The Mini Cooper S is fun motoring in a small package.
We await an all-new Mini Cooper some time late in 2013, when we'll find out if it still remains one of the most fun small cars to drive.
There's no reason to believe anything will change for a car that has been the embodiment of cheeky motoring since 1959.
For some odd reason it's been way too long since my last road test of one of these ‘hot’ Mini Coopers. The last time was more than a few years ago, when I was privileged to take ex-formula racer Warwick Brown on a hot lap of the Pier One area in a John Cooper Works special edition. That was early on a Sunday morning and Warwick stepped out of the car and said he was buying one, just like that.
That’s what a drive in a MINI Cooper S can do to you, because there simply isn’t another car on the road that offers this much fun behind the wheel. That’s despite the fact that the cons probably outweigh the pros, at least from various practicality aspects.
The MINI Cooper is small, very small. Thankfully though, it’s about twice the size of the original car designed by Sir Alec Issigonis. Even so, if we were talking apartments – this would be a studio. While there’s not a lot of elbowroom between driver and front passenger, there’s even less legroom for rear-seat passengers, but it’s fine for kids though. In the rear cargo space, you might just be able to squeeze in the weekly grocery shopping – but that’s only if you don’t have kids.
But the MINI was never about that kind of practicality, not from the moment it was christened back in 1959. It was a fun cure for cheap transport and ultra-frugal fuel consumption, and along the way it also became a cultural icon as a totally original design.
It was also the first budget-priced transport that could be said to ‘corner on rails’. In fact, it was most likely the car that coined the very phrase.
The advantage of sitting just a few centimetres off the ground, as you surely did in the Mini, was go-kart-like handling, but it needed more power. At least that’s what the enthusiasts wanted, and there were plenty of that lot about. These were folks willing to pay a premium for a few ‘go fast’ bits and pieces that would morph the Mini into a veritable racing car.
Enter the Mini Cooper and Cooper ‘S’ by Charlie and John Cooper, a performance version with considerably more poke on tap than the stock version. Not only did it outgun some of the more powerful exotics in many of the world’s toughest rallies and endurance races, but the Cooper S also became the number one getaway car of the 1969 smash hit movie The Italian Job outshining even the E-Type and a DB5.
While the latest MINI Cooper S is considerably larger than the original version, the current custodian of the MINI brand, BMW, has clearly gone to great lengths to ensure the classic Mini shape and character has been retained. It’s put on a few kilos too, with our constant demand for more features and safety gear, but rest assured, it hasn’t dulled the performance in any way, shape or form – this is a quick bit of kit.
Ignore the published sprint time of seven seconds from 0-100km/h. That might seem a tad slow by today’s hot hatch standards, but the MINI Cooper S experience is anything but. Drill the throttle when you see a large enough gap ahead and it feels like a six-second car. The torque doesn’t let up from 1600 through 5000rpm it just keeps pulling and pulling.
When BMW switched over to turbochargers from the tried and proven belt-driven supercharger, I was worried the instant throttle response that was characteristic of the previous MINI Cooper S would be forever lost to that dreaded turbo lag. It was bad enough I would longer experience the musical whine of the supercharger spooling up, but turbo lag would be intolerable.
If there is any lag from the twin scroll turbocharger, then it’s imperceptible to me and the 135 kilowatts feels like more in the MINI Cooper S, such is the potent acceleration whenever you put your right foot into it - and you’ll be doing a lot of that in this car.
It’s even better when you get the opportunity hold that throttle against the firewall and feel the extra punch as the ‘overboost’ function kicks in and torque is lifted to 260 Newton-metres. You’ll find that particularly handy when overtaking slower vehicles.
Lift off the throttle as you downshift from say, third to second, and there’s a slight burble of exhaust overrun if you’re in ‘sport’ mode. It’s another one of those MINI Cooper S characteristics that you’ll want to enjoy time and time again, whether you’re driving a manual or automatic.
The six-speed manual transmission from Getrag is a perfect match to the Cooper S with rapid shifts possible with its short throw action. I know dual-clutch systems are fast becoming standard fitment on many performance cars these days but let’s hope MINI keeps the status quo, at least on this count.
This 1.6-litre turbo powerplant really is a sweet bit of kit with silky smooth power delivery that makes the car such a breeze to drive, even in traffic. And don’t worry if you happen to get caught in traffic on a steep incline, Hill Start Assist will prevent you from rolling back when you depress the clutch and engage first gear. It’s a marvellous bit of electronic wizardry that takes the pressure off driving a manual in traffic.
I’ve not been a real fan of electronic power steering systems over the more traditional hydraulic units - not enough feel - but MINI has pretty much nailed it with the MINI Cooper S. It’s sharp and quick to respond (better with ‘Sport’ mode activated) and provides great feedback through the wheel. It’s also perfectly weighted right from dead centre, allowing for some highly confident driving through anything that remotely resembles a bend in the road.
Front-wheel drive performance hatches tend to attract a nasty characteristic known as torque steer when accelerating hard off the line, but again, MINI has done well to reduce this tendency to a bare minimum.
If you are lucky enough to get behind the wheel of a MINI Cooper S, do yourself a favour: seek out the twistiest bit of tarmac you can find and you’ll understand why this car is so addictive, in so many ways.
No matter how hard you turn in, or how much speed you carry into a corner; there is simply no body roll whatsoever. Nothing. Even when I tried to induce some lean with some aggressive cornering on my favourite bendy road, the MINI Cooper S refuses to tilt. It’s remarkable and it’s just so much fun to drive.
The go kart handling and cat-like response rates mean that ride comfort on anything but a billiard-ball smooth freeway is slightly compromised. I say slightly, because MINI's engineers have done a brilliant job with the suspension on this car. It’s a firm ride but it’s not uncomfortable. There’s a fair degree of compliance in the dampers, but you’re acutely aware of any blemishes on the road.
It might be 2011, or fifty-two years since the first Mini rolled off the line in the UK, but the designers have clearly paid homage to the brand’s iconic styling, while at the same time moving with the times.
The easiest way to pick the MINI Cooper S over its naturally aspirated siblings is the by the bonnet mounted air intake and the twin exhaust tips. Both these elements are also entirely functional and necessary to the car’s performance.
Inside, it’s semi-retro, but with modern materials. In fact most of the surfaces throughout the car are soft touch with a mostly premium look.
It’s a more exciting dashboard than most with the classic Mini oversize speedometer which also houses a number of other functions these days, such as the fuel gauge and radio dial. In the middle of the steering wheel assembly is the smaller rev counter, which in the MINI Cooper S, you tend to watch more than the speedometer.
It’s a comfortable to place to sit too with well bolstered seats even in the standard cloth guise, and just like the rear vision mirror, these pews are designed using an elliptical shape. Even the MINI key fob is rounded, but sadly, it’s not a proximity key - you still need to insert it and push the start button.
There’s a stack of active and passive safety kit on board including, six airbags, front belt-force limiters and seatbelt tensioners, Dynamic Stability Control and Cornering Brake Control as standard. There’s also the usual ABS with MINI Brake Assist and importantly, integrated steel crash boxes that deform in collisions so as to protect major components.
For this kind of performance, a combined fuel consumption of just 5.8L/100km is darn good. I got close to that even though most of my test kays were urban-based and my right foot was generally close to the floor, as it tends to be in a Cooper S.
It really doesn’t matter that legroom is a little short in the rear seats, or the cargo area is a bit small for that matter; the MINI Cooper S is still practical enough for city living. Add to that one of the best ‘behind the wheel’ experiences you are ever likely to have off the track, and this is one car I’d like to have in my garage.