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First Oz drive: Cooper S still fun

Distinctive: The mailbox slot in the bonnet is a Cooper S giveaway.

So we know it works in Portugal, but does the Cooper S stack up on Aussie roads?

Mini logo3 May 2002

By BRUCE NEWTON

IF you are wondering if there's been a computer glitch relax, this is not the same story about the Cooper S that headlined this site just a few weeks ago.

That was our initial assessment from the international launch in Portugal, this time around we are reporting from the first Australian drive, held this week in the hills and valleys south-east of Adelaide.

It is the latest step in a long-running introduction program for Mini both here and internationally which began way back in September, 1997, when BMW first showed pictures of its reborn Mini.

Since then there has been reveals and launches galore, with Australian sale of the Mini Cooper starting two months ago.

Despite the press sampling the Cooper S on home soil in the first few days of May, sales of the hottest Mini yet do not actually start here until July - although it is worth pointing out that's only one month behind the launch in its home UK market.

But stroll into one of the 22 Mini Garages around Australia today with $39,900 in hand and you will have to wait until November for the car to grace your driveway.

Before we get into what we thought of the car here, rather than on the sodden, traffic-clogged roads surrounding Lisbon, here's a reprise of the Cooper S basics.

The S is based on the same platform as the Cooper and the Mini One (which we do not see here), with a tuned version of the MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension called sports PLUS, mated to 195/55 R16 tyres on alloy wheels, or optional 205/45 17-inch rubber.

It is powered by a supercharged and intercooled version of the 1.6-litre, four-valve, single overhead camshaft engine common to all Minis, but in this case pumping out 120kW at 6000rpm and 210Nm of torque at 4000rpm. The combined Euro fuel consumption claim is an impressive 8.4L/100km.

Mated solely to a close ratio six-speed Getrag transmission, the Cooper S bursts to 0-100km/h in 7.4 seconds and on to a top speed of 218km/h.

Unique external styling cues add to the Mini's eye-catching wheel at each corner look, include a mailbox slot in the bonnet which feeds the intercooler, aggressive alloy wheels, front foglights, a roof spoiler, twin chrome-plated tailpipes and S badging in the side grille and rear lid.

Inside there's leather and cloth trim for the sports seats, aluminium door sills, a plastic dashboard with a brushed aluminium look, leather steering wheel, leather/chrome gearknob, stainless steel footrest and Cooper S badging.

Other standard equipment is shared with the Cooper - like six airbags, air-conditioning, single-slot CD player and trip computer.

There are options galore, naturally. Indeed the first 75 cars to go on sale here in July will come with some extras already fitted. It had to be that way or on-sale would have drifted back to August.

They will all be electric blue (a unique Cooper S colour) with white roof and mirrors, have a blue/black interior, multifunction steering wheel, lighting package, cruise control and a choice of 16 or 17-inch alloy wheels and retail for $42,840.

Here's a list, just to give you an idea of the sort of extras you can get and what you will pay for them (prices correct at launch): Metallic paint $650
Panoramic glass sunroof $1750
Headlight washers $320
Xenon headlights $1100
17-inch alloy wheels $1100
Cruise control $700
Leather upholstery $1390
Front seat heating $530
Automatic climate control air-conditioning $610
In-dash mini-disc player $290
Navigation system $3500
Interior light package $200
Dynamic Stability Control $800
Remote-controlled alarm $570 You can also customise your Mini's exterior look with different colours for the roof and the body, including a Union Jack or Aussie flag for the roof, and even those legendary Mini racing stripes from the original's Bathurst-winning days in the 1960s.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

OUR experience of the Cooper S in Portugal had certainly whetted (or wetted is probably more appropriate, considering the weather) our appetite for the car and there was little doubt this is an exciting, solidly engineered little car.

But how would it translate to Australia? So often, cars which feel good overseas land here and are beaten down by the combination of rough tar and dirt roads and extreme weather.

Of concern in the case of the Cooper S at our first sampling was the harshness of the suspension. How would it stand up to Aussie conditions? The answer is remarkably well. The combination of everything from freeway running to 20km/h sign-posted hairpins refused to phase the behaviour of the Cooper S.

Its ride behaviour actually felt better than in Portugal - maybe it was the absence of manhole covers which pepper Lisbon roads - and only the roughest, toughest potholes and corrugations felt uncomfortable - accentuated by a fair amount of noise from the suspension in those circumstances.

But the car sticks like glue, a real testament to the sophistication of the multi-link rear-end - eschewing the torsion beam rear axle favoured by most hot hatches.

And while it is a front-wheel drive, the front-end also behaves very well. The turn-in from the electric rack and pinion system is very direct, the feel level is high with just a slight torque effect adding to rather than detracting from its tactility. It just lets you know what is happening rather than trying to wrench the steering wheel from your hands.

It is the sort of car you do need to pay attention too, though, because such directness means it responds to small inputs quickly and can be deflected off bumps.

All that mechanical grip is backed up by a family of electronic aids, including anti-lock braking, electronic brakeforce distribution, cornering brake control and automatic stability and traction control. The more sophisticated dynamic stability control (DSC) is an option.

But even more than the chassis, we continue to be impressed by this engine, which is a testament to small-bore supercharging. It is a 1600cc grunter with a great spread of power and a top-end that just keeps on giving right up to redline. The supercharger whine adds an aural edge to its aggressive abilities too.

Add the slick-shifting gearbox and impressive all-disc brake set-up, and you have a car capable of making a lot of more expensive performance machines look a bit silly on the right mountain road.

But let's not get completely carried away here. There are some others even cheaper like the Renault Clio Renaultsport that would be as quick, and some around the same price like the Subaru WRX Impreza which would be quicker in a straight-line and point-to-point.

Back in commuter-land, the engine is a flexible and easy partner, and the car's size and manoeuvrability make it a real asset in town. Only the lack of an auto option for the S may prompt some people to choose the less powerful Cooper, with the choice of manual or CVT gearboxes.

Other observations about the Cooper S are familiar from our Portuguese experience - a gimmicky, plasticky look to the interior which includes a dashboard that seems to have been attacked with a brillo pad and a gigantic tacho in its centre which you rarely pay any attention to.

Rear seat space is limited and luggage space cramped to the extent that the Cooper S has run-flat tyres rather than try and fit a spare wheel in somewhere.

But overall this is a quality vehicle. BMW's investment in Mini has produced a Cooper S that pays due credit to the original without sacrificing modern-day luxuries and technology.

Even better. It's heaps of fun.

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