Fleet News

MINI Cooper S

MINI

Review

WITH a supercharged engine, the new MINI Cooper S is simply the most fun you can have in a car for less than £20,000.

Nostalgia is a strange emotion. The sense of longing for times past when things were supposedly better than they are now seems to appeal to all of us, not least car manufacturers.

Forgive me a moment's cynicism if I say it allows them to repackage once popular concepts and icons and sell them to an unsuspecting public keen to reminisce about the good old days.

Buyers then get sucked in by the hype and buy the automotive equivalent of flared trousers - although I'm told these are currently fashionable, they are bound to look foolish in a few years. These thoughts occurred to me while I was on my way to drive the car which has become the latest chapter in the story of the new MINI.

Nearly a year after the MINI One and Cooper arrived, the Cooper S comes as the high-performance model giving MINI a car to rival the current small GTi heavyweights like the Renaultsport Clio 172 and the MG ZR160.

Whether stealing sales from these other cars is an objective is open to debate. A key factor the Cooper S has in its favour is that it is a new MINI, and while the first 12 months' sales target for the MINIs One and Cooper in the UK was 20,000 units, the firm has achieved sales of 25,000 in the first 10 months.

Hardly anyone getting behind the wheel of the Cooper S will be old enough to remember the original Mini Cooper S - there is a new, younger audience apparently keen to be seen in the latest trendy vehicles.

It means new MINI drivers seem to be swapping from a variety of cars to take the keys - although a large number are said to be ex-Peugeot 206 drivers - and with all the options and accessories fitted it is possible to increase the cost of a MINI to about £22,000.

That's deep into BMW 3-series and Jaguar X-type territory, or even entry-level executive cars such as the Saab 9-5 and Peugeot 607.

It might be frivolous to make such a comparison, but for younger user choosers who might be in line for a compact executive it's worth comparing whole life costs with a well-specced MINI Cooper S.

CAP Network says the car's residual values should be about 40% over three years and 60,000 miles, and should the car cover fewer than 50,000 miles, all servicing and maintenance should be taken care of with a one-off payment of £100 for the TLC package.

With average fuel consumption at just over 33mpg and carbon dioxide emissions putting the car in the 22% band for company car tax this year, the Cooper S should also have huge appeal for those whose car is a perk of the job.

The success of the MINI so far has led to an extra 700 staff being employed at the Cowley plant, near Oxford, and a £50 million investment to increase production capacity.

We can also look forward to two further instalments next year as a convertible version is launched as well as a common rail diesel using a reworked version of the Toyota Yaris's 1.4-litre D-4D unit.

Behind the wheel

ALMOST identical to the existing MINI, the Cooper S is distinguished by the broad air intake in its bonnet, wide enough to swallow the morning newspaper - and a few bills and junk mail into the bargain.

I've never really been a fan of the way the new MINI seems to be a self-conscious, cartoon-like interpretation of the original Mini. And I thought it outrageous that in a car launched more than 40 years after the original, rear seat passengers still get a raw deal in terms of space.

The new car may dwarf the original Mini when the two are sat alongside each other, and I suppose progress dictates that cars now need to be stronger and safer than they were in the 1950s. However, this has clearly not deterred buyers and the car has been remarkably successful in its first year on sale.

Despite the Cooper S's on-the-road price of £14,500, it's wise to add the TLC servicing package which covers all servicing and maintenance (including labour) for five years or 50,000 miles, for £100.

Choosing the Chili pack adds air conditioning, xenon headlights and headlight washers, 17-inch alloy wheels, front foglamps, extra interior lights and part leather upholstery for an extra £1,350. That would put the price at £15,950.

However most of the press cars available for launch were loaded with just about every option available, some with colour-screen satellite navigation, others with a rear sunroof and automatic climate control, with prices approaching £20,000. Stick to the Chili pack, though, and you won't go far wrong.

The instruments take some getting used to, with an unnecessarily large speedometer in the centre of the dashboard and a rev counter behind the steering wheel. However, the retro styling is not without appeal, and quality is utterly flawless.

The Cooper S comes with a six-speed gearbox as standard and uses the same 1.6 litre four-cylinder engine as the other MINIs, but with the addition of a supercharger - hence the hole in the bonnet - power is boosted to 161bhp with maximum torque of 155lb-ft. Turn the key, however, and it makes the same nondescript hum as in the other MINIs.

This soon disappears as you put your foot down and the supercharger begins to wind up, the accompanying whine making the engine reminiscent of the A-series engine in the original Mini. It isn't obtrusive, or even annoying. Actually it's quite fun and something which might please enthusiasts of the original Mini.

This MINI is considerably faster, though, covering the 0-60mph dash before it has changed out of second gear if necessary, and in about seven seconds.

With the 17-in wheels fitted to the test cars, the ride quality was always going to be firm, and the small-car dimensions also mean bumpy or rippled road surfaces can be wearing. However, its wheel-in-each-corner stance and wide tyres mean handling and grip are astonishing.

Body roll in almost non existent, and you have to be pushing ludicrously hard to get grip to break on corners in the dry, while the steering offers plenty of feedback and brakes are firm but smooth.

Tackling Scottish A-roads in wet and dry conditions for 100 miles has been the most fun I've had behind the wheel of a car so far this year, and that includes more than 100 miles of Scottish A-roads behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 156 GTA.

Driving verdict

SIMPLY the most fun car you can buy for under £20,000.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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