Superminis are hugely popular in the UK. It’s never a surprise to see one top the new car sales charts every month, with more featuring across the rest of the table.

It’s not just cheap and cheerful models buyers love. Premium small cars are closing the gap thanks to affordable finance deals, and the MINI is a stand-out example.

Keen to continue this trend, the firm has launched a facelifted car. Customisation options are a key to the MINI’s success, and the brand has also added to that list with some unique new features.

The MINI’s popularity is no surprise, but is it worth the premium you’ll pay over a regular supermini? To find out, we’ve tested the latest British model against SEAT’s sporty Ibiza, a car moving into the realm of greater personalisation.

Head-to-head

Model: MINI Cooper five-door SEAT Ibiza 1.5 TSI EVO FR 
Price:  £18,045 £17,935
Engine:  1.5-litre 3cyl petrol Engine: 1.5-litre 4cyl petrol
Power/torque:  134bhp/220Nm 148bhp/250Nm
Transmission:  Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive  Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive 
0-60mph: 9.1 seconds 8.1 seconds
Top speed: 129mph 134mph
Test economy:  35.1mpg 39.6mpg
CO2/tax:  116g/km/£140 112g/km/£140
Options:  Metallic paint (£525), Navigation Plus Pack (£2,000), Chili Pack (£2,800), Adaptive Suspension (£375), MINI Yours Interior Style Piano Black interior trim (£260) Metallic paint (£660), wireless phone charger (£160), climate control (£320), keyless entry and go (£250), LED headlights (£490)

MINI Cooper

For: High-quality feel, stylish looks, good to drive, personalisation potential.
Against: Fuel economy is worse than its rival’s, options are expensive.

It’s not exactly a huge overhaul, but new features in this latest MINI Cooper include fresh LED headlights and some more kit inside. While the new Union flag LEDs at the rear are sure to divide opinion, they are distinctive and set the new car apart from its predecessor.

Importantly, one of the MINI’s most appealing features – how thrilling it is to drive – is still present here. The five-door’s quick and direct steering, plentiful grip and great gearchange mean nipping down a twisty road is lots of fun, and despite having a smoother ride than the Ibiza FR, in part thanks to its £375 adaptive suspension, it’s also the more agile car here.

The MINI’s driving position is better, which helps with comfort, but it’s also the well-sorted damping that allows enough movement to keep its composure without feeling unsettled along rough roads. Our test car’s adaptive suspension doesn’t make a big change between modes, but is comfortable and composed in any setting.

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The six-speed manual box has a mechanical feel and is fun to use, just like the set-up in the SEAT. The 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo engine isn’t as smooth as the Ibiza’s four-cylinder unit, but the Cooper’s motor sounds good and revs sweetly, so changing gear often isn’t a hassle.

Although the MINI was a second slower from 0-60mph than its rival, taking 9.1 seconds, it doesn’t feel like it’s lacking grunt out on the road, and the fine handling means the British car is actually a better choice for keen drivers.

At a cruise, though, the MINI’s power deficit is more apparent. In our tests it took 9.5 seconds to go from 50 to 70mph in fifth gear, and 12.4 seconds in sixth. That’s quite a bit slower than the respective times of 7.4 seconds and 9.2 seconds the Ibiza FR posted in the same tests.

The MINI’s interior design is another key area that’s been left largely untouched, save for the new infotainment system and some minor changes. For example, the drive mode select is now a switch instead of a large dial around the gearstick. You can also add a personalised 3D-printed panel in front of the passenger; this is available on the car’s front wings as well.

Soft-touch materials are used in key places, and while there are still some cheaper plastics, they are much better hidden than in the SEAT. The MINI isn’t as well equipped as the Ibiza, and you’ll need to add expensive option packs to get cruise control and parking sensors. Still, it does have 15-inch rims, Bluetooth, DAB and keyless go. 

Testers’ notes

  • • Infotainment: MINI’s screen is large, bright and easy to use even when on the move thanks to the rotary control. But the dial is counter-intuitive to operate, turning anticlockwise to move down the screen.
  • • Gearbox: The gearstick is chunky and the shift is fun to use as well. It’s all part of why the MINI is one of the best drivers’ cars in its class.
  • • Steering wheel controls: Buttons on the wheel can get in the way while steering, and you can accidentally mute the stereo or change stations. 

SEAT Ibiza 

For: Plenty of technology, sharp looks, agile handling.
Against: Plain interior, firm ride, not as interesting or characterful as its rival. 

Although it can’t match the MINI for sheer fun, don’t think that the SEAT Ibiza isn’t good to drive. It has direct steering, lots of grip and a great gearchange, so hustling down a twisty road is still enjoyable in this car – it just doesn’t feel quite as lively as its rival.

The Ibiza rides nicely in standard form, but this FR model’s larger 17-inch alloys and stiffer suspension mean that it’s more uncomfortable than the MINI. It tends to fidget and crash over harsh surfaces, and isn’t as smooth around town. It’s not as bad once you head out on to faster roads; it’s just no match for the Cooper.

The six-speed manual gearbox has a light but precise change that makes it easy and engaging to use; it’s not quite as satisfying as the MINI’s shift, because the lightness means it’s lacking a bit of substance, although there’s not much in it.

You won’t need to use the gearbox as much, however, because the SEAT had the advantage over the Cooper in our performance tests thanks to its more powerful engine.

From 30-70mph the FR took 7.9 seconds, a whole second less than its rival. And from 30 to 50mph in third gear the SEAT needed just 3.8 seconds, while its competitor took 5.4 seconds to do the same. Move up to fourth gear and the Ibiza beats the MINI again, with 5.4 seconds surpassing the Cooper’s 6.7 seconds.

The SEAT’s engine is smoother than the Cooper’s three-cylinder unit, although it’s not quite as much fun to rev. It’s economical, too; we returned 39.6mpg on our mixed route, compared with 35.1mpg in the MINI. This will save you around £200 a year in fuel.

One of the best things about the Ibiza is its interior space. There’s an impressive 355-litre boot, plus plenty of leg and headroom in the back as well. While the SEAT isn’t as trendy as the MINI, it’s still a sharp-looking car. The Ibiza’s cabin trails its more premium rival’s, though. There aren’t many soft-touch materials as the dash is covered in cost-saving hard plastics. The design is also much more plain than the MINI’s.

The infotainment is superb, however, and really helps the FR stand out from the MINI; the system is standard in the Ibiza, but you need to pay extra for a similar-grade set-up in the Cooper. Our car was also fitted with wireless smartphone charging (£160) to complement the standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality, so the SEAT is a top choice for those who value infotainment highly. 

Testers’ notes

  • • Infotainment: Touchscreen display is responsive and works very well with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. It’s bright, looks modern and is easy to use.
  • • Seats: Optional Alcantara seats in our test car feel good, but the driving position fundamentally isn’t a match for the Cooper’s.
  • • Material quality: The SEAT doesn’t feel as upmarket as the MINI, and uses hard plastics around the cabin. At least these solid materials should be durable. 

Verdict 

First place: MINI Cooper

If you’ve got cash to spend on a good-to-drive supermini, go for the MINI. Recent updates have kept it fresh, but it’s the agile chassis, high-quality interior and composed ride that help it win. While options packs are expensive, the extra customisation elements are welcome.

Second place: SEAT Ibiza

The Ibiza finishes a close second to the MINI here. It’s not as good to drive, nor as comfortable, but more space inside and great on-board tech make up for that somewhat. Lesser versions don’t get the 1.5, yet are more comfortable. It’s also pricier than the MINI on PCP.

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