2014 Mini Cooper S

Twenty-one months with a little rascal of a Mini Cooper S. A Mini Cooper S should be a joyful thing. The cheeky styling, quick reflexes, and punchypower-train are supposed to be a playful escape from the anonymous sedans and me-too crossovers that plug up exit ramps and make driving a chore. It should be whimsy on wheels.

But looking back over our 21 months with a 2014 Mini Cooper S, we’re left hunting for happy thoughts. While it was clearly made to entertain, our Mini wasn’t made particularly well. The majority of our miles were accompanied by a soundtrack of groans, rattles, squeaks, and gronks that soured our attitude toward the car.

Well, at least the first 10,000 miles passed innocuously. In the early days of our test, we admired the powertrain, lamented the flinty ride quality, and studied how the Mini has evolved. Fourteen years on, the re-imagined Mini has grown, both dimensionally and characteristically. Longer than its predecessor by 5.1 inches, the third-generation Mini doesn’t feel so miniature anymore. It’s also a much more mature and refined car. The cabin is quieter than those of Minis past (when it doesn’t sound like a cocktail shaker), and the interior is much easier to use, thanks in part to the excellent infotainment suite, which is essentially BMW’s iDrive reskinned with brighter colors.

We determined, though, that a better Mini is still an ergonomically challenged Mini. The headlight control is hidden by the steering wheel and angled toward the floor, making it nearly impossible to discern the switch’s different positions. Staffers railed against the tall and bulky center armrest, which makes it awkward to shift gears, use the navigation system’s control knob, or even prop up an elbow.

Drivers also noted how quickly and how far the Mini Cooper S can drift from its $24,395 base price. The Fully Loaded package added navigation, automatic climate control, a Harman/Kardon stereo, and a panoramic sunroof to our car for $4500. We opted for the $1500 leather seats, $600 cold-weather package, a $500 head-up display, $300 for satellite radio, and $250 for LED headlights with cornering lights. Lured by the dizzying array of choices on Mini’s online configuring tool, we also ended up with a trio of ridiculous options for $250 apiece: a rear spoiler that should be standard, a black head-liner that should be a no-cost option, and a storage package that includes a 12-volt outlet in the cargo area and a small elastic net in the passenger footwell that is patently useless.
The final price, $33,795, became even tougher to swallow as the miles accrued. The word “rattletrap” first appeared in the logbook with 15,103 miles on the odometer and quickly multiplied on its pages. We learned to leave the cargo cover on the floor of the cargo hold, in the back seat, or at home—essentially anywhere but its intended position where it clacked and clattered. Unfortunately, there’s no escaping the rear seatbelts. When not in use, their buckles beat noisily against the hard-plastic trim unless you worm your way back there to tuck them under clips.

In quieter but no-less-irritating follies, the upper-glovebox lid jammed in a not-quite-closed position, looking like a trim piece installed by fat-fingered Oompa-Loom-pas. After an internal gear mechanism in the driver’s seat stripped, the backrest refused to lock back into place whenever someone climbed into the rear seat. The fix for that—replacing the seatback frame—only set off another cascade of problems. The trim surrounding the rear-seat-access lever came off in one staffer’s hand (we popped it back into place ourselves), and the lumbar knob fell off on two separate occasions. When the badge eventually fell off the rear hatch, it was hard not to read it as our Mini Cooper S waving a white flag of surrender.

But these were only the minor headaches we experienced. Our suspension woes began at 16,000 miles with a knock from the front end and a squeak at the rear. The dealer torqued the suspension hardware, cleaned the dampers, tightened a loose fuel-hose bracket, and sent us on our way. The noises made a comeback the following day. We returned within the month, and the service department replaced the left- and right-front control arms. That fix seemed to do the trick—for about 1000 miles. At the next visit, the dealer replaced the right control arm and both rear dampers a second time.

Our Mini Cooper S made 11 visits to the dealer for maintenance or repairs during the duration of its stay, yet even that lofty number does not capture just how much time it spent in the dealer’s care. Parts were rarely in stock at our dealership, let alone in the U.S., so they were often ordered and shipped in all the way from Germany, seemingly by rowboat. In one 90-day stretch, our Mini Cooper S spent 45 days in our dealer’s possession.
We enjoyed a break when the odometer rolled from 18,000 to 28,000 miles without a single trip to the dealer.
But, with just 600 miles left in its stay, the creaks from the front end and the clatter from the rear returned. We began to suspect that the suspension components were just as weary of the Mini’s punishing ride as were our drivers. There’s more initial compliance in this Mini than in prior models, but anything more severe than a perfectly aligned expansion joint still has the potential to crash into the cabin. The $500 adaptive dampers do nothing to soften the plodding of the $500 18-inch wheels, which are wrapped in stiff, run-flat tires. The unforgiving suspension may enable the Mini’s snappy steering responses and flat handling, but it also makes this 2839-pounder stomp down the road like a heavyweight.

As our pity turned to disdain, we felt a pang of sympathy for the technicians. They must have been as confounded by the Mini as we were. Once again they set about replacing the front control arms—they had since been redesigned, we were told—and the rear dampers. By now, though, the bolts that held it all together had been removed and torqued eight times. The Mini earned another extended stay when a captive nut that mounts the control arm to the body stripped. The dealer briefly mulled disassembling the interior to weld on a new nut, but the home office ultimately advised them to drill out the bad threads and insert a Heli-Coil (a pre-threaded tube). We can only report that the whole job held up for at least 600 miles.

If there’s one unquestionably positive trait to the Mini Cooper S, it’s the enthusiastic turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which is a member of BMW’s new modular-engine family. Its 189 peak horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque are delivered in any gear without any discernible lag. The tall stick of the six-speed manual slides through longish throws with lovely weight and feel, and the progressive clutch pedal operates with a natural ease. The Mini Cooper S’s torquey pep around town translated to a 6.6-second run to 60 mph during the Mini’s initial test. That figure dropped to 6.4 seconds with 40,000 miles on the odometer. We were also impressed that we beat the EPA combined-fuel-economv rating by 2with an average of 30 mpg.

The least troublesome aspect of our Mini Cooper S wasn’t problem-free, though. Shortly after its first oil change at just more than 10,000 miles, the Mini Cooper S began marking its territory, leaving small, greasy spots wherever we parked it. To fix the leak, the oil-filter housing was replaced under a recall that the dealer failed to perform during our visit six days earlier. And one driver experienced a momentary surge followed by a loss of power while merging onto a highway. The car entered a limp mode that disappeared only after sitting for an hour. We never found the cause.

Most disappointing of all, this kind of aggravating Mini experience isn’t a new one for us. It’s an echo of the quality we witnessed during long-term tests of a 2009 John Cooper Works Convertible and a 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman. This story should be a discussion of the Mini’s rough ride, its animated engine, the inflated price, and its spry handling. But we can’t write that story because, for 21 months, we were antagonized by maddening noises and the accompanying headaches. Despite that, there’s still some lemonade to be made: Our 2014 Mini Cooper S never left anyone stranded.