Mention “MINI” to anybody who loves cars, and adjectives such as “fun to drive”, “unconventional” and “stylish” will be used to describe the three-door hatchback. What’s amazing, however, is that these are the same adjectives used to describe the original Mini, which was launched in 1959.
The “lower-case” Mini is a far cry from the modern, “upper-case” MINI introduced by the brand’s parent company, BMW, in 2001. The simple and down-to-earth hatchback that die-hard fans love has been replaced by a much bigger and far more technologically advanced “haute” hatch that offers equally chic buyers plenty of options for customisation.
But no matter how alienated they might feel, Mini traditionalists will have to admit (perhaps privately) that the German carmaker is doing something right. For while the original Mini “only” racked up sales of 5.4 million units, BMW has already sold a total of 2.6 million units of the first- and second-gen MINI.The third-gen MINI, whose Cooper variant we test-drove in sunny Puerto Rico (see sidebar, “Paradise Island”) and reviewed in our April 2014 issue, has impressed us with its improved quality over its predecessor. But the MINI model we’ve been eagerly anticipating is the latest Cooper S gracing these pages, for until the new John Cooper Works (JCW) comes along, this is the sportiest hatch in the third-generation MINI range.
If you were hoping that this means the new Cooper S will be smaller than the old one, you’re going to be disappointed. Like the regular Cooper, the Cooper S has grown – its overall length increased by an astonishing 121mm and its wheelbase extended by 28mm for added cabin space.
The Cooper S also has a 44mm wider stance, which should give it more stability while cornering. This hatchback, however, is great at hiding its size, because the enlarged dimensions are only obvious when the new car is parked alongside the previous one. And despite its portlier proportions, the latest Cooper S is claimed to be 5kg lighter than the previous model.Spotting the differences between the new Cooper S and its predecessor (see sidebar, “Look Alike? Not Quite!”) isn’t easy either. Visually, both cars still share the same styling cues, but if you look long/close enough, you’ll notice that the new Cooper S has a wider grille and a slimmer (but still non-functional) bonnet scoop.
The most audacious changes to the Cooper S are found in the cockpit, which has gone from quirky and unintuitive to (gasp!) conventional and driver-friendly. First-time drivers of the older Cooper S models would find their initial feelings of excitement soon turning into irritation, because the power window controls, for instance, are toggle switches on the lower centre console instead of on the door panels.
There won’t be any gnashing of teeth in the new Cooper S. Inside, the window controls are, logically, placed on the door panel, and they’ve also been been changed to regular rocker switches instead of unusual toggles. Adjusting your wing mirrors (which are wider than before) is now done via a directional pad rather than a little joystick. The Big Ben-sized speedometer in the middle of the dashboard has also disappeared – the now normal-sized speedo and the tachometer now reside behind the steering wheel, which is where they should have been all along!There are two glaring omissions in the Cooper S, though. Firstly, the pedals aren’t finished in stainless steel with rubber grip inserts (which is standard in the previous model), and secondly, the steering wheel does not come with paddle-shifters. According to the local agent, the paddle-shifters can only be had with the Sports Automatic transmission, which is a $6k option (ouch).
Making up for the missing “sports gear”, however, is the car’s athletic performance. The Cooper S packs more ponies under its bonnet this time around, thanks to its new turbocharged 2-litre powerplant that produces 192bhp and 280Nm. That’s 8bhp and a significant 40Nm more than what the turbo 1.6-litre in the previous Cooper S model musters.
MINI says that the increased output gets the Cooper S from a standstill to 100km/h in 6.7 seconds, or half a second quicker than before. The real surprise, however, is that the Cooper S accomplishes this in a remarkably (and unexpectedly) refined manner. Whereas the previous model feels like an over-exuberant puppy straining at the leash, the new Cooper S is more linear and delivers the power in precise doses.Part of what makes the Cooper S feel more driveable is its enhanced electric power steering, which has been tuned to reduce torque-steer. In the previous Cooper S, you have to grab the wheel as if you’re grabbing the car by the scruff of its neck to get it to behave. In this new model, you only need to make minor steering corrections. It may be less entertaining to drive, therefore, but it’s also tiresome to have to “discipline” the car each time you floor the accelerator.
Also less tiring is the ride quality, which is smoother and no longer bone-jarring, so driving over pockmarked tarmac will no longer cause you to curse, swear, or make an appointment with your chiropractor. Complementing this is the Dynamic Damper Control system, which adjusts the dampers’ stiffness based on one of the three driving modes, which are selected using the huge dial around the base of the gearshift lever.
The vehicle’s default setting is Mid. In this mode, the Cooper S delivers such an ordinary drive that if it isn’t for the additional oomph, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re driving a regular Cooper. As its name suggests, the Green setting helps improve fuel efficiency by retarding the drivetrain’s responsiveness and reducing the air-conditioning’s throughput. To further reduce consumption, the system also has a coasting function, which disconnects the gearbox from the engine when the driver lifts his foot from the throttle while the car is travelling between 50km/h and 160km/h.
To make the Cooper S come alive, you’ll need to select Sport mode. In this mode, the dampers are stiffened, the throttle response is sharpened and the exhaust produces “popping” sounds. You’ll also discover that this hatchback has lost none of its nimbleness, despite having a softer ride. In fact, the new Cooper S is even more confidence-inspiring because it’s so much more stable when tucked into tight bends. Even if you hit a bump mid-corner, it won’t “throw” the car off your chosen line, which is something we can’t say about the older models.
What we have here is a hot “haute” hatch that belies the MINI name because it is bigger, more refined and less quirky than before. It has even left out equipment that should have been standard. But it’s this willingness to bravely challenge expectations that makes the Cooper S unconventional. And that’s exactly what makes this “brazen one” a truly mighty MINI.
TYPE Inline-4, 16-valves, turbocharged
BORE X STROKE 82mm x 94.6mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 11:1
MAX POWER 192bhp at 4700-6000rpm
MAX TORQUE 280Nm at 1250-4750rpm
POWER TO WEIGHT 153.6bhp per tonne
GEARBOX 6-speed automatic with manual select
DRIVEN WHEELS Front
0-100KM/H 6.7 seconds
TOP SPEED 233km/h
CONSUMPTION 18.2km/L (combined)
CO2 EMISSION 127g/km
FRONT MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
REAR Multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
FRONT / REAR Ventilated discs / Discs
TYPE Hankook Ventus Prime S1 Evo 2
SIZE 205/45 R17
TRACTION CONTROL ABS with DSC
KERB WEIGHT 1250kg
TURNING CIRCLE 10.8m
PRICE INCL. COE $176,300 (after $10k CEVS rebate)
WARRANTY 3 years/100,000km
+ Roomier and more ergonomic cockpit, nimble handling, enhanced driveability
– Less quirky than before, exhaust note is less forthcoming, boot space remains tiny