The latest MINI Cooper S serves as a timely reminder that a new car needn't have the fun engineered out of it. Jonathan Crouch reports.
The MINI Cooper S has long been an exercise in artful compromise, looking to occupy that sweet spot between the warmish Cooper and the incandescent Cooper S JCW. As a result, it's often been the best pick for those who aren't likely to subject their car to a race circuit and instead just want a MINI that's entertainingly quick without incurring huge running costs in the process. The third generation MINI range launched in 2014 saw this Cooper S derivative gain an all-new 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and become a bigger, better finished car than before. That's helped this MINI to make a case for itself against talent like the Ford Fiesta ST. Now, this variant's been subtly improved.
Since this third generation Cooper S variant was launched in 2015, this hot hatch MINI derivaive has stepped up its game. Of course it needed to given that even a humble MINI Cooper these days has a perky 1.5-litre turbo engine that can spirit it from rest to 62mph in 8.1 seconds. Hence the requirement for the 2.0-litre 178hp four cylinder turbo unit that was inserted into MK3 model versions of his variant and which can now drive through a more sophisticated 7-speed Steptronic auto gearbox with paddleshifters - you can no longer have a 6-speed manual stick shift. We miss that manual, which used to feature a rev-matching mode on downshifts so it sounded like you had the most flawless heel and toe technique. As before, this powerplant certainly shifts a bit, thanks to the MINI's light weight and the fact that this unit develops 280Nm of torque from just 1,250rpm. This engine loves to be revved and, in its 'Sport' mode, it even puts a few crackles into the exhaust note on the over-run. This Cooper S dispatches the sprint to 62mph in 6.6 seconds and runs on to 146mph. This 2.0-litre lump is much the same as that we've seen in the BMW 1, 3 and 5-series, although here it's mounted crossways in the car.
There have been one or two grouses about this MK3 MINI Hatch's styling, with some saying as it's got bigger, this generation MINI has become a bit ungainly, especially around the front end. The styling of this revised model doesn't look all that different - as before there's a choice of three and five-door body styles. Close inspection will reveal the addition of standard-fit LED front and rear lights, plus there's now extra scope for all-important personalisation. Get out the tape measure and you'll find that this MK3 design is actually larger than you might think, thanks to a wheelbase exension of 28mm over its post-2014-era predecessor. These proportions give it quite a squat, purposeful look, helped by the tapered glasshouse. The interior features sports seats and black chequered interior surfaces, with piano black and dark silver highlights. The plectrum-shaped starter is a very nice touch and while I love the fact that the speedometer is these days positioned properly in front of the driver, there are other ergonomic glitches such as the fact that you can hardly move the infotainment controller when you're parked with the handbrake on. It's a touch larger than you might expect inside too - or at last it is provided you haven't been consigned to a rather cramped seat in the back: if that's an issue, you ought to be considering the alternative five-door version of this model - or perhaps the MINI Countryman SUV. Still, access to the rear isn't too bad and the rear bench seat splits 60:40. Boot volume is a supermini-like 211-litres. There's also decent interior stowage space, with cupholders and storage cubbies. Various fresh trimming options are available and a 6.5-inch colour infotainment screen and a multi-function steering wheel are both fitted as standard.
Prices start at around £26,000 for the Cooper S three-door hatch with the five-door version bumping that up by £700. You now have to have the Steptronic auto gearbox. That's for base 'Classic' trim which hardly any Cooper S buyers will want. Most will find the extra for either 'Sport', 'Exclusive' or 'Resolute Edition'-spec. At first glance, all this seems like a touch more than you'd pay for rivals like the Ford Fiesta ST and Volkswagen Polo GTI but when these competitors are properly specced-up, there's not a lot in it. Equipment includes full-LED lighting, hip-hugging black cloth sports seats, a DAB stereo, a three-spoke sports steering wheel, air conditioning, Bluetooth and keyless start. This being MINI, there's a huge amount of personalisation options, so you might well indulge in body stripes, a John Cooper Works spoiler and contrasting mirrors. You can also choose from technology such as a head-up display, MINI Navigation System, MINI Connect and traffic sign recognition. Standard safety fittings include front and side airbags as well as curtain airbags for the front and rear seats, automatic passenger airbag deactivation and front and rear ISOFIX child seat mounts.
As you might expect with BMW pulling the strings in the background, this MINI Cooper S features some faintly otherworldly efficiency measures. The quoted combined fuel economy figure is up to 48.7mpg and up to 133g/km of CO2 for the 3-door version. And 47.9mpg and 134g/km for the 5-Door variant. An innovation lies with the MINI Driving Modes set-up, an optional extra. Using a rotary switch at the base of the gearstick or selector lever, drivers can swap from the default MID mode to either SPORT or GREEN. The three choices offer a set-up which is either performance-oriented, comfort-biased or geared towards fuel efficiency. The latter includes a coasting mode when the driver removes their foot from the accelerator pedal.
While I'm yet to be convinced that today's MINI Cooper S is as pretty a car earlier generation versions, there can be no doubt that it's a better all-rounder. It's more spacious, better built, features some fascinating technical features and seems to have been engineered to offer more driving fun on one hand and lower bills on the other. Just make sure you don't fit huge alloy wheels to it as it rides firmly already. The key change with this revised version is that an automatic gearbox is now a credible option thanks to the additon of that more sophisticated Steptronic 7-speeder. You could pay a little less for a Fiesta ST and I think the Ford would be purer, more focused experience on a back lane. Alternatively, you could also pay similar money for a Volkswagen Polo GTI and get a car that's more comfortable and relaxing. Smack in the middle of those two is the Cooper S - and its appeal lies somewhere between them too. If you want a big serving of fun but like to see where your money has been spent, it's a decent choice.
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