Tiny cars with big engines have long been a recipe for fun. Mini gets it. The original Austin Mini Cooper and Morris Mini Cooper twins of the 1960s laid the foundations for the ‘tight handling, tiny car, generous engine’ format.
Today's Mini owes almost nothing to the original, except for a few hints of visual pastiche, but that’s okay given that almost 60 years spans the arrival of the first Cooper-badged specials and this current Cooper S.
Today’s 2020 Mini Cooper S 5-door is loaded with features that ’60s engineers could only dream of. A 2.0-litre engine is twice the size of that in the original Cooper, and it adds turbocharging.
The front wheels still put the power down, but a seven-speed dual-clutch auto helps transfer power – a decent leap forward compared to the original four-speed manual.
Then there’s the door count: four passenger access portals plus a rear tailgate to make today’s Cooper S a five-door model. The original, rather iconically, wasn’t even a hatchback as we know them today, with a fixed rear windscreen, small lower boot lid and only two doors. Progress.
There are a heap more changes along the way relating to everything from engine and suspension design to packaging and construction changes, but you get the idea.
The modern Mini is exactly that, modern, but with a tip of the hat to the design legacy of the old one.
It’s also still, thankfully, a hoot to drive. In a package that’s only tiny – a touch shorter and narrow than a Volkswagen Polo – you get a 141kW and 280Nm engine.
Funnily enough, cars like the Polo GTI and new Ford Fiesta ST outgun it, just, so the Mini isn’t really on its own in that respect.
It does things a little differently to those two, though.
Yes, it’s a more expensive car with a $44,750 starting bid before on-road costs and options, but it also packs in some more expensive baseline engineering like the multi-link independent rear suspension in place of the torsion beam set-up of the mainstream competition.
There’s also a sense of premiumness that comes with the Mini mystique, and the kind of interior design, materials and finishes that blend retro kitsch with the demands of high-tech infotainment.
Inclusions like a fairly elaborate range of colours and textures in the interior help disguise some of the cheaper finishes, where used.
Dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start via a funky little toggle switch, a big 8.8-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, digital radio and wireless Apple CarPlay, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather-look and cloth combo seats, auto lights and wipers pad out the included equipment list.
It’s still definitely a miniature. Larger than generations past, but at just half a centimetre over four metres that’s modern mini.
The seating position feels just right – you sit low yet rather upright. It’s not a traditional sports car stance, laid back with legs reaching forward, but it is still a sporty car stance.
It won’t be immediately familiar unless you’ve stepped out of another Mini, but it quickly becomes familiar.
The upright windscreen feels like it's miles away, the thick pillars impart a sense of security, and the proximity of other occupants reminds you that this is an experience to share. There’s really no other option unless you’re travelling solo.
The embrace of the optional John Cooper Works front seats, with more pronounced bolsters, is inescapable – in the best way.
There’s plenty of thigh and midriff support, but not so much at shoulder level so you can still swivel around for a head check.
The rear seats are, well… Here’s the thing, as a five-door model you’d expect the Mini to boost practicality over the three-door model, but with tiny rear doors it doesn’t. The wheelbase is a fairly solid 72mm more for the 5-door at 2567mm.
Rear-seat occupants won’t have to climb over the front seats and they can open the rear windows if they like, luxuries the Mini 3-door can’t provide, but the seat space is still very snug.
The short-trip urban focus is pretty clear with this one, though rear leg room is a rather beneficial 37mm more generous (820mm v 783mm).
Boot space also benefits, though at 278L next to the 3-door’s 211L you’ll still need to brush up your Tetris skills to make the most of what’s there. A split-folding rear seat helps for longer or bulkier items.
The real joy comes not from loading up the rear seats and boot, but as soon as you hit the road. The best kinds of cars are those that elicit a smile between every green light and roundabout on a suburban street, not just at ten-tenths on the open road.
The Cooper S is certainly successful at its intended ‘fun to drive’ purpose, without going over the top with rock-hard suspension or unrelenting noise, heat and fury.
It may not be the most powerful pint-sized hatch (although there’s always the John Cooper Works 3-door if you desperately need more punch), but it feels eager, zippy and light on its feet.
There’s a touch more civility than you might get in some of the cheaper light performance hatches. Firm but still agreeable ride comfort and decent noise suppression stand out in particular, although tyre noise can spoil the party on some surfaces.
There’s also responsive steering and a playful chassis that makes the most of taut control to keep things in check when the pace picks up.
Mini’s dual-clutch automatic is a sophisticated example of how this kind of transmission should work. It’s easy to control at low speeds, no jitters when parking and no surging into action in crawling traffic, but it still cracks off crisp, super-smooth gear changes when you want it to perform.
Because of its extra size and weight next to the Cooper S 3-door, the 5-door is perhaps a touch less on-edge in the handling department, but it’ll take the keenest of enthusiasts to pick the two apart.
It is so very close, though, that the difference sort of fades away when you consider the more at-ease nature the larger hatch has when it comes to carrying a couple of friends at short notice, or packing in an extra bag or two after a shopping spree.
If you weren’t simply going to make the decision with your heart, and needed some reassurance for your head, Mini claims fuel consumption of 5.6L/100km, but I’m ashamed to say after a week of 90 per cent urban driving, the Cooper S 5-door returned a very thirsty 9.7L/100km – less than ideal in such a small car, though in more open traffic that number is sure to drop.
On the safety front, six airbags, urban-speed autonomous emergency braking, a rear camera and infotainment emergency call function aim to keep occupants safe.
There’s no ANCAP safety rating for the longer, heavier five-door members of the Mini family, only the 3-door, so its crash performance is unknown.
Like products from parent company, BMW, Mini models are available with ‘Service Inclusive Basic’ pre-paid servicing for up to five years or 80,000km for $1495.
The service intervals are decreed by the onboard computer and oil-conditioning monitoring rather than a set schedule.
Mini isn’t just selling a car here, it’s setting up an image, a lifestyle, an aspiration. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Things would be pretty dull if we all drove the same unemotional appliances.
While retro design may not hold the appeal it once did, there’s enough substance in the underlying tech, comprehensive infotainment, and properly entertaining roadholding to make the Mini Cooper S 5-door covetable as a chic urban hatch with enthusiast appeal.