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First drive: Mini Cooper S is major fun

Cornering force: The Cooper S is right at home on winding roads.

Can the Mini Cooper S deliver the budget blaster goods? We went to the world launch to find out

5 Apr 2002

By BRUCE NEWTON in LISBON, PORTUGAL

THE return of Mini to Australia will be completed when the Cooper S goes on sale in late June.

It's a famous name Down Under. The original budget-blaster punched way above its weight division in performance terms, even winning the gruelling Bathurst 500 in 1966.

Times have long moved on. A small car with mighty performance is no longer rare. Priced at $39,900, the new generation Mini Cooper S, instead of creating a market, will instead have to fight for its place against such diverse opponents as the Renault Clio RenaultSport and Subaru Impreza WRX.

And, of course, the historians will argue this is not a Mini really, anyway. It is actually a BMW by another name, what the German company chose to salvage from its disastrous foray into ownership of the Rover Group.

Yes, it is true that BMW owns Mini, BMW money paid for the development of the new generation of cars and they are sold through BMW dealerships both here and internationally.

But the Mini family - which starts with the Mini One (which we don't get in Australia), the Mini Cooper, which has been on sale here for one month, and the Cooper S - is built on a stand-alone platform, employs a 1.6-litre engine not seen in any BMW and has a transverse front-drive layout.

The latter point is significant. Pulling rather than pushing the front wheels is very much a BMW engineering and philosophical taboo.

Historians might also be pleased to note the Mini is still built in England - at Oxford on the very same ground where the original "brick" rolled out in 1959.

So, enough of the history lesson and debate. Let's talk about the car.

While the Cooper S does share the same single overhead camshaft, 16-valve engine with its more plebeian brethren, the mailbox slot on the bonnet gives away the vital performance tweak - a Roots supercharger which with the aid of an intercooler pumps power up to 120kW at 6000rpm and torque to 210Nm at 4000rpm.

Mated to the engine is a six-speed Getrag close-ratio gearbox unique to Cooper S and the only transmission choice available.

The chassis sitting around the engine is also fundamentally the same as its relations - MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear. But the Cooper S gets what is known as sports PLUS suspension which firms the springs and dampers and reinforces the anti-roll bars, as well as fitting 195/55 R16 tyres on alloy wheels, or optional 205/45 17-inch rubber.

Helping maintain control is a whole alphabet of electronic aids - ABS, EBD, CBC and ASC+T. That's anti-lock braking, electronic brakeforce distribution, cornering brake control and traction control, if you weren't sure. The more sophisticated DSC - or dynamic stability control - is optional.

Picking the Cooper S out from the rest of the Mini flock is not hard. There's that slot in the bonnet, those aggressive alloy wheels, front foglights, a roof spoiler, the twin chrome-plated tailpipes protruding from the centre rear and distinctive "S" badging in the side grille and rear lid.

Inside, the sporting nature of the car is promoted by aluminium door sills, the brushed aluminium look (plastic) dashboard, leather steering wheel, leather/chrome gearknob, stainless steel footrest and Cooper S badging.

Standard leather and cloth trim for the sports seats is a significant comfort boost compared to the Cooper, but apart from that they are pretty much lineball. The "S" inherits the same important standard equipment - six airbags, air-conditioning, single-slot CD player and trip computer.

There are, of course, a list of options and merchandise as long as a Mini, including uprated audio and air-conditioning and even a panoramic sunroof.

Mini hopes the Cooper S will account for about 700 of the 1700 sales it is forecasting in Australia this year. But there are concerns about supply with a substantial order bank in place.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

MINI claims the Cooper S can rip from 0 to 100km/h in just 7.4 seconds and rush on to a top speed of 218km/h, which is pretty impressive. But it is also crowing about the mid-range grunt, claiming 80-120km/h acceleration in fourth gear of 6.9 seconds.

That's eons faster than the Cooper and after our test drive on the winding roads in the hills above the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, it is certainly believable.

The supercharger has transformed the Mini from spritely to sprinter. Torque is there in abundance from low in the rev range and by 3000rpm there's enough flexibility to trundle along in fifth, or attack in second. Such is the torque spread it certainly does not need a six-speed gearbox and there is no way you could consider it anything but a very civilised and accessible powerplant.

The performance is accompanied by the right aural tones. As revs rise so does the supercharger whine, the exhaust is appropriately rorty and on the over-run there's the appropriate burble. The engine itself sounds less happy and gets more intrusive as the revs rise, but the power is still delivered smoothly.

Mini has the shift feel of the gearbox just about right, quite a short, positive two-step selection process. Combine that with good clutch feel and well located brake and throttle pedals, and it means gear changing is a heeling and toeing snack, certainly one of the joys of this car.

As are the dynamics. The grip levels are high, the steering very sharp with just the odd trace of front-drive wheel tug coming back through to the driver and the braking strong and consistent. Combine that with the engine and gearbox, and the Cooper S is a great drive - stirring, involving and fast enough to more than keep your interest.

The experience is also noisy and firm. There's plenty of road, tyre and suspension noise to contend with while the sports suspension that makes twisty roads a joy means bumps, lumps, speed humps, manhole covers and potholes are a painful experience. Pretty quickly you are picking your way between them rather than have your teeth ratttled.

While the sports seats do a great job of keeping you planted and comfortable, the interior presentation is overly gimmicky with its attempts to honour the past and incorporate it into the current day.

Particularly silly is the giant centre-mounted speedo, which in Australia, thankfully and uniquely, transfers to a smaller dial sitting behind the steering wheel. The plastics are hard, feel brittle and not all that well fitted in the car we drove, while the surfaces are harder than expected.

Although it in theory seats four, the Cooper S would work far better as a dedicated two-seater with a decent luggage space. The rear seats are useful only for young children but even then it is tight, and with them in place the boot has only a pitiful 150-litre capacity.

The Cooper S will not be to everybody's taste. It is focussed, it's quite harsh and noisy and has no automatic transmission option.

For those reasons, a lot of people who want to use their Mini as an everyday commuter may take the Cooper instead.

But those that opt for the "S" will get a car that moves them in more ways than one, for whom that rawness is a pleasure rather than pain. It may never match the illustrious achievements of its forebears, but it does a damn good job of paying homage.

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