By: Dave Abrahams
Cape Town - The third-generation Mini, launched in South Africa this week with an intense two-part 400km ride-and-drive through the mountains of the Western Cape, is significantly bigger (98mm longer, 44mm wider and 7mm higher) than its predecessor - but it's still very much a Mini, with the classic windows-all-round glasshouse, and emphatic waist and rooflines tapering slightly towards each other.
And it still drives like a Mini, with uncannily accurate, very direct, kart-like steering, firm, slightly choppy suspension and burr-on-a-blanket road-holding.
But the rest of it is almost all new - and not all of it is an improvement.
The styling - particularly the front treatment - has evolved further down the road imposed on it by Euro NCAP protocols for pedestrian safety, extending forward and down to scoop unwary jaywalkers out of the way with minimum injury, and signature design cues such as the round headlights, cheeky upright grille and tucked-up little booty have been softened almost beyond recognition.
Even the big central speedometer is now officially history.
The fascia has been revised, finishing the job that was begun with the previous Cooper S; the speedometer is now part of a compact, very neat analogue instrument pod on the steering column where Mini racers used to mount their rev-counters in the 1960s.
The round dial in middle of the dash is still there but it's now a Tardis-like infotainment portal displaying, on request, anything from satellite navigation to reverse camera to traffic information to the name of the chick playing the tambourine on the track currently spinning on your favourite '80s rock station.
The switches for the electric windows have moved from the centre console to the door panels where the rest of the automotive industry thinks they should be; the headlight switch has been moved from the indicator stalk to way down by your right knee, where it actually looks like an afterthought.
There's still a row of classic tumbler switches across the bottom of the centre stack but now the middle one is a keyless start. As long as the transponder fob - one could hardly call the little round plastic remote a key - is inside the car (we just tossed it into one of the cup-holders immediately for'ard of the gear lever) all you do is gently flick it down and it lights up red as the Mini comes to life.
Very 1960s sci-fi; think Dr Who or original Star Trek
TO BOLDLY GO
The naturally aspirated 1.6-litre four of the previous Mini Cooper gives way to a 1.5-litre direct-injection turbopetrol three, boasting BMW's signature Valvetronic induction that does away with the traditional butterfly valve, controlling engine speed by varying both the lift and duration of inlet-valve opening.
The triple is rated at 100kW from 4500-6000 revs and 220Nm at 1250rpm (230 on overboost); it makes all the right noises - a pleasant muted growl at low revs, rising to a typically musical three-cylinder wail at peak - but produces very little real urge below 2500rpm.
It also suffers noticeably from turbo lag, almost always stumbling over gear-shifts unless it's revving hard, and taking enough time to spool up that overtaking manoeuvres - unless very comprehensively planned - can become a little scary.
The Cooper is pretty quick, hitting 100km/h off the line in less than eight seconds and topping out at 210 - but only if you keep the mode switch in 'Sport' and leave your mechanical empathy at home.
It does everything you ask of it without complaint but seems to lack that eagerness to 'get naughty' that is central to the cheeky Mini persona.
All of which is not helped by a clutch that takes very firmly, just off the floormat, and a six-speed gearbox that manages to be both imprecise and notchy at the same time. Smooth shifts require a certain deliberate finesse; drive the new Cooper like a boy racer and you won't impress your passengers - you'll just make them seasick.
THE REAL McCOOPER
The two-litre Cooper S, by contrast, pulls at the leash almost from idle, picks up revs like a cobra striking and seems to answer every request made of it almost before you finish asking.
The new 1998cc turbopetrol four kicks out 141kW from 4700-6000 revs and 280Nm at 1250rpm. According to BMW it's good for 0-100 in 6.8 seconds and 235 flat out, and we have no reason to doubt those numbers.
But it's the way it does it that make the new Mini Cooper S so much fun; the engine has an unholy appetite for revs, and a precisely-modulated response to the loud pedal that make feeding in the power around a long sweeper an intensely physical, seat-of-the-pants pleasure, and a slightly rough-edged induction roar above 4000rpm to remind you that, leather trim and fancy electronics notwithstanding, this is not an entirely civilised car.
John Cooper's original idea was to build cheeky little race cars that would annoy the hell out of the drivers of expensive sports machines, and some of Mr Cooper's DNA is still perceptible in his latest namesake.
There's just enough torque steer under hard acceleration to keep you concentrating on what you're doing and, when you change down in Sport mode, it blips the throttle - hard! - which not only makes you sound (and feel) like Stirling Moss on the Targa Florio, but also helps ensure ultra-slick downshifts under hard braking.
Because the clutch on the Cooper S is no more forgiving than that of its three-pot sibling - but on this car it's much more fun, because the six-speed gearbox is everything the Cooper's is not.
Its action is firm and distinctly notchy, but light and precise with a pleasant 'snick' that tells your fingertips exactly when it goes into gear.
It may be close to twice the weight of John Cooper's giant-killer, but yes, it's still a real Mini.
Where the suspension of the Cooper is perceptibly more supple than that of its predecessor - without, it must be said, introducing any noticeable body roll - that of the Cooper S is firmer, its initial take-up more direct, with a little more of the fore-and-aft choppiness familiar to drivers of short-wheelbase, front-wheel drive cars.
The deep bucket seats (fabric trim is standard, leather an option) are firmly supportive, at the expense of a little extra grunt-and-groan on the part of unfit middle-aged motoring scribes on entry and exit.
The Cooper is for people who buy a Mini because it's cool, the S is for people who buy a Mini because it's fun.
A six-speed auto transmission is available for either model at a premium of R16 900: BMW staffers confirmed that it is a conventional torque-converter transmission rather than a paddle-shifter or dual-clutch set-up, although they hinted at something considerably more sporting on offer for the range-topping JCW variant, which they confirmed was coming but would not be drawn on when.
Mini Cooper - R287 500
Mini Cooper AT - R304 400
Mini Cooper S - R352 500
Mini Cooper S AT - R369 400
These include a two-year unlimited distance warranty, and a five-year or 100 000km maintenance plan, extended from the previous model's three-year or 75 000km plan.