MINI Cooper (F56): Overstyle and caricature

Mini have launched their 3rd generation Cooper line. This model supersedes the R56 and sits on BMW’s new UKL1 platform.

Clockwise from left: standard Mini Cooper, Mini Cooper S, Mini Cooper John Cooper Works (JCW)

Clockwise from left: standard Mini Cooper, Mini Cooper S, Mini Cooper John Cooper Works (JCW)

Bumper

A key differentiator between the three hatchback variants is the shape of the lower front end, especially the front bumper. The standard Cooper has a simple, relatively narrow front grille flanked by fog lamps on both sides, whereas the step up Cooper S extrudes the lower front grille forwards, broadening it in the process. The John Cooper Works (JCW) model takes this approach further, replacing the fog lamps with gaping side grilles and implementing plastic inserts to extend the breadth of the lower front grille, and create the appearance of a three piece lower front bumper.

The bumper on the Cooper meshes organically with the rest of the front end.  The left and right fog lamps frame a clear start and endpoint to the lower grille. Curved creases surround the fog lamps and extend down to merge with the lower edge of the front bumper, acting as sight lines. These sight lines help direct an onlooker’s gaze from the fog lamps, down to the grille, and back up to the right fog lamp in a progressive fashion whilst also ensuring harmony with the main grille.

The design ethos of the current F56 Mini Cooper base model reflects the previous generation. In all its variants, such as (from left to right) the Cooper, Cooper S and Cooper JCW, the lower front grille in the R56 series flows organically from the fog lamps, in a fashion similar to the current base model.

This visual harmony is disrupted by the bumper design of the F56 Cooper S and Cooper JCW models. Simply put, the design of the lower front grille does not mesh with the rest of the front end.

Top: F56 Mini Cooper S. Bottom: F56 Mini Cooper JCW

Whilst the Cooper S establishes sight lines around the fog lamps similar to the standard model, these are abruptly interrupted by the three dimensional outwards extrusion of the lower front grille. Consequently, this creates a fussy, haphazard interaction with the remainder of the front end. The contrast between the dark grey lower edge of the bumper and the infringing lower front grille emphasises this conflict, giving the impression that the lower front bumper was simply moulded or tacked on to the car, rather than being developed as part of the original design.

This issue is exacerbated in the Cooper JCW. Although the replacement of fog lamps with additional side grilles still create framing points for the lower front bumper, the even wider and more extruded grille has similar consequences for the front end design to the Cooper S, in that it creates a tacked on impression. In effect, the extrusions displace the organic flow of the bumper design seen in the standard Cooper and the previous R56 generation. The contrasting black bar below the front grille further acts to the detriment of the front end, creating a ‘bucktoothed’ impression from afar.  

Front overhang

Throughout the history of the Mini Cooper, a key component of its design has been the ‘wheel at each corner’ stance. Both front and rear overhangs have tended to be reduced as much as possible, with the wheels being pushed outwards towards the extremities, or the corners, of the car. This longstanding view about Mini design has led the Cooper to receive a common perception of having a go-kart like appearance.

The classic Mini. Left: 2000 Mk VII Mini. Right: 1959 Austin Mk 1. The front wheels are pushed to the extremities of the car, emphasised by the near vertical front grille.

2004 R50 Mini Cooper. As the new BMW Mini, the R50 retained the wheel at each corner stance that the original was renowned for.

2006 R56 Mini Cooper. Similar to its predecessor, the second generation’s slightly more vertical headlights, together with the minimal overhangs, enhanced the wheel at each corner stance. 

The F56 Mini Cooper deviates somewhat from these design principles. Especially in the S and JCW versions, the extruded front bumper serve to increase the overall front overhang. This effectively pushes the front wheel backwards, thus detracting from the wheel at each corner stance that was key to previous Mini Coopers.

 F56 Mini Cooper S, front three-quarters view

 F56 Mini Cooper S, front three-quarters view

Rear tail lights

The Mini’s core design principle of having all four wheels pushed to the extremities of the car has tended to be supported by the taillamp design.

From top to bottom: 1959 Morris Mini Mk. 1, 2004 R50 Mini Cooper, 2007 R56 Mini Cooper.

In each of the generations pictured above, the width and overall size of the tail lamps have been aligned with the position and width of the back tyres. The narrow width and relatively long height of the tail lamps, together with the tapered design, allow them to serve as visual markers. This narrow to wide taper naturally leads the eye downwards towards the placement of the tyres, thus emphasising the wheel at each corner stance. The parallels between the vertical edge of the boot lid and the curve of the tail lamp develops a sense of visual symmetry that creates additional sight lines, consequently enhancing the tail lamp’s role as a visual marker that guides the eye to the position of the tyres.

The new F56 Mini Cooper fails to follow some of these traditional design conventions. The oversized tail lamps infringe upon the bootlid , removing the sight lines that had previously enhanced the visual symmetry of the tail lamps. This isn’t helped by the reduced taper of the top of the tail lamps compared to the bottom edge, with the consequence being the tail lamps form a directionless ‘blob’ shape compared to the more triangular design of previous models. This further disadvantages their purpose as markers to lead the eye downwards towards the placement of the tyres. 

Five-door model

In an attempt to increase the practicality of the Mini, a five door model has been launched to improve rear accessibility.

Questions arise as to whether the design could have been improved, however. In line with it’s namesake, a ‘Mini’ should be as compact, or convey the appearance, of being as compact as possible. The entire appeal of the Mini brand comes from it’s ability to maintain a cheeky, customisable and fun-to-drive character whilst defying notions that small necessarily equates to cheap.

The obvious presence of the rear doors, accentuated by the chrome rear handles, dispel these notions of compactness. To better maintain the more sporting nature of the three-door model, could a hidden rear door design have been utilised instead?

Top: 2012 Honda Civic hatchback. Middle and bottom: 2004 Alfa Romeo 147. Both designs successfully conceal the rear doors (and hence preserve a 3-door side profile) by integrating the handle into the C-pillar, the Alfa Romeo perhaps more successfully. Could the Mini have adopted a similar approach?

Like several other five-door models, the Mini suffers from having a plastic filler 'cheater panel.' This cheapens the look of the car by not allowing the glass to extend all the way back to the edge of the door. The plastic space could also possibly have been utilised for a concealed rear door handle.

Conclusion

On the surface, the new F56 Mini Cooper presents itself as a contemporary evolution of its predecessors, in incorporating current design trends (such as LED headlights) whilst maintaining essential Mini design elements. However, a deeper inspection of the external design reveals that the F56 often deviates significantly from long held Mini traditions, to its detriment.