Car reviews - Mini - Hatch - S
Steering, handling, performance, noise
Room for improvement
Ride comfort, price, respect for heritage
25 Mar 2003
By TIM BRITTEN
BMW's ideas of what a 21st century Mini should be like are a lot closer to the original Alex Issigonis concept than VW's retake on the Beetle.
The big departure is that the new Mini is not all about efficient packaging.
Within its tight dimensions the undeniably cute revivalist cult car is no shining example of how to cram a lot of room into a little space.
The original Mini was just the opposite. Today the 1960s icon looks frighteningly tiny and fragile, sitting barely waist-high and vulnerable in our rapid-transit commuting environment.
It was little enough in the 1960s, but at least it was able to manoeuvre swiftly and decisively among the lumbering, slow-moving heavyweights that populated our roads back then.
And it could accommodate more passengers than a car of such meagre proportions had a right to.
The latest Mini fits today's scenario in much the same way, except it has grown a lot in size and actually doesn't look all that small when parked next to even a full-size family car.
It's short and stubby, but relatively high and wide. It is somewhere between a light car and a small car, standing taller and wider than, say, a Renault Clio but with a shorter wheelbase.
This translates into a package quite generous in width and headroom, but lacking in rear-seat or boot space. In fact, the boot is really tiny, making the Mini only useful for carrying more than the odd soft bag if the 50-50 split-fold rear seat is folded down.
But today's Mini is not aimed at anything like the same audience as the original. This is a "premium" small car, not really to be compared with economy cars.
It's a lifestyle statement, an indulgence for those who might be looking at other small, sporty coupes where how you look is more important than how sensible and practical you seem.
The Mini also departs from its VW retro rival in that it's an entity unto itself, borrowing virtually nothing from anybody. The structure is unique, as are the engine and suspension.
Mini might now be owned by BMW, but there appears to have been some careful fashioning of the car so it tends to look and feel more British than German.
Why, the test car even suffered a brief, inexplicable engine failure while waiting for the lights to change, recalling the old days of British reliability and Lucas electrics.
But rarely has a company made such an endearing car.
From its lovingly drawn lines to its odd, beautifully crafted interior, the Mini is a visual feast. It's unmistakable, irresistible and, for a motoring writer who gets to drive it for a week, one of those cars that is returned with reluctance.
In Cooper S form, the 1.6-litre supercharged engine and six-speed transmission make for a driving experience that recalls the feisty original.
The engine thrums and buzzes and, with 120kW at its disposal - as well as 210Nm of torque - it will cut its way through traffic, or a tight, winding road with agility and muscle enough to do justice to memories of the original, much lighter, 57kW Cooper S.
In fact, today's Cooper S is almost astonishingly weighty for its size, carrying around 1225kg of body, chassis and complex electronic systems - which is as much as your average Corolla-size car.
Much of this can be blamed on the need to meet the high levels of safety demanded both by legislation and by buyers of pint-size cars priced close to $40,000 before the addition of any extras.
The interior is cute, gimmicky with the largest tachometer this side of a Kenworth sitting in the middle of the dash, and a small pod on top of the steering column that contains a sometimes difficult to read speedometer.
There's plenty of burnished "Patina" plastic and lots of styling indulgences. These include a flying buttress arrangement ahead of the gearshift that reminds of the Audi TT, as well as a row of toggle switches controlling everything from the stability control system to the windows, and a pair of comfortable seats that may be trimmed in leather if you have the courage to dip into the extensive options list.
Apparently it's possible to up the Cooper S base price to around $70,000 by going feral with the felt pen as you sign up.
But for $40,000 you get a reasonable deal. The Cooper S package includes that 120kW 1.6-litre engine - the base powerplant used in the Mini Cooper produces 85kW and 149Nm - the close-ratio Getrag six-speed gearbox, a set of mighty 16-inch wheels (even mightier 17-inch alloys are available) and a version of BMW's automatic stability control and traction control system (ASC+T).
Inside, there's leather-velour trim on the seats, air-conditioning, CD player and a trip computer, but you do have to pay extra for full-blown dynamic stability control (DSCIII), cruise control, sunroof and climate control.
Digging deeper will buy things like Park Distance Control, Xenon headlights, heated seats, full leather, satellite-navigation, Harmon Kardon sound system and a wood-trimmed dash.
There's plenty of room to move, wallet-wise.
But what about the driving experience? As a modern-day interpretation of a vehicle that is established in motoring folklore, does it measure up to expectations?
In Cooper S form, it does. The 1.6-litre powerplant is pleasantly omnipresent, and the handling really does bring to mind the pin-sharp manoeuvrability of the original.
BMW's engineers have given the Mini excellent road grip as well as instant steering response. The driver virtually "thinks" the car around corners.
The only shortcoming, particularly if the 17-inch wheels are optioned, is that the Mini rides like a serious sports car as well as being slightly compromised by an ultra-short wheelbase. It's not jarring, though, and it doesn't buck and pitch to an uncomfortable degree.
The engine doesn't mind the top-end of the rev band and is reasonably happy in the lower reaches, although it needs a bit of a rev to get off the line. This is as much due to the high first gear as the torque characteristics of the engine.
Once in its stride, the Cooper S carves its way along very swiftly, with the close ratio six-speed transmission helping provide a strong surge of acceleration well beyond legal speeds.
It's not the thing with which to go Subaru WRX - or Clio Sport - hunting, but it's no slouch either.
And a very Cooper S thing about it is that it has the right combination of engine and transmission noise. On the other hand it cruises well, with none of the road and engine noise intrusion of the original.
Important also is that the Cooper S feels solid and safe. There's the usual array of BMW airbags (dual front, side and full-length headbags), as well as ABS and body safety technology that earned it four stars in European testing, but it's comforting that the tactile impressions are of a strong, well-built vehicle.
As we said earlier, the Cooper S proves to be one of those cars that grows on you the more you drive it.
If you are an enthusiastic driver with an appreciation of retro style clever enough that it looks quirky without being silly, and need only two seats most of the time, the Cooper S would do it for you.
If you'd like to pocket seven grand or so, the Mini Cooper has the style, but is not the complete performance package like the Cooper S is.
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