With the new Mini, the best things come in a small(ish) package, writes Kevin Hackett.
Road test: 2014 Mini Cooper S
Four-wheeled fashion statements don’t come much more striking than the Mini, do they? When BMW launched its modern take on the iconic 1960s motor in 2001, it was, right from the word go, imbued with a sense of fun – something that still permeates the car, as evidenced by the myriad colour and trim combinations available. You don’t see too many silver Minis, do you?
Apart from its styling, it’s always been a fun car to drive, too, and the turbocharged Cooper S has, from the first moment that I drove one year ago, ranked highly in my list of cars that cannot fail to put a smile on my face – as a vehicle for covering ground rather quickly, they didn’t get much more fun than that. There I go again: fun. And the latest one, says its maker, is more fun than ever.
One thing always gets in the way, though, and that’s the outrageous price tag. The Cooper S starts – starts! – at Dh147,000 and that’s simply too much money for a hatchback that’s less powerful and no better equipped than the less expensive Golf GTI or Scirocco (even the storming R variant costs less) – and the superb Ford Focus ST could be yours for not much more than half the price. So the only way to proceed is to keep reminding oneself that this is a BMW in a cute suit – and they’re never cheap, are they?
As is usually the case, the press demonstrator has an all-singing, all-dancing specification that includes head-up display and a premium sound system (it’s quite excellent), but seat adjustment is still manual and there’s little in the way of driver aids – there’s no reversing camera, for instance – all for the princely sum of Dh155,000. And when you stop to consider what else you could drop that sort of money on you’d be spoiled for cho … Oh, sorry, I forgot. This is a BMW.
Right then, this BMW is built to the same exacting standards as any car that the brand is known for. Fit and finish are uniformly superb, which is something that could never be said about its illustrious forebear. It’s tight and honed and it’s a masterpiece of design, both inside and out. The new one has larger head- and tail lamps than ever (now LED) and it’s grown slightly, which is the norm for any car these days. There isn’t much mini about the new Mini, apart from its pretty poor boot space.
The cabin is roomy and beautifully laid out. Its main driver instrumentation has been rehoused from the large central dashboard dial to the smaller binnacle in front (or is it behind? I can never work that out) of the wheel – and it could be a bit difficult to keep an eye on one’s speed now, although if you opt for the head-up display, you’ll always know how quickly you’re going.
And quick is a central part of the Cooper S’s repertoire. As I mentioned, it’s not as powerful as some of its rivals, but it never really feels like it’s underpowered. Put your foot down and it just goes and goes, emitting a pleasingly gruff soundtrack quite at odds with its engine’s 1.6L displacement. Select Sport mode and the steering becomes noticeably heavier – the car’s entire demeanour changes as the central display informs you that you’re getting maximum go-kart fun. See, even the car tells you what you’re experiencing.
At last the steering wheel gearshift paddles make sense. Left for down, right for up – just like they’re supposed to be – although the car’s responses to driver inputs are so instant that you’ll probably end up not using them. While Sport mode does indeed give you a different-feeling Mini, I find the throttle response too digital, too twitchy for driver or passenger comfort, so I end up opting for the normal set-up unless I’m throttling it on a mountain switchback or racing circuit.
Another advancement, if you can call it that, is the fact that you no longer have to insert the disc-like key into an orifice in the dashboard to start it. Now you simply operate a very cool, central toggle switch to turn the car on and off. It glows red, too, just in case you felt that this mundane activity needed to become, you know, more fun. This is all well and good, but I actually liked having the key in the dash, as it meant that it wasn’t rattling around in some plastic drinks holder or getting lost in the depths of my pockets with all the other detritus that lives in them.
These are all minor quibbles, however, and the Cooper S, while not really worthy of its asking price, remains a mighty fun – sorry, fine – car that still makes me grin like a buffoon. We need more irreverent cars like this – they show us that, despite all the progress in design and engineering, a car can still have a big personality and turn every drive into a mini adventure.
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