2011 MINI COOPER S REVIEW
Vehicle Style: Small hot-hatch, two doors, four seats
Fuel Economy (claimed): 6.3l/100km
Fuel Economy (tested): 7.8l/100km
A sophisticated city car, the MINI is “retro” done right. Forget the other awful attempts at yesteryear style by the likes of the Chrysler PT Cruiser and VW Beetle; the MINI hooks into its heritage in all the right ways.
There’s the trademark bug-eyed face, cute-as-a-button ‘Alec Issigonis’ shape, rounded haunches and front fenders, and ‘trad’ racing Cooper stripes.
Most importantly, in Cooper S form, there’s the great handling that made the first MINI a giant-killer on the track.
Quality: The MINI’s interior harks back to the original ‘60s versions, with toggle switchgear for the windows, locks and lights located on the centre stack, and a huge centre-mounted speedo complete with rotary needle and bars for the fuel gauge.
But, for practicality, there’s a digital speed-reading mounted atop the steering wheel, with the tacho and other trip functions (style, in this case, is actually matched with substance).
The MINI has mood-lighting switches as well, turning the ambient lighting inside the car from purple to red to green at the driver’s whim. Ridiculous? Yes, but it’s all part of the MINI attitude.
Comfort: The seats are excellent with decent adjustment and bolstering. The larger among us though will likely have to push the adjustment to its limits to fit comfortably.
The two dedicated rear seats have ample shoulder room, but legroom can be tight behind larger drivers.
Equipment: The base ‘S’ equipment level is high, with standard climate-control, multimedia access with Bluetooth, an excellent stereo, leather seat inserts and leather steering wheel, tyre-pressure monitors and auto headlights and wipers.
The options list, however, is both tempting and terribly expensive.
Storage: A downside to the MINI’s compact form is, of course, compacting people and luggage into it.
The boot is narrow (despite not housing any tyre-repair gear due to the run-flat tyres); fitting three people and luggage into the car while on test required some ‘Tetris’ packing skills and a flexible, small passenger in the rear seat.
In terms of outright volume, the Cooper’s boot space measures 160 litres with the back seats up, and just 680 litres with them folded.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: The MINI is a smile-maker. The S badge that once stood for Supercharged is no longer relevant (now it's the usual Sport reference); the 1.6-litre Peugeot-Citroen/BMW alliance engine has been turbocharged since the MkII R56’s release in 2007.
But while the turbo lacks the ‘whiny’ character of its supercharged predecessor, it is an excellent tractable powerplant that has more than enough grunt at 135kW to haul its 1150kg weight around.
Front-wheel tug (torque steer) can still be felt through the wheel. The 240Nm of torque (260Nm with overboost) is most noticeable in the lower gears under heavy acceleration when cornering.
The inside wheel can also be readily induced to spin if the driver’s right foot is impatient. But this is all part and parcel of a front-wheel drive car, and does not lessen the fun.
Cruising on the highway is a brainless affair – set the cruise control, enjoy the excellent Harman Kardon stereo and inherent comfort of the MINI… yes, it’s not hard to understand why there are so many of them on the road.
Refinement: The cabin is quiet with hardly any wind noise, though the tyres are loud on coarser chip roads and at highway speed.
The thrum of the dual exhausts in higher revs adds some enjoyable character and underlines its sporty bent.
Suspension: Independent all round, the ‘sports-tuned’ suspension and 18-inch rims offer good roadholding and excellent handling.
It’s marred a little by the uncompromising run-flat tyres, which still does not absorb ruts and corrugations like a traditional tyre, and can upset the suspension balance. It’s also possible to occasionally find the bump-stops on larger humps and dips.
Braking: The disc brakes are excellent and showed no sign of fade on our long drive from Sydney to Melbourne via the twisting alpine scenic roads. The MINI’s light kerb-weight takes the pressure off the pots.
ANCAP rating: 5 stars
Safety features: Front, side and curtain airbags, front load limiter/pretensioner seatbelts, rear pretensioner seatbelts, front active headrests, Brake Assist, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Corner Braking Control, Traction Control, Electronic Stability Control, Hill holder, reverse parking sensors
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three-year with roadside assist
Service costs: Check with your MINI dealer before purchasing
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Audi A1 Sport ($42,500) - The Sport shares the best engine in this class – the VW Group’s 1.4-litre twin-charged unit.
Matched to a seven-speed DSG sequential gearbox and coming standard with an excellent LSD, it’s a big MINI challenger. ?(see A1 reviews)
VW Polo GTI ($27,790) - It may be plainer inside and out than the MINI, but the Polo GTI comes with the same engine and seven-speed DSG as the Audi A1 Sport, but is $15K cheaper, and offers a five-door bodystyle and five seats. (see Polo reviews)
Alfa Romeo MiTo Sport ($34,990) - The Mito Sport packs a turbocharged 1.4-litre four developing a lesser 99kW and 230Nm. The weight is the same, but it’s less tractable, less powerful, and looks odd. (see Alfa Romeo reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Cooper S is still the big seller in the MINI stable and it’s easy to see why. Few cars come with such driver appeal and on-road cred wrapped into a package with such irresistible lines and character.
The Cooper S is frugal, fun and practical and packs a hot-hatch punch. Put it high on the list.