Wheels

Tested: Mini Cooper S

By: Hailey Philander 2011-10-04 06:30
When, exactly, was it that retro became cool again?

Even when retro – at least where cars are concerned – is not always a recipe to success? Remember the ill-begotten Chrysler PT Cruiser and the teenage dream “new” Volkswagen Beetle?

How is it, then, that the eternally youthful Mini Cooper and Porsche 911 (that hasn’t really had the luxury of a break in its years of production) seem to have hit the retro nail on its head?

The facelifted Mini Cooper range was recently released in South Africa, but what’s so new about this facelift, you ask?

Well, the huggable Mini body and face are still there, so too is the oversized central speedometer with integrated 6.5” display for the vehicle functions and joystick controller, the (some may think cheesy) changeable ambient lighting for the cabin and the completely useless boot and rear seats.

WHAT'S NEW?

Changes to the Mini range are said to run deeper than what is seen, with new wheel designs and paint finishes among the most prominent. The changes are so subtle, I’m sure only the most loyal of Mini maniacs would be keen to spot the differences. However, the Mini remains, for me, the only car that can successfully pull off blazing white rims (the car supplied was finished in Spice Orange finished with cute white stripes, matching roof and wing mirrors) with so much attitude.

Not that you’ll necessarily notice it, but the bumper is revised for even more stringent pedestrian safety standards. Rear lights come with LEDs and the brake lights flicker under harsh braking.

Inside, the cabin remains a mix of kitsch and with added fabulousness.

There are small buttons that require getting used to, to manage the heating and air conditioning and toggle switches on the centre console and overhead for window, fog lamp and door locking functions. (A good thing too! Good luck to anyone trying to find anything on the “traditional” door units.)

LED INFUSION: LED-adorned lights are part of the Mini makeup.


The large central speedo remains problematic when carting nervous passengers, but the big display is useful for displaying the colour-coded audio, Bluetooth, navigation and other functions. In line with the Countryman, the rest of the Mini range, including the hatchback Cooper S, has access to web radio and integration of Facebook and Twitter accounts, too, via the Mini Connected and Visual Boost radio systems. There’s an MP3-compatible CD player and auxiliary inputs and simple-to-use Bluetooth hands-free operation of your mobile.

Just what every young (and young-at-heart) person needs!

ENGINE BOOST

That, and a decent powerplant, of course. The 1.6-litre engine with twin-scroll turbocharger has been upgraded, too, with power up from 128 to 135kW. The torque figure of 240Nm (with overboost to 260Nm) is unchanged.

The only think I would steer clear of is the automatic gearbox. A car as nimble and energetic as the Mini Cooper hatchback should not be weighed down with the “convenience” of an automatic gearbox. Sure, it’s the six-speeder used across the BMW properties, so it does its job, but it definitely takes some of the joy away from the classic Mini experience. The Mini is petite enough to not make the task of driving a manual a laborious one.

The Mini Cooper S seemed determined to shake off this automatic hindrance. It used every opportunity to lurch forward (seemingly without any real input from the driver) with tyres gleefully squealing and flashing lights in the instrument panel indicating a loss of traction.

Key to me, though, was that the Mini driving experience remained complete and utter fun. It’s almost impossible to drive this spirited car in a polite fashion…  

Typical of the “go-kart” identity the Mini’s cultivated, you sit low to the ground and everything – from the switchgear, to the gearshift and controls – is within easy reach. And then it’s “point and shoot” stuff (taking care to deal with the fistfuls torque steer off the line) and relishing in the growl that appears to emanate from the footwell. And it still greedily digs into anything resembling a corner or bend with utter commitment.

MACRO: The Mini range's latest update includes an exhaustive list of new optional toys and goodies.


NO AUTO, THANKS


You’d struggle to find the automatic version’s extra 35kg added by the automatic transmission as the tyres scramble for traction. It will still cover the 0 – 100km dash in a respectable 7.2 seconds and useful in-gear acceleration (especially with a helpful shove into Sport to permit the automatic to hold its gears) for those quick overtaking dashes, was particularly helpful.

Relative to its size, the Cooper’s wheelbase is quite long (2469mm to the overall length of 3729mm) and the wheel-at-each-corner stance makes for a ride that is quite firm but comfortable enough on bumpy surfaces. It’s no secret, though, that this car prefers smoother roads where its road-holding and nimbleness really have a chance to shine.  

Punch the Sport button and the Mini becomes even livelier. There’s added grunt to the engine note and, with the auto, gearshifts are faster, while the throttle and steering inputs are noticeably sharper.

Small on the outside, but packed with everything you could need (barring space for the two extra passengers promised by the seating arrangement) and a zest for life that is utterly addictive, the Mini Cooper S remains the ultimate pocket rocket. It is as engaging to drive as ever, has incredible work ethic and a desire to please that is almost overwhelming.  It’s not necessarily the easiest car to drive – its busy-ness often makes things feel a little chaotic – but it certainly is rewarding.

The “Chihauhau complex”, indeed…

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