ROAD TEST: Mini Cooper S AT
Johannesburg - If I think back to my earlier car reviewing days there is one car I could never forget even if I tried.
Back in 2002 I had just joined a motoring magazine and somehow managed to wangle the team's grey and white Mini Cooper S long-term test car for a road trip down to the Eastern Cape. Of course, the editor at the time was quick to inform me of how my life would change (or end, I can't remember) if I didn't look after his 'baby'. That was a given - why would I want to kill 'my' Mini?
From the way it looked inside and out to the low-slung driving position, whiny supercharger, semi-explosive acceleration, frightened-kitten agility and whatever else pulled my heartstrings at the time, it was the kind of car that could turn a miserable day into a good one at the turn of a key. In fact I happily put up with the finicky clutch and all the interior bits and pieces that were falling off.
And so the memories came flooding back as I took delivery of the latest Mini Cooper S, now in its third generation since its 21st-century reincarnation. Despite the string of 'redesigns', the new new new Mini of 2014 still looks very much like the new Mini of 2012. But is that such a bad thing? What would you expect a modernised Mini to look like in any case? Besides, on closer inspection it's easy to appreciate the more slanted and aerodynamic front end with its bolder one-piece grille and those fatter taillights at the back do give it an even cheekier overtaking pose.
BIGGER MINI, BIG ENGINE
On that subject, the new not-so-Mini - which is 98mm longer and 44mm wider than its predecessor - also has a much bigger engine in Cooper S form. Crazy as it might seem, BMW has installed a version of its 2-litre TwinPower turbopetrol motor and in this form it's rated at 141kW and 280Nm. Given that it's tuned as far as 180kW in BMW's 3 Series, I think it's safe to say that the JCW version is going to be a cracker, but even this 'humble' Cooper S packs a mighty enough punch.
It thrusts rather than kicks this Mini off the mark in a mature but rapid way. It is undeniably fast and power is delivered in a smooth and linear manner across the rev range and the only real nitpick is a lack of aural stimulation from that rather bland-sounding engine. It just needs that extra bit of emotion, or drop or two of Tabasco in the figurative sense.
The six-speed autobox also goes about its business with satisfying smoothness, although I find it strange that customers have to pay extra for the 'sport' version of this 'box with flappy paddles. Then again, I'd imagine that real blue-blooded Cooper S enthusiast is going to go for the six-speed manual option in any case.
Said fan will also like the fact that the road holding is just as pin-sharp as ever and that the steering still keeps your hands seemingly brushing over the tar beneath. Despite this, the ride is more cosy than before. Though it is still set up on the firm side of things in Cooper S form - and not helped along when bigger wheels are fitted, like our test car's 18-inchers - the ride is certainly tolerable.
Yet now that we're talking about Mini's newfound sensibility you be might be wondering whether you and your mates can fit into one without consulting any Houdini handbooks.
Sure, the cabin is bigger but getting adults into the back is still a very tight squeeze and not a fun proposition for longer trips. At least the boot is now a semi-useful size, with a capacity of 211 litres.
Inside the cabin this new Mini remains almost painstakingly true to its heritage, but it soon becomes apparent that the details have all been refined and modernised with the aim of giving it a truly posh feel to match its price tag, which is exorbitant but we'll get to that later. The dashboard is still dominated by a giant 'grandfather clock' but instead of housing the speedo as the earlier versions did, it's now your infotainment portal, while the speed readout is now in front of you where it belongs. Sanity has also prevailed with the electric window controls, which move from the centre console to the doors.
In an ode to more contemporary trends, the central air vents are now rectangular to give the dash a cleaner appearance, while most of the surface materials were ordered from das Qualität Katalog.
I found the large central infotainment system easy enough to use for music and navigation and gimmicky as it might seem to some, I liked that LED lighting sequence that swirls across the upper rim of the giant 'clock' when you crank up the music volume or toy with many of the other settings. Enter the navigation system and you get a green glow, for instance, while the 'connected' menus, for phone calls and so on, earn you some blue ambience.
There is a whole treasure chest of toys to play with, depending on how you tick the options list, with everything from head-up display to radar-based active cruise control and semi-automatic parking assistant.
Also new to the Mini is a driving mode with modes like 'green' and 'sport', which can adapt the characteristics of your steering, throttle, climate control and even suspension if you're ordered adaptive dampers.
The latest Mini Cooper S still knows how to charm and it's lost very little of its personality in its transition into a more comfortable and upscale car. Yet with the Cooper having become a far more serious performer - the Cooper S is no longer the only option for those that like their Mini with some pepper.
The Cooper S is also really expensive, starting at R362 847 for the manual and R378 618 for the auto - and that's before options. Our test car came with a R479 160 price tag! Sure it has a posh image and knows how to pull the heartstrings, yet you'll almost certainly get more than 90 percent of the thrills from a Ford Fiesta ST that costs almost R100 000 less than the base Cooper S. I think that's where I'd ultimately lay down my dosh.
Mini Cooper S AT
Engine: 2-litre, four-cylinder turbopetrol
Gearbox: Six-speed automatic
Power: 141kW @ 4700-6000rpm
Torque: 280Nm @ 1250-4750rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 6.7 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 233km/h
Consumption (claimed): 5.4 litres per 100km
Price: R378 618
Maintenance plan: Five-year/100 000km
Alfa Romeo Mito QV Sport (125kW/250Nm) - R322 490
Audi A1 1.4 TSI S-line (136kW/250Nm) - R350 500
Ford Fiesta ST (134kW/290Nm) - R274 900
Opel Corsa OPC (141kW/266Nm) - R294 100
Peugeot 208 GTI (147kW/275Nm) - R301 600
Renault Clio RS 200 Lux (147kW/240Nm) - R299 900