I must admit that I did get a little carried away with the whole driving in the UK thing. After driving every day since I acquired my drivers licence on the morning of my 18th birthday in my native Melbourne, the 3 months of travelling that halted all driving experiences here in Europe, around some of the best driving roads in the world mind you, was enough to get me to run straight into the shiny arms of an R53 BMW Mini Cooper S. It’s a car that was more than just a small hot hatch to me, but it represented my freedom here as an uncle of mine had one when new whilst living in Sydney back in the early naughties. The fact that I was now based in Oxford, home of the MINI, also helped lure it towards me. From what I could remember as an 11 year old the Cooper S was insanely fast, stuck to the road like it was on Velcro and had a fantastic supercharged engine note. As a purely naturally aspirated car owner to this point I though it a good first step into forced induction. So after some searching and hundreds of insurance quotes, I found ‘my’ Grey S with black leather, Chilli pack and crucially cruise control (I am aussie after all). Smitten by its shape and having heard for years about its handing brilliance I purchased the car at a premium of which I justified it as being covered by an after sales warrantee and having low mileage.
The first few weeks were fun as I was yet to start working full time and it was summertime in the Cotswolds. A few ‘brisk’ drives around the little country lanes and brilliant fast sweeping A roads then revealed that the Mini was not the little rocket I remembered, 160bhp is still impressive for such a small car, but its lack of kick in the back was a noted miscommunication from my possibly rose tinted memory. Its was not all that surprising to see the ancient little Chrysler motor not responding with quite the same enthusiasm I expected, but the supercharged unit in the S was at least responsive and filled with torque at lower rpm, making the car at low speeds anyway, feel faster then its specifications suggested. Having spent the preceding 3 years almost exclusively driving AWD cars, it was an adjustment needing to manage traction at wet junctions, but it was nice to be able to punt the little grey MINI along at a decent lick in total confidence due to an undeniable quality engineered feel you would expect out of a BMW product. All its controls had a certain mount of heft, the clutch heavy and short, gearbox notchy and accurate, but the steering was particularly impressive, initially light at low speeds, but weighting up beautifully at higher speeds and giving me a clear indication of what the road surface was doing. This feel was backed up through the low chassis and suspension which delt with low speed bumps with no more effectiveness than an ox cart, but once up to speed kept the body right in check, weight transfer remaining perfectly manageable and consistent, giving me the ablity to lean on the front end without fear of unforeseen understeer. The MINI’s square stance on the road may have made it look the part, but it also gave the car an inherent stability at all speeds, the flip side to this being a tendency to a sudden breakaway at the limit of grip when the tyres did finally throw in the towel. The pivot point below my hips and the work BMW put into its chassis shone through and despite the sometimes infuriating gearbox and it gave me the ability to explore the deeper reaches of its dynamic talent at not entirely sociable speeds with confidence. I was aware that this car was not going to be a 205 GTi regarding its mid corner adjustability, but the Mini’s refusal to unstick either end at anything other than ridiculous speeds or gross imputs meant did rob a sense of ultimate involvement, although the occasional sprinkling of rain did help.
Practically however, the MINI was only slightly more useful than a moped, with no concept of rear legroom or trunk space to carry things or people leading to its ultimate replacement.