“Jackson and I were talking on the way here and we have a question for you,” my friend Jake said. We were at an impromptu Saturday night gathering, one to which I’d driven the 2022 Mini Cooper S I was reviewing that week. “Which automaker is the campiest brand on sale in the United States today?”
There was almost no hesitation on my end as I said “oh, easy, Mini.” Was the brand top of mind because I had one of their keys in my front pocket? Yes. Would I have said the same thing if I had taken the Metro that night? Indeed.
Dictionary.com defines camp as “something that provides irreverent or knowing amusement, as by virtue of its being theatrically stylized and extravagantly artificial, self-consciously artless, or ironically ingenuous.” And truly, reading that definition, is it not the modern Mini Cooper in a sentence?
What Is It?
This is a 2022 Mini Cooper S Hardtop. First on sale for the 2014 model year, this “F56” generation of Mini Cooper is the third “modern” Mini Cooper to be sold in the United States since the brand’s BMW-assisted revival in the early 2000s. While Mini sells a variety of models – some of which are more ‘maxi’ than ‘mini’ – this is the smallest and most Miniish car they’ll sell you. The “hardtop” designation is included in the model name, because the littlest Mini can be had as a soft-top convertible as well.
My 2022 Mini Cooper S sat in the middle of the car’s gasoline-powered range, above the three-cylinder base Cooper and below the hottest John Cooper Works model. Worth mentioning is a fully-electric variant, called the Mini Cooper SE, which is allegedly very fun according to a friend who daily-drives his. But this review focuses on the gasser, specifically our BMW B48-powered Cooper S. The turbo four produces 189 horsepower and 207 lb-ft from two liters – not really setting the world (or front tires) on fire here. It is paired to a blessedly-standard six-speed manual transmission that routes power to the front wheels through an open differential.
Curb weight is kept low for a new car, around 2,813 pounds per Mini. Quick math results in a power-to-weight ratio of 14.8 pounds per horsepower – not slow, per se, but not competitive on paper with hot hatches like Volkswagen’s GTI or Hyundai’s Veloster N. You’ll want the John Cooper Works and its 228 horsepower if you’re a numbers queen.
I am not a numbers queen, however, and remained optimistic as I took stock of my 2022 Mini Cooper S in middle “Signature” trim. The test car was well-equipped, with keyless “Comfort Access,” panoramic sunroof, heated seats, and dual-zone climate control. Mini also added the $1,000 navigation package, providing both iDrive-based navigation and wireless Apple CarPlay. Android users will continue to be disappointed, as the 2022 Mini Cooper S still relies on iDrive 6, which does not support Android Auto.
MSRP of my British Racing Green IV over Malt Brown Cooper S came in at $34,850.
It’s Not About the Spec Sheets
The first car I bought myself, at age 18, was a 1995 Mazda Miata. It was nowhere near “fast” on paper (or in reality) but damn, was it fun. In college, one roommate’s dad owned a series of early-aughts Minis, and I found them to feel something like front-wheel drive Miatas. That feeling has persisted, for the most part, through the years to this newest 2022 Mini Cooper.
You’d think the 2022 Mini Cooper S would be a perfect city car, given its size, and you’d be mostly right. Roughly 12.5 feet long – three feet less than a new Honda Civic – you can parallel-park it almost anywhere. You’re not punished for choosing to drive a manual transmission in the city, either, with a light pedal and peak torque coming in at 1,350 rpm. You can scoot off the line to beat traffic, or leave the easy shifter in first or second if you didn’t beat traffic and must crawl alongside everyone else.
My one city-car complaint about the Mini is with its ride. The Cooper S combines a short 98.2-inch wheelbase with a suspension that errs on the side of sportiness. It works when you want to have some fun, but can be a bit harsh when you don’t. Smaller 16-inch wheels (standard on the Cooper S over my optional 17s) would offer more sidewall to help out. Adaptive suspension is offered for $500, but without testing those dampers, we can’t say if they’d help the ride or not.
Despite the Mini (as the smallest and most classic offering, I feel compelled to just call it “the Mini” and not “Cooper S”) being a mostly-great city car, back roads and any other opportunity for some quick steering wheel movement is where the little hatch brings the biggest smiles. Despite “only” producing 189 horsepower, the perky BMW B48 under the hood is eager all the way to redline. Listen carefully and you’ll get some cute puh-chssss blowoff valve noises as you lift throttle to upshift.
The somewhat-stiff suspension comes into its element, paired to pretty-good steering that firms up in Sport mode. Both systems encourage you to chuck the car into the next turn and stand on the throttle to pull yourself out. “More, more, yes, do it again!” is the collective vibe that emanates from the controls. Would a limited-slip differential be nice? Sure. Did I miss having one? Eh, not really. Torque steer was minimal-to-none anyway.
While the 2022 Mini Cooper S is absolutely a momentum car on windy roads, should you need to scrub speed, the brakes are up to the task. Initial bite is well-tuned, and the pedal provides good feel and confidence throughout its travel.
No, the Cooper S’ power and torque aren’t “competitive” against potential rivals. But it doesn’t matter. I had so much fun filming this review for YouTube that once the cameras were cut, I stayed on the same back roads for another hour and blew through about half a tank of premium rowing up and down the gears.
The Camp Factor
Starting the Mini is your first indication that there’s something different going on here. Open the door and the Engine Start/Stop toggle starts pulsing slowly, like a heartbeat. Depress the clutch and it gets brighter, pulsing a little quicker. It’s excited to get going. Hit the switch and the mood is immediately lightened by the same dunk-UH dunk-UH welcome chime that’s persisted since 2002.
Every little detail adds to “the camp factor” that so instantly informed my answer to Jake and Jackson’s question. Gawky, quirky design elements somehow work here, but would be out of place in any other car. The entire car is a bit ridiculous, and that’s part of its charm. It has personality, and Mini allows every buyer to show theirs by way of customizing almost everything during the ordering process. This is emphatically not a car you buy off the dealer lot – you’d miss out on far too many colors, textiles, patterns, and a la carte options for that.
Pricing is a bit of an elephant in the proverbial room. The Mk8 Volkswagen GTI and Hyundai Veloster N are both better values, on paper. But the GTI is a bit staid and the Veloster N a bit manic. Mini’s Cooper S costs a bit more than either when similarly equipped, and you don’t get as much power or torque. “Mild” hatchbacks like the Mazda3 or Honda Civic are cheaper but slower than this Cooper S and don’t offer any interesting paint colors or interior choices. Only the Hyundai offers a three-door layout like Mini.
What you get, then, with this “splits the difference” hatchback – the value of which is up to you – is a happy blend of personality and refinement. You get a level of customization that generally isn’t offered unless you can afford to shop a luxury brand. It’ll cost you, but to the right people, it’s worth every penny.
Another friend recently purchased a loaded John Cooper Works convertible, the faster and more breezy version of this test car. It’s not his first Mini Cooper, and I brought up the price and overall appeal in our conversation. “I mean, it’s kind of a fashion accessory,” he said. After a few years with a Ford Mustang, he went back to a Mini. The Mustang was more practical and perhaps “better” on paper, but the Mini more expressive and fun in the real world.
I can appreciate just about every car that passes through my garage for some reason, but I don’t get excited to drive every single one. The 2022 Mini Cooper S got me excited every time I grabbed the silly round key. I looked for reasons to go for drives, leaving the house hours before I had to be somewhere.
You’re either a Mini person or you aren’t – which are you?