Mini Cooper S (R53): Wheels within wheels

Minis don’t have a smooth ride. It’s a fact of life. The R53’s suspension appears to have been benchmarked against a skateboard while the latest Mini Electric’s suspension appears to have been benchmarked against a slightly more sophisticated skateboard. Now, I’m happy to sacrifice some ride comfort at the altar of handling but that hasn’t stopped me from investigating how I could make some improvements.

Before I bought GV05KWE, I test drove a couple of others. One of them still had original-spec runflat tyres on its 17in wheels and it almost put me off getting a Mini, so harsh and unpleasant was the ride. A previous owner of my car had already ditched the runflats and replaced them with standard Goodyear Eagle F1s, making the ride a lot more tolerable.

Like most R53s, my Mini came with the Chili Pack, which includes a number of useful options, but also 17in wheels. In my car’s case, the ‘S-Lite’ style, which kind of look like huge Minilites. Ironically, they are neither mini, nor light, at a whopping 11kg a corner. Reportedly, both the larger wheels and the runflat tyres were added very late in the reborn Mini’s development process and Cooper S was really meant to have 16in alloys at the largest.

I’m also a bit of a contrarian, and as the the world goes mad for giant black alloy wheels, I like going in the opposite direction and fitting my car with smaller wheels that are painted silver, as the Lord intended.

After reading some forums and talking to some people who know Minis, I decided I wanted to get rid of my rimz. So the question was: Do I want to go for the more conventional option of 16s or do I go the whole hog and fit the 15in wheels from the regular Cooper? 15in wheels do fit and I really like the phone dial/pepper pot style. However, the alloys are fairly narrow and intended for 175 section tyres, which I reckoned might not offer the grip expected from a hot hatch. You can fit wider tyres, but as you increase the tyre-to-rim ratio, the tyres have a bit too much freedom to flop about and you start compromising steering response. There’s also the issue that tyre manufacturers simply can’t be bothered anymore to produce performance-oriented rubber in such small sizes.

So I started scouring eBay for 16in wheels and I ended up with a set of X-Spokes, which were the standard wheel for the R53 Cooper S. Because the vast majority of UK Cooper Ss got were specced with the Chilli Pack, these wheels are surprisingly rare. They’re not especially valuable, though, and I managed to sell my 17s for slightly more than I paid for the 16s.

High-performance tyres are just about still available in 16in, so I had a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber fitted. I went for 205/55R16 size, which is slightly larger than what 16in-wheeled Minis would have come with from the factory (195/55R16), but the stock size isn’t available and as long as the suspension is not lowered, it doesn’t cause any clearance issues.

The theory, then, is that the increased sidewall height should improve ride comfort, while the lower unsprung weight should inject some additional responsiveness into the chassis. So, has it worked?

Erm, yes? Ish… In all honesty, the improvement was not as spectacular as I had hoped. I definitely prefer the look of the smaller alloys to the 17in cartwheels. The chunkier sidewall certainly takes the edge off harsh road imperfections, but the ride remains very firm and if you hit a particularly nasty pothole or ridge, the Mini will still thump through it in a particularly unpleasant way.

And what of the reduction in unsprung weight, the car nerd topic par excellence? I’m sure that if you are a Lotus vehicle dynamics engineer you’ll be able to notice the improvement, but I’m not and I can’t, sadly. As much as I like to think of myself as a handling connoisseur, the Mini feels the broadly the same at what I consider safe road speeds.

One additional benefit of the wheel swap is that because the total diameter of the wheel-tyre combination has increased slightly is that the Mini’s ride height has actually increased slightly. Before, the front bumper would frequently scuff over uneven country roads, but since the change, that happens far less frequently. The off-road course beckons…

Given that the alloys didn’t cost me anything and that the fresh tyres have improved front-end grip in wet immeasurably compared to the old worn tyres, I don’t regret doing the swap, but I’d be lying if I said it was a truly worthwhile upgrade.

If I want to improve the ride further, the next step would be to change the dampers. Forums are very complimentary about Koni Active (née Koni FSD) – as well they should be at a price of £500 for a set. These are passive dampers (don’t let the name fool you) with a stiff slow bump, but a soft fast bump, which should make for more compliance over road imperfections, but just as much control in corners and over undulations as with the standard items. It’s very tempting to upgrade, especially since there is no evidence to suggest that the dampers on my car have ever been changed in the past, so at 94,000 miles, they have no doubt seen better days. However, with a host of more acute maintenance issues still outstanding, it probably won’t be a priority.