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Mini Cooper S review, test drive

The latest Mini is comparable in length to a Maruti Ritz. And while the new Mini may be separated from the original car by nearly five decades, it can’t be mistaken for anything else. The DNA is clearly present in the frowning grille, bug-eyed headlights and simple tail. The wheels are pushed to the car’s extremities, leaving minimal overhangs.

autos Updated: Dec 05, 2012 12:59 IST
Mini-Cooper-S
Mini-Cooper-S

The latest Mini stays true to traditional design, but under the skin, it’s much more than a standard hatch. Read our comprehensive review.

Design

The latest Mini is comparable in length to a Maruti Ritz. And while the new Mini may be separated from the original car by nearly five decades, it can’t be mistaken for anything else. The DNA is clearly present in the frowning grille, bug-eyed headlights and simple tail. The wheels are pushed to the car’s extremities, leaving minimal overhangs. The squat stance and low roof make the Cooper S look a world away from the ‘tall-boy’ hatchbacks of today.

Other interesting touches include a chrome band that rings around the base of the wraparound glasshouse to smartly contrast with the blacked-out A, B and C-pillars. Elsewhere, the mesh grille, bonnet scoop, chrome fuel-filler cap, rear spoiler and twin central exhausts announce that the ‘S’ is the sportier version of the Mini Cooper hatchback. See the small intakes on either end of the lower grille? They are not just cosmetic add-ons, but serve to channel cool air to the front brakes. Our test car came with the optional bonnet stripes and larger 17-inch wheels, but you can customise your Cooper S even further than that.

Under the skin, the new Mini Cooper S stays true to the original car’s transverse engine and front-wheel-drive setup. Like the original Mini, this one has equal-length driveshafts to minimise torque steer. Suspension is a combination of MacPherson struts up front and a lightweight, aluminum-intensive multi-link at the rear. The Mini’s monocoque body is reinforced at various places for improved torsional rigidity, while six airbags, a collapsible steering column, stability control, cornering brake control, ABS and EBD constitute the safety kit. You even get an electronic differential lock.

Interior

The Mini’s low roof necessitates some amount of bending on ingress, but once past the wide-opening pillarless doors, what you get is a very cozy cabin. There is decent space for front occupants, and the upright A-pillars allow for fantastic view out the front. The nicely crafted seats are snug and well bolstered, but sadly do without electric adjustment, which is a shame in a car that costs so much. While the Cooper S can seat four, it is best to think of it as a 2+2. Accessing the back seat is not the most elegant of procedures, and once you get in, the seat can feel cramped over long distances and the knees-up seating position is not very comfy.

The Cooper S cabin uses circular cues to echo the exterior’s retro theme, and to good effect. The Mini’s signature oversized analogue speedometer looks like your grandma’s transistor radio sitting at the top of the centre console, and is so coolly retro. It also neatly houses a display for the very modern (but optional) BMW iDrive-based infotainment system, which is intuitive to use with easily navigable menus. However, we found ourselves relying more on the small digital speedo readout on the steering-column-mounted tachometer, because looking at the central console is not easy while driving. The big dial with a tiny needle is pretty hard to read anyway.

Adding personality to the cabin are the very retro toggles switches on the centre console and roof. However, the standard buttons for climate control are a bit small and the volume knob for the audio system fiddly. These minor grouses apart, we found cabin quality comparable to any BMW and well in keeping with the car’s asking price. We particularly liked the rich leather finish to the dashboard and door pads, the high-quality textures and the overall fit and finish, which is nothing short of exemplary.

Given the car’s small size, it comes as no surprise that the Mini’s boot only holds 160 litres. The rear seats do split and fold to increase luggage capacity, though. There is also not much space for smaller items in the cabin, though a hidden recess in the dashboard can be used to stow a couple of CDs.

Performance

While its four-cylinder petrol motor’s 1.6-litre displacement may mislead you, be in no doubt that the Cooper S is a genuine hot hatch. Unlike the naturally-aspirated engine on the standard Cooper, the S’ direct-injection, aluminium-alloy motor features a twin-scroll turbocharger to increase its power output. It makes a solid 181bhp, delivered at 5500rpm, and 24.5kgm of torque (26.5kgm on overboost) between a very accessible 1600 and 5000rpm. The power-to-weight ratio is also a very favourable 146bhp per tonne, and this allows the S to charge to 100kph from standstill, front wheels scrabbling for grip, in a very rapid 7.32 seconds.

But what these numbers fail to convey is the sheer character with which this small car gathers speed. You don’t feel detached, but always part of the action. Part-throttle responses are really good and are accompanied by a bassy rasp, while the transition to full throttle has the exhaust note deepen to a more serious growl. Mini has even tuned the S’ exhaust to make a popping sound on deceleration for added drama, so even slowing down is fun.

There is also little turbo lag to speak of on the rev needle’s journey to the 6500rpm limiter. That said, the engine does feel best between 2500 and 5000rpm. Also, hot-footing it up our favourite ghat road in Maharashtra, we found second gear too short and third gear too tall for the climb, and spent most of the drive hunting between the two. Gearshifts on the six-speed gearbox are nice, downshifts are quick enough, especially in Sport mode, and you have the option to use the BMW-like pull-push steering paddles (which takes some getting used to), or the gear lever in tiptronic mode for better control.

Ride & Handling

The Mini’s biggest weakness is undoubtedly its hard ride. The sport-oriented Cooper S comes with a really stiff suspension so you can literally feel (and hear) each and every pimple and pebble on the road. Our test car’s optional 205/45 R17 tyres didn’t help matters here, and we think the standard car’s 195/55 16-inchers should be more absorbent. Also, the combination of the hard-sidewall run-flat tyres and stiff suspension has the car following road imperfections.

Not only does the Mini tramline quite a bit, but you’ll also find the steering wheel kicking back over uneven surfaces under hard acceleration.

You’ll forgive all these downsides the instant you see a winding road, because that’s where the Cooper S really comes alive. With the wheels at the extremities, a stiff suspension and low centre of gravity, the Mini moves about like a little ball of energy. Directional changes are go-kart quick, and the fabulously direct steering allows you to precisely point and shoot the Mini just as you’d like. The steering may not be completely consistent in the way it weighs up, and sure the car understeers at the limit thanks to so much power being channeled through the front wheels, but you can work around this by trail-braking into a corner and powering out as you apex it. The grip is phenomenal, there’s very little body roll and the brakes do a great job of shedding speed.

The thing is, you really don’t need to achieve ludicrous speeds to have fun in this car. Unlike big German cars that mask big speeds extremely well, the Mini excels at magnifying them. So, even at moderate speeds, it’s a fizzing, bubbling bundle of fun. The steering is constantly shimmying in your palms, the engine is always snapping to small throttle inputs and you know every move the car makes through the seat of your pants. It’s a really connected driving experience, and this is – and has always been – a Mini hallmark.

You’ll also like the Cooper S for its easy manoeuvrability in town. Its small dimensions and tight turning circle are further aided by a steering that is light enough at parking speeds. The Mini’s short wheelbase and 130mm ground clearance also make light work of the largest of speedbreakers.

Out cruising, however, the Mini does get slightly ruffled by strong crosswinds, and tyre noise over concrete surfaces does get intrusive at speeds above 100kph.

Efficiency

Thanks to its light kerb weight and not-so-large turbocharged engine, the Mini was able to return 9.5kpl in typical city driving and 13.5kpl cruising on the highway. But driving the Mini with a heavy throttle foot, we witnessed the fuel economy nosedive to close to 5kpl.

Verdict

With two doors and limited space for the rear occupants, the Mini Cooper S was never a car to transport your family in. Its firm ride also marks it down on comfort. But bench-marking the S against a typical hatchback is missing the point, because it's not comfort, but the driving experience, that is central to its appeal. The zesty engine, stiff chassis and direct steering work in unison to deliver an extremely engaging drive, and performance is really impressive too. Then there are its universally loved looks and quality cabin that will make you want to own one. The trouble is, at Rs 28.6 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), the Mini Cooper S costs serious money and falls off the bottom of the value-for-money scale. But if you have the cash and the inclination to drive, we'd say bite the bait and get one. This is one indulgence you won't regret.


Tech Specs

Fact File
Mini Cooper S review, test drive

What it costs
Ex-showroom (Delhi) Rs 28.6 lakh
Warranty 24 months/unlimited km

Engine
Fuel Petrol
Installation Front, transverse
Type 4-cyl, 1598cc
Bore/stroke 77.0/85.8mm
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Valve gear 4 valves per cyl DOHC
Power 181bhp at 5500rpm
Torque 24.5kgm at 1600-5000rpm
Power to weight 145.96 bhp per tonne
Torque to weight 19.75kgm per tonne

Transmission
Type Front wheel drive
Gearbox 6-speed auto

Dimensions
Length 3729mm
Width 1683mm
Height 1407mm
Wheel base 2467mm

Chassis & Body
Construction Three-door monocoque
Weight 1240kg
Tyres 205/45R17 Run-flats
Spare None

Suspension
Front Independent, MacPherson Struts, anti-roll bar
Rear Independent, multi-link, anti-roll bar

Steering
Type Rack and pinion
Type of power assist Electric
Turning circle 10.7m

Brakes
Front Ventilated discs
Rear solid discs
Anti-lock Yes

Performance
0-20 1.03
0-40 2.08
0-60 3.39
0-80 5.05
0-100 7.32
0-120 10.09
0-140 14.06
0-160 19.41
0-180 27.93
0-200 43.88

Economy
City 9.5kpl
Highway 13.5kpl
Tank size 50 litres

Range at a glance - Engines
Petrol 1.6P (121bhp) Rs 25.5 lakh, 1.6P (181bhp) rs 28.6 lakh