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The new-generation Mini is all grown-up. So can the Cooper S cut it against one of its toughest rivals?
The Mini Cooper S is now cheaper and more powerful than ever before, completely revamped and repositioned in its new generation to play against the more affordable breed of small hot-hatches. The Renault Clio RS200 launched last year, meanwhile, has become more of a fashionable hot-hatch, seemingly stepping into a pond the reborn Brit has occupied for years. Only makes sense to bring them together, then...
Both tiny terrors join in being more practical and technology focused than the cars they replace. The new Mini Cooper S remains a three-door (a five-door Mini hatch is on its way, though) but has grown in length and width to deliver more interior space.
The Renault Clio RS200 used to be a three-door, manual-only, 2.0-litre naturally aspirated model aimed solely at rev-loving Francophiles, but it now has five doors, and matches the old Mini Cooper S by having a 1.6-litre turbocharged engine, where the new generation here has stepped up to 2.0-litre capacity. The Renault also has automatic gearbox availability for the first time, though unlike the Cooper S it is the only transmission choice.
Both cars are priced close to one another, too.
The Mini Cooper S now starts from $36,950 – a considerable drop over the existing model that started at $42,990.
For the new lower price you get a six-speed manual transmission (a six-speed auto adds $2350), a 6.5-inch media screen with satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming with USB connectivity, reversing sensors, auto headlights and wipers, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start and 17-inch alloy wheels.
We tested the self-shifting model which was stacked with options that pushed its price to a staggering $48,880 – or 33 per cent more than the standard car. The boxes ticked on our tester included a panoramic glass roof ($1900), LED headlights, foglights and driving lights ($1500), ‘cross punch’ leather ($1400), dynamic damper control ($700), a reverse-view camera ($470) and a white interior styling kit ($360).
The Clio RS 200 Cup Trophy model tested here kicks off just a few hundred bucks higher than the Mini (without all of its options) at $37,290, though it's worth noting that Renault does offer the much cheaper Sport model from just $29,290. Our test car had only one option, Renault's eye-bulgingly bold Liquid Yellow metallic paint ($750).
As with the Mini, the Clio comes with plenty of standard goodies, matching the former’s climate control, rear sensors, Bluetooth connectivity and standard sat-nav, though in the French car it is sent to a larger 7.0-inch touchscreen system. The Renault also gets larger 18-inch alloy wheels.
Being thoroughly modern and aimed at tech-savvy buyers, both of these new-age hot-hatches feature switchable performance modes.
There are three options in the Mini – normal, Sport and Green. Dialling up each mode using a rotary switch makes for revised acceleration response, steering weight, gearshifts, interior lighting (the round light cluster surrounding the central screen) and suspension firmness. As a nice (or naff) extra in the Mini, activating Sport mode is signified by a rocketship and go kart illustrations on the display screen.
The Renault is more racy, with its RS Monitor system offering racetrack data logging, lap timing and telemetry systems on-board. Its multi-mode system includes normal, Sport and Race settings, with the latter disabling the electronic stability control entirely. As with the Mini, these settings adjust accelerator pedal response, stability control intervention, steering and shifts.
While the Renault grew in comparison to the existing model, as such it appears a much bigger car than its predecessor, not to mention alongside the much-enlarged Mini. The Clio is 4063 millimetres long and 1732mm wide, whereas the new Mini is smaller in both respects - 3850mm long and 1727mm wide. Both have had their wheelbase stretched: the Mini’s has grown by 28mm to 2495mm, while the Clio’s is 15mm longer than its predecessor at 2589mm.
Under the bonnet, the Mini’s mill ain’t so mini anymore. The latest generation version has a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder mill - which is also fitted to many BMW models - shoehorned into its engine bay in place of the existing 1.6-litre turbo, with the new unit punching out 141kW of power and 280Nm of torque (up modestly from 135kW/260Nm, clearly leaving plenty of room for the forthcoming John Cooper Works flagship).
That peak power output is hit at 4700-6000rpm, while maximum torque kicks in from just 1250rpm. The result is a thick power band that allows the Cooper S to jump from 0-100km/h in a claimed 6.7 seconds, in addition to a level of driveability that helps it claim fuel use of 5.5 litres per 100km.
That new engine is a rorty, willing and punchy little thing, with a wealth of torque and no turbo lag to speak of. The power comes on strong and is delivered smoothly across the rev-range, and there’s an addictive, deeply growly engine note – which is entirely different to the previous poppy and burbly 1.6 turbo.
The Mini’s six-speed automatic isn’t the quickest to react, and at times we found it could fumble at lower speeds in a similar way to a dual-clutch automatic despite being a traditional torque-converter unit. Under the pump it performs brilliantly, with sharp shifts in Sport mode, but we found ourselves constantly looking for a set of paddleshifters that weren’t there – another of those option boxes you need to tick.
The Renault’s engine is a smaller 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder, but it manages to wrestle 147kW at 6000rpm and 240Nm at 1750rpm. Renault claims it can complete the 0-100km/h sprint in an identical 6.7sec, though its fuel use is claimed to be higher at 6.3L/100km.
There’s more hesitation from a standstill in the Renault, with a slight lull in proceedings before the engine bursts on to the scene with a rousing amount of power. There’s a notable difference between these two cars in terms of outright pulling power, and while the Renault isn’t slow, it can’t match the urgent nature of the Mini when it comes to accelerating out of corners.
The Renault’s gearbox is a dual-clutch unit that comes with paddles as standard – and they’re shifters with some cred, too, as they’ve been borrowed from the Nissan GT-R parts pin. However, unlike in that purebred sports car, the paddles in the Clio are still resistant to shifts at times, and can frustrate the driver by failing to deliver the desired change.
The dual-clutch gearbox can also be hesitant from a standstill, staggering then lunging in urban commuting, though its shifts improve at higher speeds. Unlike the Mini, the Renault has a launch mode – not for use on public roads! – which allows the driver to hold revs for a quick start and is accompanied by a wicked little stutter and burble from the exhaust before being let off its leash.
While it's hardly an obese specimen with its kerb weight of just 1218 kilograms, the Renault does feel heavier and less raunchy than the 1175kg Mini, lacking the jabbing acceleration of the BMW Brit car.
Over our test loop involving a range of high speed sweeping bends, sharp twists and crisp hairpins both cars cut a fine figure.
The Renault feels more rambunctious in its performance – it will lift its rear wheel as you push into a sharp bend, with the nose dipping and trying to bite down on the bend. However it can struggle for grip at times, with the front tyres scrambling for traction on full-throttle corner exits - more to do with the power delivery than the 18-inch Dunlop Sport Maxx tread.
Indeed, there are times when you won’t know what’s happening at the front-end, as the steering can be a little vague and lacking the finer levels of feedback to the driver’s hands. But in general day-to-day driving, the Clio’s lighter steering could prove more liveable than the Mini, not to mention its ride, which, while far from perfect, deals with large inconsistencies like potholes or speedhumps in a smoother manner than its rival.
The Cooper S retains the go kart-like reaction speed and responsiveness of its predecessor, with excellent steering precision. It stays flat through corners and rewards the driver with a better sense of balance and control. Despite the questionable fitment of less-than-stellar Hankook tyres on the Mini (we’d expected Continentals or Dunlops on a premium sports model), the Cooper S rewards with high levels of cornering grip, and while its ride is firmer than the Renault it never jars or feels clumsy over bumps.
While acceleration and cornering prowess are the key indicators of a hot-hatch’s worth, braking is another key measurement - and in this regard, the Renault performs better. The brakes on the Mini offered less feel through the pedal and during our test we felt some fade under hard driving. The Renault’s brakes offered a more intrinsic feel to the driver’s feet, and their stopping power exceeded the Mini.
We’ve praised the interior of the Renault in the past, with its sporty styling and techno-gadgetry giving it the edge over similarly sized rivals.
Indeed, it is a sassy place to sit, with well-bolstered and comfortable sports seats, a neat and tidy dashboard design dominated by the aforementioned media display screen, and splashes of colour throughout – we particularly liked the zingy red seatbelts and trim highlights of our test car. Against the Mini, though, the Clio’s interior feels a little on the cheap side, with its hard plastic dash and door surfaces giving away the fact this is a more affordable car done up to a pricier level.
On the plus-side for the Renault is its rear seat space and access. Affording the car with a set of rear doors has meant it is entirely more practical than the Mini’s three-door layout, and despite its proportions there is a decent amount of space in the rear row. Head-room, leg-room and shoulder-room are all decent, and there are three seats across the bench as opposed to the Mini’s two.
On top of that, the Clio has the Cooper pipped in terms of storage and practicality, though neither is perfect. The Clio’s front-seat cupholders are too small to be useful, and the Mini’s door-pockets are difficult to slide things into and out of, and both lack decent large bottle stowage. The Renault’s 300-litre boot is considerably larger and more practical than the Mini’s 250L hold.
The Mini’s interior is not as outwardly silly as the car it replaces, and nor is it overtly sporty. But it feels more special than the Renault, with deep high-quality plastics over the dash, a higher-definition media screen with updated iDrive system with a touchpad controller (borrowed from BMW). There are elements that can’t be taken seriously – like the roundel of lighting surrounding that centre display which changes depending on the driving mode – but there’s no denying the general look and finish of the cabin is of a high standard.
When it comes to the ownership experience, Mini has a condition-based servicing program that requires it to be serviced only when the car’s on-board sensors state that maintenance is required. However, Mini does offer its ‘TLC’ pre-purchase service program, which is available in a number of variations starting from $850 for five years or 70,000km of coverage. Mini offers a standard three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty for all models.
The Renault has an identical three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty (despite its standard versions being offered with a five-year plan). A three-year servicing plan is also available, with visits required every 12 months or 15,000km at a cost of $299 per year.
While each of these two hot-hatches is bigger and gruntier than they’ve ever been, each approaches the game with a different strategy.
The Renault offers a great blend of pace and practicality, and it comes both fully loaded and with a more comfortable ride than its rival. This is offset, however, by a boosty power delivery yet a ditzy transmission, more aloof steering and handling that isn't quite as razor-sharp as its rival.
The Mini, despite its firmer ride, is the more mature and premium feeling car, yet also the one that has the most rewarding steering and handling when you're driving it like a hot-hatch should be driven. Without all its exorbitant options there’s still a superb car to be had, and that’s enough for us to give the Mini Cooper S the win here, if only by the smallest of margins.
Photography: Matt Campbell