the R50/R53 seems to have a better balance in that area. The interior, mostly, is also fine. Not better or worse than the old car's, just different.

Center stack

OK, so this blog post is going to mostly be complaining (although I hate complaining, maybe, possibly, someone with some influence comes across this and sees some merit in it). So, let's start with the biggest complaint. Although I said that the interior is mostly fine in the last paragraph, keyword definately is "mostly". My biggest gripe by far with the new car, is the center stack in the dashboard. From the enormous speedometer, to the Fisher Price controls of the climate control and from the flat black plastic in between those controls to the radio controls integrated into the speedo, I simply loath it.

The size of the speedo is simply far over the top. When first introduced, the speedo in the first new Mini already raised a few eyebrows, because when compared to the "big" centre speedo in a classic Mini, it already looked quite cartoonesque. But, the same was true for other details of the new Mini, and considering the car is really a lot bigger than a classic Mini as a whole, I grew to accept it and even like it. However, the speedo of the new car has become a caricature of its predecessor, which makes it, basically, a caricature of a caricature. That, in my view, is just going too far. Now, mind you, it may well be that the speedo didn't get this size because the designers liked it, but because the way the navigation was implemented was disliked by many in the old car.

Navigation, you say? Yes indeed. I never commented on it when I was blogging about the red Cooper I had for a few weeks - which had the factory satnav - , but in the R50/R53, the way that the nav option was implemented was clearly an afterthought, with the square screen completely replacing the speedo, and the speedo itself moving alongside the rev counter behind the steering wheel. With the R56, the speedo becomes a ring around the nav screen, which is actually quite nice; it looks a lot better than the nav for the R50/R53, and a lot less silly than the non-nav R56. To order a 2500 euro option just because it makes the dash look better goes a little far, though.

I did come across a wonderful suggestion a while back, though, in an issue of MC2 magazine. The BMW 1-series has a nav screen that pops up from the top of the dash. Although probably a little more expensive, if a similar solution would be adopted for the Mini, it would allow the speedo to shrink back to the size it was in the R50/R53. That would be a massive improvement for the non-nav look, as well as an improvement over the way the current nav-setup looks (I said it's better than both the old nav look and the new non-nav look - not that it's good). While you're at it, change the fuel indicator back from a series of leds - again, the words "Fisher Price" come to mind - to a proper gauge and bring back the temp gauge. It may not be a precision instrument, but it's nice and old-school, harking back to the classic Mini.

So, where would an R50-like speedo in the R56 leave the radio controls that currently live inside the pizza-plate speedo? Well, another change I would strongly suggest is to adopt a look for the rest of the center stack that is more like that of the centre stack in the R50/R53. The silver controls are too in your face, the flat black plastic between them is ugly, the Mini-logo reference of the climate control is too obvious and - because of that - childish (yes, I know, the old auto climate control did that too, but that was a lot more subtle) and controlling both the radio and the climate control is unintuitive. What, pray tell, was wrong with the classy black controls from the R50/R53 (except maybe that the radio could be replaced by an after-market model too easily for a car manufacturer's liking)?

Whiiiiiii, whiiiiiiiiii, pop, pop, burble

So, with that out of the way, what other complaints do I have? Well, having driven the new Cooper S, there is one other important thing I'm sad about, which is the cabin sound. It's much less exciting than that in my Checkmate, with the JCW Soundkit (OK, fair enough, the sound kit was supposed to improve the overal engine sound experience). When comparing it to the old MCS, I have to say I absolutely loved the burble that was introduced with the 2005 facelift R53. That, combined with the aggressive super charger whine of the old Tritec engine, made a small party out of every chance to accelerate in the old '05-'06 R53, and the subsequent lift-off. The new car is still fast, definately, still a hoot to drive through a bendy country lane, but... It's effortless, doesn't give you that enormous grin from ear to ear the old car did. Like I said, it's grown up, and it became a little more boring because of it.

Finished quite yet?

So, Mr. Blok, are you finished quite yet? Well, almost. What's left are a few minor issues that, let's say, do not contribute to any positive feeling about the car, but are not worth dwelling upon.

  • The "side vents" (actually, I don't think they're vents any more at all) are too big and bulky (either black plastic on the
    Cooper or chrome on the Cooper S). Actually, Jesse showed me a JCW
    replacement part that does improve things a lot, with a combination of
    a subtle chrome outline and a black plastic mesh.
  • Why did the Mini designers move the front indicators to the main head light units? I actually do like the idea of integrating the fog lights into the secondary light clusters, but the indicators should have stayed where they were and the parking lights should have moved to the main units, not the other way around. Yes, the separate parking lights are a signature trait for the R50/R53 Mini, but the indicator position has been a signature trait of the Mini for 50 years. I don't think BMW has had ownership of the Mini long enough to make these kinds of drastic changes to what is considered "signature" in the Mini's design ?
  • The black trim around the bottom of the car is a little too big. Yes, I know, it was needed because the waistline had to be raised for pedestrian regulations. I still don't like it, but I'm getting used to it. Maybe for a next generation car, an active bonet design can be used and we can move back to the lean and mean R50 waistline.
  • I could not get a good seating position in the Cooper's lounge
    leather seats, I felt my upper legs were not supported well enough. The
    S's sports seats were a lot better, though, but Jacomien said she still liked the R50's sport seats better. Maybe a matter of adjusting the seat better.
  • Front and hind overhang are a bit too big, it looks awkward from the side.

Overall, I prefer the R50/R53 design. Most of the exterior changes were actually due to changed pedestrian regulations, and with that in mind the Mini designers should be complemented on how much they succeeded to make the new car look like the old one. However, to someone who loves the R50/R53, that is exactly what it looks like: they made the best effort they could to make it look like the existing car, but didn't quite get as close as they would have liked, being pulled by government regulations on one side, and marketing folk on the other.

I have about a year to figure out whether I can live with all these gripes and whether I will replace the Checkmate with another Mini, or whether an Audi A1 or Alfa Romeo Junior is more to my liking. Mini has a year to agree with me and get their mid-lifecycle facelift out the door a year sooner than planned ? Oh, and Audi and Alfa have a year to actually get these cars available, or I will really face a dilemma ?


I thought that was clear from the text. Separate from the main headlight units, to the bottom right. Just find a picture of any classic Mini and you'll see what I mean (meant... this <em>is</em> an article from 2008).

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