The latest MINI Cooper S serves as a timely reminder that a new car needn't have the fun engineered out of it. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The MINI Cooper S is back with a bigger, harder-hitting 2.0-litre engine, a more talented chassis and a big helping of fun inbuilt from the ground up. It'll get to 62mph in 6.8 seconds, has an exhaust note that's pure naughtiness and is sure to win plenty of fans. It's even reasonably priced, as long as you don't get too carried away with options.
The MINI Cooper S has long been an exercise in artful compromise, looking to occupy that sweet spot between the warmish Cooper and the incandescent Cooper S JCW. As a result, it's often been the best pick for those who aren't likely to subject their car to a race circuit and instead just want a MINI that's entertainingly quick without incurring huge running costs in the process.
The latest generation MINI range reprises the previous trim structures and this time round the Cooper S is powered by an all-new 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. It's a bigger, better finished car than before, but thankfully MINI has been able to keep a lid on pricing. Can it make a case for itself against talent like the Peugeot 208 GTI, the Renaultsport Clio 200 and the Ford Fiesta ST?
The Cooper S has needed to step up its game. That's largely due to the fact that the base Cooper model is now much quicker than before, it's 1.5-litre turbo three-cylinder engine punting it to 62mph in 7.9 seconds compared to its predecessors 9.1. So the Cooper S has had to up the ante too, ditching the old PSA co-developed 1.6-litre lump and moving to a punchy 2.0-litre of BMW's own design that develops 192bhp and some 280Nm of torque from just 1,250rpm. This flexibility doesn't mean the Cooper S is dull to drive - far from it. It loves to be revved and, in its 'Sport' mode, it even puts a few crackles into the exhaust note on the over-run. This Cooper S dispatches the sprint to 62mph in 6.8 seconds and runs on to 146 mph. The engine is much the same as that we've seen in the BMW 1, 3 and 5-series, although mounted crossways in the car. Both a six-speed manual and a six-speed automatic gearbox are offered, although the automatic doesn't really have the reactions to cope with such a sharp drive. Go for the manual every time. It even features a rev-matching mode on downshifts so it'll sound like you have the most flawless heel and toe technique.
Design and Build
There have been one or two grouses about this latest MINI's styling, with some saying as it's got bigger, this generation MINI has become a bit ungainly, especially around the front end. You will notice a little more front overhang on this car which gives it a slightly chinnier look, the headlights units are raked further back and the grille structure looks markedly bigger than before. It's still clearly and unambiguously a MINI though and, to this eye, still looks pert and poised. The Cooper S rides on 16-inch Loop Spoke alloys as standard and features white indicator covers.
The interior features sports seats and black chequered interior surfaces, with piano black and dark silver highlights. The plectrum-shaped starter is a very nice touch and while I love the fact that the speedometer has been moved to a position in front of the driver there are other ergonomic glitches such as the fact that you can hardly move the infotainment controller when you're parked with the handbrake on. Materials quality has improved no end, however, and there's even a bit more space in the back. The boots a little bit bigger as well, with total capacity rising to 211 litres. There's also more interior stowage space with additional cupholders and storage cubbies.
Market and Model
Prices start at just under £19,000 for the Cooper S three-door hatch with the automatic version bumping that up to just over the £20,000 price point. The manual car's not bad value for money at all when you consider that you'll pay £18,000 for a Fiesta ST2 and £19,000 for a Peugeot 208 GTI, so MINI seems to have landed the Cooper S right in the middle of the target market. Equipment includes those hip-hugging black cloth sports seats, a DAB stereo, a three-spoke sports steering wheel, air conditioning, Bluetooth and keyless start.
This being MINI, there's a huge amount of personalisation options, so you might well indulge in body stripes, a John Cooper Works spoiler, contrasting mirrors and LED headlights. You can also choose from technology such as a head-up display, MINI Navigation System, MINI Connect and traffic sign recognition. Standard safety fittings include front and side airbags as well as curtain airbags for the front and rear seats, automatic passenger airbag deactivation and front and rear ISOFIX child seat mounts.
Cost of Ownership
As you might expect with BMW pulling the strings in the background, this MINI Cooper S features some faintly otherworldly efficiency measures. The quoted fuel economy figure is an excellent 49.6mpg, which is quite some going for a turbocharged petrol-engined hot hatch. That pips the Peugeot 208 GTI and Ford Fiesta ST's 47.9mpg and easily betters the Clio Renaultsport's 44.8mpg. Emissions are lower than these key rivals too, with the Cooper S emitting just 133g/km.
The MINIMALISM suite of environmental technologies include a shift-point display function on manual cars, brake energy recuperation and need-oriented control of the fuel pump, coolant pump and other ancillary units. It's all very clever.
While I'm yet to be convinced that this generation MINI Cooper S is as pretty a car as its predecessor, there can be no doubt that it's a better all-rounder. It's more spacious, better built, features some fascinating technical features and seems to have been engineered to offer more driving fun on one hand and lower bills on the other. Just make sure you don't fit huge alloy wheels to it as it rides firmly already and the automatic gearbox isn't the best idea MINI has ever come up with. It's just as well the manual is a cracker.
You could pay £18,000 for a Fiesta ST and I think the Ford would be purer, more focused experience on a back lane. Alternatively, you could also pay £19,000 for a Peugeot 208 GTI and get a car that's more comfortable and relaxing. Smack in the middle of those two is the Cooper S and its appeal lies somewhere between them too. If you want a big serving of fun but like to see where your money has been spent, it's a decent choice.