(Pocket-lint) - Mini has refreshed the Hatch, the 3-door model that most closely resembles the British classic, loading the 2018 model with more tech, more premium features and a dab more iconic design compared to the the 2014 version.
Bonkers British design
From the exterior, the Hatch otherwise hasn't changed a huge amount. This new version is a facelift, a nip and tuck rather than a dramatic rethinking. BMW (Mini's parent company) finds itself in a fortunate position of having a now iconic interpretation of a classic (a rare thing indeed), where preservation is as important as progression.
The first thing you'll spot is the taillights: LED rears arranged to look like the Union Flag (standard in the UK, optional elsewhere). It might stir patriotic passion in your breast, it might just put a smile on your face, but it symbolises something that Mini has been very good at doing: being big on personality.
We love these lights. On any other car, they'd probably be dismissed as a little too gregarious, but here it's a wonderful bit of personality. The front headlights (also LED as standard) now have a full ring of daytime driving lights for a more distinct signature on the road. Smart LED matrix lights are an option.
While pretty much every other panel of the car looks the same as before, this 2018 model is all about details. You can have personalised 3D printed wording on the side of the car, for example, with the Mini Yours Customised options, so you can give it more personality. Choosing bonnet stripes or a different colour roof is simple - and there are a lot of options across the Mini family for customisation.
For us it's the basics that are still right: the compact nature, riding low on big wheels; the power bulge in the bonnet; and on the Cooper S specifically the additional air scoop and twin rear pipes. It looks great, it's still a lot of fun to look at, it's still a car with loads more personality than its rivals.
But there's also something more subtle going on: it's a hot hatch without the stigma. As accomplished as the Ford Fiesta ST or VW Polo GTI are, there's a preconception that comes with those cars. Not so the Cooper S.
While the front seats give you plenty of space, we have to admit that in the 3-door Hatch the rear seat - with spaces for two bottoms - doesn't provie a huge amount of legroom. It's a little bit of a squeeze back there, so while you could get an adult in, it's probably better for children.
All about technology upgrades
The 2018 Hatch's interior is very much the same as it was in the 2014 model. Perhaps this is a downside of distinctive design, but with a small driver's display cluster and a huge, round, central display top and centre of the dash, any change will really alter this car's interior character.
Standard now, however, is a 6.5-inch display in the centre (on all Hatch models); this is upgraded to 8.8-inches when you opt for the Navigation Pack Plus (a £2000 extra). This sits in that central space, but we get the feeling that the space could be a little more efficiently used, reducing some of the plastic surroundings for a yet larger display. Perhaps Mini might consider a notched display design, brought into fashion by the latest Apple iPhone…
There is a hint of Apple bias in the Mini too: there's the offer of Apple CarPlay either as an option (£900, with navigation) or as part of that Navigation Pack Plus (£2000, but with a lot more included in the pack) for a direct cabled link for your iPhone, but no intention to extend that to Android Auto. That sets Google (and its Android phone users) at a disadvantage, but Bluetooth will offer media control, so all is not lost. Again, Bluetooth is standard on all Hatch models.
The whole entertainment system is, naturally, related to BMW and it only takes a few moments to spot the similarity in interaction, clicking and dialling through the menus. If you've never driven a BMW then, well, let us tell you that this is good news: the system is easy to use and doesn't depend on distracting and confusing touchscreens.
Every Mini now has an embedded 4G SIM card that provides some core details, like being able to share crash location data to emergency services, but also powers things like onboard apps. There's the smartphone app experience that will let you locate or send mapping instructions to your car for a deeply connected experience.
In practice it's all easy enough to use and there's a sense of personality in some of graphics shown too. Flip through some of the car status screens and you'll be greeted with a Mini wearing a pair of massive shades at one point, while coloured illumination - with a switch to move through colours - giving an instant lift. That's part of the Pepper pack and, again, it adds character to this little car.
But things aren't hugely different in the satnav to previous iterations. We return to the constrains of interior design here: there's no crossover of navigation directions to the driver's display, meaning that if you're getting lost, you'll be glancing into the centre of the car to see where you're going. There's a heads-up display (HUD; £450) that gets around this problem to a degree, but by that point you're paying more to compensate for that fun interior design.
We love the distinction that comes with the Mini's interior look, and the range of options available, from a visual technology point of view. However, there are some compromises creeping in and we we feel that in the next generation there will need to be a bit of a redesign.
A rip-roaring drive
But once your posterior is planted in the sporty seats, you get to what the Mini is really good at: driving. In this Cooper S guise, you're two steps through the Hatch offering, with the One and Cooper sat below, the bonkers John Cooper Works above.
Keeping it simple, there's a 2.0-litre petrol engine and the choice of a 6-speed manual or 7-speed Steptronic automatic with double clutch gear box.
The Cooper S also has the option for a "sports" version, adding manual paddles to the steering column, if you think you'll ever need them for a little more direct control. The automatic is nice and slick, with crisp, clean and fast gear changes. At the same time, throwing the Mini around with fast manual gear changes gives a sense of connection that will remind you why driving is fun. Certainly the clutch is light, there's the benefit of hill hold for those less masterful with the left foot and we'd probably take the manual and use the saving over the auto to buy one of the trim packs instead.
One of big changes you'll get with Chili Pack (£2000 on Cooper S) is driving modes. Previously the selector was around the base of the gear lever and far too easy to overlook, but now there's a switch in the centre console, letting you choose Sport, Mid or Green modes. Those self-explanatory modes really do change the character of the car and in the Cooper S, flipping into Sport really makes the car sing.
It feels right, with a faster throttle response and pops coming from the exhaust on overrun - when you take your foot off the throttle - that gives a frisson of excitement. It's here that the go-kart thrills really lie and the Cooper S's character comes pouring out. It's a nippy little tinker and there's no end to the fun you'll have behind the wheel.
Sport works both for manual and automatics, although it's more subtle in the manual because it's mostly about the faster throttle response. Flip that on its head and you have Green mode (eco) which is a mirror image. It slows things down, even disconnecting the engine from the gearbox so you can coast with less resistance when you lift off. What you lose in Green is the get up and go, so the Mini drives in a rather sluggish fashion. It's a necessary evil, perhaps, but good at getting more from fuel and saving on costs.
The ride and handling is good, it's firm enough to feel grounded, without being uncomfortably hard. What's important is that the whole thing comes together nicely. You can race to 62mph in under seven seconds, but it's really the responsive acceleration, darting into different lanes and that go-kart feeling that pervades. It's an amazingly fun car to drive.
With the previous version launching in 2014, there's enough in the new Cooper S Hatch to tempt: it's a smarter car now, a little more convenient, especially if you're an iPhone user (as Mini tells us most of its owners are) although not being able to get CarPlay without the car's own navigation too does slightly dull the appeal - it's not a route to saving cash by using smartphone navigation instead.
Nonetheless, what remains is one of the most attractive small cars on the road, which is loaded high with quality. There's personality, customisation options aplenty, and in this Cooper S the racy performance will put a smile on your face.
While it might not be as "hot" as some of the hot hatch rivals, the Mini Cooper S Hatch potentially has a mite more appeal to a wider audience.