It’s no secret that we’ve all been through some changes over the past few years. Internal and external forces pushing and pulling the fabric of our reality to the point where it’s tearing at the seams. The world we were raised to survive in no longer exists. While this world was far from perfect, certain points of naivety allowed for joyous moments. The 2022 MINI Cooper S 5-Door reflects a lineage of these joyous moments.
What defines a MINI? A small footprint, sure, but there’s more to it than that. Despite its cutesy retro appearance with bright eyes, unusual body seams and wheels pushed out to its corners, the original MINI is one of the quintessential boom cars of the 20th century. Recovering from the toll of World War II and tired of three-wheeled microcars, the British masses found upward mobility in Alec Issigonis’ marvelous pint-sized engineering masterpiece.
It could turn on a sixpence, was affordable to buy and run and gave the public an opportunity to feel the newly-built motorway beneath their wheels. When it came time for a rebirth of the Mini brand at the turn of the 21st century, that underlying upward mobility moved the new car in a more upscale direction. The utilitarianism of the old car gave way to high-fashion retro style that gave shoppers of Golfs a more upscale, more fun option.
On the outside, the refreshed MINI Cooper S 5-Door seems to be going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. It looks a bit pudgier thanks to chunkier lower cladding and it’s managed to grow a goatee. The Union Jack-themed tail lamps that were so charming just a few years ago seem a touch uncomfortable in today’s politically-charged post-Brexit climate. The rear doors are undersized concessions to the concept of practicality.
It’s not the prettiest MINI hatchback but that doesn’t matter because it’s still rather cute. The contrasting roof, soft lines and unashamedly retro aesthetic conjure up dreams of Pimm’s cups, mini skirts and crate digging at record shops. It’s style that makes you feel something which is incredibly rare in today’s small car marketplace.
The first thing you’ll notice when you get in the Cooper S 5-Door is that the sightlines are unlike any new car on the road. With an upright windscreen and side windows designed with a ruler, there’s a feeling of airy nostalgia for front seat passengers. The second thing you’ll notice is the build quality. Every button and switch is well-weighted and every trim piece feels thoughtfully crafted and solidly affixed. It’s a marked step up in materials over a Mercedes-Benz A-Class or Audi A3, both of which feature concessions to cost-cutting that Chrysler bean counters from the 1990s would approve of.
Moreover, traditional MINI interior styling elements are honoured including toggle switches, a round bezel in the centre of the dashboard and circular air vents. Rear seat space is tight but manageable despite the floor-mounted cupholder that makes getting over the floor hump challenging. As for tech, the 8.8-inch infotainment system can be controlled through either the touchscreen or through a rotary knob, neither of which are optimal in practice. The touchscreen is a long reach from the driver’s seat and the rotary knob scrolls backwards, anti-clockwise to advance through lists and clockwise to rewind.
Since the round central bezel surrounds the infotainment, the gauge cluster is mounted on top of the steering column. While it looks fully-digital, it actually uses clever backlighting and layering to maintain the simplicity of an analogue tachometer. Speaking of simple, there really isn’t much in the way of gauge cluster customization on offer. In fact, the digital screen displays the exact same information as the one in my 16-year-old 3-series. A bit of a missed opportunity, that. What isn’t a missed opportunity is the Harman-Kardon stereo fitted to my test car. It’s a $750 option that’s pleasantly clean with good staging and solid dynamic range.
Powering the Cooper S 5-Door is BMW’s B48 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It may only make 189 horsepower and 206 lb.-ft. of torque but in a car this small and taut, it feels more than adequate. While a six-speed manual gearbox is standard equipment and likely the most enjoyable option, the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox in our test car really isn’t bad. It’s quick, smooth and ensures the engine makes the signature DCT rise-of-the-machines blat on full-throttle upshifts.
Ride quality is, in MINI tradition, “hold on to your teeth” firm. Highway potholes feel like land mines and frost heaves might as well be curbs. It’s certainly not to everyone’s tastes but this rather starchy ride quality does come with some benefits. For starters, road feel is actually present. Driving this MINI isn’t an isolating experience. Between the stiff ride, the granular steering and the rorty engine, the Cooper S 5-Door is unashamedly mechanical in nature.
Then there’s the handling. This thing sticks to the road like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth. It’s capable and playful and surprisingly neutral, pulling off the signature old-school hot hatch trick of rotating well under trail-braking while eliciting the sheer confidence of a modern performance car. While other hot hatches may be objectively more capable than the Cooper S 5-Door, few are more fun and in the real world, fun means everything.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about MINIs without talking about MINI stories. My granddad had an original MINI when he was in the army. Visits to his house often regaled me with tales of a small yet perky car that was involved in some unbelievable shenanigans. He once parked it by the roadside on a winter night and came back the next day to find only the aerial protruding from the snow, a mast that he reckons saved it from death by plough.
One of my best friends growing up had an R53 Cooper S in his family and that thing was an absolute weapon, dicing through traffic on the way to rent movies with the supercharger screaming away like a banshee. Our Editor-in-Chief had an R50 Cooper with an incredibly tasteless vanity plate that he loved to absolute bits. There’s something about these cars that just gets under your skin and spreads joy through every fibre and mineral of your being.
So how much does all this joyous nostalgia cost? That depends on how deep into the options list you’re willing to go. Our decked-out test car clocked in noticeably north of $40,000, but the starting MSRP is $30,090 and a price tag in the mid 30s is possible if you go easy on the options. Roughly a dead match for the Volkswagen GTI then, although the GTI trades some charm for a significant boost in performance. A Mercedes-Benz A-Class will cost thousands of dollars more when comparably equipped, so the MINI is good value as a premium product too.
The 2022 MINI Cooper S 5-Door may very well be the last purely gasoline-powered MINI we ever see. However, this isn’t a time for mourning. It’s a time for celebrating that we can still buy this fun, funky small car that plasters an ear-to-ear adolescent grin across its driver’s face. The past is rose-tinted and the future is exciting but the present is a gift. Enjoy all of it in a MINI Cooper S.