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MOTORNET: Still Got It - Mini Cooper S

Still Got It - Mini Cooper S

SCOOP MOTORNET with Karl Ferguson
Images by Neil Mackenzie -

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The girl at the drive through window was about 16. I hadn't paid her a great deal of attention to be honest, most likely trying to decide between a Big Mac or a Chicken Royale, when just as I was about to order she gushed, 'Your car is really cool. I like it a lot,' all the while flashing me a beaming smile.

I didn't know whether to be flattered or embarrassed, but I thanked her, quickly ordered and drove on to the next window. In hindsight, I missed a great opportunity. Before you leap to any conclusions, I mean in the sense that here I was presented with a perfect 'mini focus group' any marketer would have seized, and all I could think about was what fatty burger I was going to chow down on! After all, when it comes to car design, if you can manage to get teenage girls to think a car is hot, you’re half way there.

While my research is anything but scientific, it’s reasonably safe to assume that the Mini Cooper has still got it. Considering it was launched in 2001, at the height of the retro car craze (think VW Beetle and Chrysler PT Cruiser) this is no mean feat. BMW haven't done a huge amount either to freshen the Mini’s looks. It still has those dinky round headlights, chrome grill, long doors and rounded bum. Someone once said to me they thought it looked a lot like a sneaker - which in my mind pretty much sums it up. It's bold, yet attractive, and still instantly recognisable as a Mini.

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Clearly, BMW thought it would be unwise to mess with the looks (understandable, given the feedback I received) but under the bonnet, a few things have changed. For a start, it’s more powerful, at least in supercharged 'Cooper S' form. The 1600cc engine develops 125 kW and 220 Nm of torque, or a 5 kW increase over its predecessor. It may not seem like a lot but when you compare it with the standard Cooper (which develops a fairly asthmatic 85kW); the S enjoys close to 50 per cent more power with only a modest increase in weight.

Drivers too will be constantly reminded they opted for the power version. The noise of the supercharger is as distinctive as it is reassuring. It's not so much unpleasant as constant, but it certainly delivers the goods. The Mini fairly rockets from 0-100 km/h in a claimed 7.2 seconds (or 7.7 for the six speed automatic), which is hardly super car performance but not bad for something dismissed by many as a hairdresser's car. The standard Cooper doesn't fair quite so well, taking a reasonably leisurely 9.1 seconds for the 0-100km/h run.

Perhaps more important than performance figures though is how the car drives, and in this case, it has nothing to worry about. Going around a corner - regardless of speed - can't help but produce a grin. The Cooper S certainly lives up to the PR claim of having 'Go-kart like handling.' It is supremely stable, limpet like even, through even the tightest of bends, with lively steering and bags of grip. The 2005 model suspension upgrades certainly don't go a miss and help make this car a delight to drive.

The six-speed automatic transmission of the test car was impressive (Cooper comes with standard manual 5-speed, Cooper S with standard manual 6-speed) and provides the perfect transmission to maximise the power band. The pseudo-manual mode works well and it is a joy to self change gears, though it works equally as well in normal automatic form. The F1 style driving paddles mounted behind the steering wheel work well too, but I preferred the more traditional gear lever.

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The interior remains much as you would expect, heavily stylised to evoke memories of the original Mini. Retro aspects include large oval dials trimmed in chrome, and 60s type switch gear that contrasts with modern heating dials and a BMW sourced stereo. It works, but can appear a little on the busy side, particularly at night where orange lighting gets a bit garish. There is plenty of genuinely usable interior space though, and fitting four adult passengers even for a reasonable distance is certainly achievable.

$48,900 for the Cooper S automatic (the standard manual Cooper starts at $37,900) is a big ask for a small, two door car especially when bigger, more powerful rivals are asking similar money. The recently introduced Golf GTi which is only fractionally more at a starting price of $49,990 is a case in point. Having said that, the Mini is anything but ordinary. Not only does it make a strong statement about its driver (presumably a motivating factor in the purchase), but it also offers an impressive driving experience, something its retro rivals didn't quite manage. It may not be the newest kid on the block any longer, but there is no doubt that the Mini – Cooper S especially – has still got it.

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