What happens when you take a much-loved car brand and re-release its iconic vehicle for the 21st century? What happens when you then tweak that re-release after a couple of years, and change a few things along the way? Mini's revitalised Cooper S hatchback is more spacious, faster and more fuel-efficient than the previous model, but it's not the perfect city car.
N.B Apologies for the crazy white balance in these photos, guys! Blame a different camera to my usual and an uncalibrated editing display. Less garishly cyan photos will be up on the review tonight. My bad. -- Cam
What Is It?
The new 2014 Mini Cooper S is a $36,950 two-door hatchback that sits at the top of the Mini product range. Compared to the last Mini, and the Mini before that, and the original Mini before that, the Cooper S has grown in every single iteration -- and anyone turned off by the name should reconsider, because it's not actually a particularly mini car.
The 1250kg Mini Cooper S (that's with fluids) measures 3850x1727x1414mm, and its interior has markedly more space than the last Cooper S I sat inside -- that's what you notice as soon as you open the door. Rear leg room still isn't exactly up to S-Class levels, but it's more than enough for a couple of kids or for moderate height adults as long (as you're not planning a long journey; four adult blokes stretched it my test car its limits).
From the outside, the new Mini isn't substantially changed from the old one. My specced-out test car had panoramic sunroof, adaptive LED headlights and daytime running lights, and the requisite Cooper S bodykit -- although in a less-than-shouty grey finish, but you can get the hero orange and any variety of stripes and specs and patterns added on to your liking. The best way to do exactly that is with the Mini configurator on the company's website, which lets you adjust to your heart's content.
What Is It Good At?
The 2-litre turbo four-pot powering the new Cooper S, which develops 141kW at 4700rpm and its max 280Nm from as little as 1250rpm, is a gem. Step on the accelerator pedal and, presuming you're in the right gear (more on that later), you shoot off. The car's variable-geometry turbo and direct petrol injection means that off the mark it's quick to spool up and get away; anecdotally it feels a lot zippier than my similarly-powerful chipped VW Polo GTI. It's a great engine and I'd say that it's the best aspect of the car by a long shot -- if you want it to be the Cooper S is a great vehicle for actually driving and enjoying the open road.
When it's working at its best, the six-speed automatic gearbox of the Cooper S zips along well. It's quick to change gears whether you're in Sport or Green mode and whether you're shifting manually or letting the computer do its thing. When you're in Sports mode the shifts are harsh, as you'd expect, and Eco mode is appreciably smoother, and Mid really is the best compromise for the most part.
Handling is another standout, with the same level of adjustability and tractability as the rest of the drivetrain. Switch from Sport to Green and you'll feel the chassis soften over bumps and around corners; if you're going for a spirited stint along a coastal road -- my jaunt from Collaroy to Palm Beach is a favourite spin -- Sport mode is almost mandatory for the way it makes the Cooper S feel planted and capable even over bumpy and uneven and poorly cambered terrain. For the purposes of driving and enjoying driving, the Mini Cooper S acquits itself admirably.
For a tech-head, the Mini Cooper S is a dream -- mostly. The heads-up display when you're driving is a fantastic aid that tells you how fast you're going, or where you should go next if you're using the car's centrally-mounted headunit for navigation. (As an aside, I had a HUD in my '95 Nissan Bluebird SSS, and have missed it ever since). The centre console screen is an 8.8-inch LCD, ringed with a colour-adjustable LED setup that can be matched to the rest of the car's interior lighting or set up as a faux tachometer or to reflect your driving style.
Everything is controlled with a vaguely BMW iDrive-like central knob, which can be spun and pressed and swiped across the top of for various controls. A jog dial around the gear shifter lets you switch from Sport mode to Eco to Mid, all of which tweak driving settings. For the most part, the on-screen interface is simple, but as you start to drill down into different sub-menus and change settings things can get a little confusing. There are a lot of things that you can change and adjust on the Mini Cooper S, whether it's the rotational position of the HUD or the stiffness of the dynamic shock and bushing adjustment in Sport mode or the layout of the navigation. If you like to fiddle, it's great. If you don't, it's going to be intimidating.
As a package, the Cooper S feels complete. You don't sit down and really think that anything is missing, or that you're being short-changed for your all-important dollars. One thing that I'd mention is that at speed, the out-of-the-box Hankook tyres are a little noisy on-road -- switching to some quieter Continentals or Michelins should eliminate this minor concern.
What Is It Not Good At?
I can understand Mini wanting to appeal to the widest possible audience, and the versatility of the six-speed unit used can't be understated, but I wish that Mini had kitted out the Cooper S with a manual, or at least offered one as an option. The auto in Green mode is a little sluggish, in Sport it's a little harsh in holding and proactively downshifting and in the ferocity of its shifts, but even in Mid there's an aspect in city driving that the gearbox is trying to think a little too much. Even a direct-shift gearbox would have been a nice inclusion and a step up from the auto.
Try to take off smoothly from a set of traffic lights and the Cooper S will have shifted to third before the other side of the intersection, and while the shifts are simultaneously smooth and quick, if you want to go a little faster it'll shift down to second, then when you ease off it will shift back up to third or fourth, each with its commensurate seat-of-the-pants shunt. If there was a bit more of both Green and Sport in the Mid setting -- holding gears slightly longer, and shifting slightly smoother, the auto would be an easier sell for me.
Rear legroom from a larger Mini is something I expected to be a little better, seeing as the car has become larger and larger in each iteration. The leather interior is plush, but bulky -- the bolsters are firm and push you into the softer centre, and as with any car with a centre armrest-console there's no comfortable place to put it if you want to lean your arm on the shifter or handbrake. It's definitely the nicest Mini interior yet, but the centre panel plastics and chrome and door skins do sometimes feel a little cheap for a car that's on the way to costing $40,000.
Over my 600-odd kilometre test drive of the Cooper S, I averaged fuel consumption of 9.4 litres per 100km with a pretty fair mix of Sport, Eco and Mid driving. This isn't excellent, and while it probably reflects more on the fact that it's a car that encourages you to put your foot down a little, you do empty the Cooper S's 44-litre tank quite quickly over the course of a week's commuting and evening and weekend driving.
Should You Buy It?
The new Cooper S is a well-rounded car. It's not without its issues, but if you're buying it primarily for the driving experience, you won't be disappointed (unless you have your heart-set on a manual or direct-shift 'box). Here's one potential issue worth considering, though -- the regular Cooper is $10,000 cheaper, has a manual gearbox, and by all accounts its three-cylinder 1.5-litre petrol engine is a cracker as well.
The tech inside the $36,950 Cooper S is ubiquitous and whether you're the driver or the passenger it has real-world uses and isn't just a frippery; features like the HUD and rear camera and driver assistance package make for a high-tech car that helps you travel in general. It's a kitted-out small-to-medium car that the 21st century buyer should be entirely happy with. If I had the cash and was in the market, I'd seriously consider one.