Review - New Mini Cooper S


Mini Cooper Hatchback 1.6T S 3dr
Test Date
29/11/2006 08:00:00
Price when new £15,995

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When the new Mini arrived in 2001, there were a few mutterings from certain quarters, notably die-hard Mini enthusiasts. They bemoaned the betrayal of the original’s true values, wondering where the innovation, the genre-busting packaging, the dedication to supplying economical, efficient transportation to the masses had gone.

BMW, however, was savvy, and pitched the new Mini into a market that placed great value on style, brand prestige and fun – a recipe that the reborn car brewed together with genuine panache. Its replacement aims to fix the faults and quirks, while keeping the winning formula very much intact.

Contrary to every appearance, what you see is an all-new car, although no one seemed to notice while we were conducting this road test – least of all current Mini drivers. But then market research has shown that the styling of the previous car was far and away the number one reason for purchase. Keeping the styling almost the same is perfectly understandable, of course, but we can’t help but feel that a little of the visual appeal has been lost.

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It’s only when you park new next to old that the differences are suddenly obvious. The new car looks substantially bigger than the old one; in fact, there’s 55mm more in the nose, and the base of the windscreen is 18mm higher. It doesn’t look quite as cheeky and compact as before, and the bluff front doesn’t have the complex curvature around the lights that gave the old Mini that bit more character (and made it very costly to manufacture).

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The floor and front bulkhead are the same, but that’s where the parts-sharing ceases. The frontal structure now features two upper and two lower crash boxes, with a cross-beam between the front strut towers for reinforcement. Although the stiffness of the structure is quoted as unchanged, considerable work has been done to improve side-impact protection.

Mechanically there are substantial differences too, not least in the engine room. New Mini has given BMW the chance to dump the Chrysler engines and replace them with something more sophisticated. The new 1598cc units have been co-developed with the PSA group, and are built at BMW’s Hams Hall plant in the West Midlands.

At launch there are two models on sale: the Cooper and the Cooper S, with a 1.4-litre One and a diesel following next year.

In the Cooper, the all-aluminium engine cranks out 118bhp with the help of variable valve timing. The Cooper S model tested here adds a twin-scroll turbocharger (rather than the old supercharger) and direct injection to produce 173bhp and 177lb ft of torque from just 1600rpm. The latter figure swells to 192lb ft on temporary overboost.

The old car’s whining hydraulic power steering has been replaced by a new electrically assisted set-up (which can be sharpened up, along with throttle response, via a Sport button), while the chassis benefits from a new multi-link rear end with weight-saving aluminium longitudinal arms. Crucially, the new engine helps to slash weight, too.

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Cabin quality massively improved

This is a commendably responsive engine, with immediate and serious shove virtually from tickover. Boost is held constant all the way to the upper reaches of the rev range.

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So our 0-60mph time of 7.1sec on a very damp and greasy track is a respectable time, and we’ve no doubt on a dry track an S could get near 6.5sec. Yet we miss the old supercharged engine. It might have made a racket, weighed more and punched with less force, but it had one asset the new engine can only dream about: character.

At least the new six-speed gearbox proves an able partner for this engine. But it’s hamstrung by a clumsy gearknob design that means a plastic-chrome ridge digs into your palm.

We never rated the brakes on the old Cooper S. The new brakes feature 294mm ventilated discs up front and are fine in everyday use, although there’s still a feeling that they’re at full stretch too quickly.

BMW wanted to retain the sporting handling of the Mini while responding to requests for lighter steering and improving ride quality. Sure enough, pottering around in a new Cooper S couldn’t be easier or more pleasant. The steering is smooth and light. Even more noticeable is the improvement in ride quality. Our test car wore standard 16in wheels with regular suspension (rather than the optional £130 sports set-up), and it coped admirably with broken town surfacing.

The zestiness that you expect of any Mini is still present in the new S. It changes direction keenly, despite a dose of initial body roll, and skates through corners with the sensation of a mild four-wheel drift. You can trim your chosen line with the throttle to an extent, but it’s surprisingly laid-back after the previous car. The electric power steering is the chief reason why. It’s almost too smooth and grown-up for a dynamic little car such as this. The new Cooper S is a potent ground-coverer – and entertaining – but a dash of involvement has gone missing.

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Inside it’s all change for the new Mini, and invariably for the better. The seats are larger and more comfortable, and the driving position much-improved. The central speedometer gives the cabin its focus, but our testers found it redundant when faced with the digital speed readout below the rev counter. It also bulges upwards out of the dash, amplifying the feeling that this is one small car that isn’t so small any more. Nevertheless, it still trounces other small cars for showroom appeal. The new centre console is attractive, while the majority of plastics give a suitably premium feel.

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The doors close with a thunk, and the cabin exudes a tightness that makes it seem likely it’ll resist the onset of rattles better than the old car. Pity about the oversized standard two-spoke steering wheel and the miserable headlights, which deserve no place on a car with this level of performance. The £460 bi-xenon headlamps are a must.

Despite the increase in the Mini’s exterior dimensions, it is still barely more than a 2+2. And the boot has only an additional 10 litres over the old car's, so it’s desperately small.

With greatly improved fuel economy (we averaged 29.8mpg, well beyond the 25.6mpg of the old car), and reduced emissions (164g/km, down from 202g/km), not to mention peerless residuals in the class, the new Mini makes a convincing case for purchase. But look more closely at the pricing and it’s easy to let the cost soar. The base car is £15,995, but to that you’d want to add the £1875 Chili pack, which cuts a deal on items such as part-leather upholstery, a three-spoke wheel and air conditioning (yes, it’s extra) among others. Add to this the sought-after TLC servicing deal (£150), metallic paint (£280) and xenon lights and you’ve got a decently equipped (but hardly over-the-top) Cooper S for £18,760.

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Faster, better built, smoother riding: in just about every area the new Mini is an improvement, and a car buyers will love. It seems prescient, however, that it went on sale on what would’ve been Alec Issigonis’s 100th birthday, because this new incarnation retains only a judiciously guarded strand of Mini DNA. Although this lays open the way for a wider range of cars in the Mini family, a little more of the old magic has been lost.