Mini Cooper S -- maxi fun

Who cares that the Mini brand, now owned by BMW, is no longer, strictly speaking, British?

BMW’s first car ever, the 1928 Dixi, was after all nothing more than an already-ageing Austin Seven built under licence in Germany. The Mini Mark 1 was originally introduced in the United Kingdom 31 years later as the new Austin Seven, thus keeping the association alive, so you could say the German company and the British have had a little thing going for almost a century.

Anyway, the fiery little half-breed is built in Oxford, which is about as English a location as you’re ever going to find.

At the end of the 20th century, motoring journalists organised a worldwide competition to establish what vehicle deserved the title of Car of the Century. The Mini finished second, behind the Model T Ford, and many believe it should have taken first place because it set so many standards for generations of cars to follow.

The Mini was a compact city car, with a transversely mounted four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels, and brilliant handling, thanks to the wheel-on-each-corner design. Most modern hatches follow that philosophy today, and the vast majority of all modern passenger cars use transversely mounted engines to drive the front wheels.

Turkish-born Sir Alec Issigonis, who worked in the British motor industry for most of his adult life, was goaded into action by the fuel rationing that hit his adopted homeland during the Suez crisis in September 1956. His employers, BMC, asked him to come up with a four-seater car using the same engine as the popular Morris Minor he’d earlier designed for them.

Issigonis presented his employers with the little box-shaped car that went on to become a hit worldwide. His design had a tiny little ten-inch wheel in each corner to take up less interior space with wheel-wells, and an engine fitted across the front of the car rather than lengthwise, with the gearbox mounted below, thus allowing for a longer cabin. The car was just 3m long, but 80% of its overall length was available for cabin space. The Mini was cheap to buy and to run, it was practical, it was (for the day) reliable, and it was FUN. It also handled very well, and tuned versions won races and rallies on every continent.

The current Mini is a second-generation BMW offspring, and is 60mm longer than the 2001 first version. This, of course, makes it a whole lot bigger than the original Mini, but the designers have captured the feel of the old car very well, while knocking off the many rough edges it was renowned for.

Of the three retro-styled cars introduced at the end of the 20th century, only the Mini has sold well, while the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the new VW Beetle have both failed to attract the masses. The one millionth new Mini rolled out of the Oxford factory in 2007, just six years after launch. The earlier BMC Mini reached that milepost in March 1964, after a similar production period, so the new car most certainly isn’t a flop.

The car sent to us for evaluation was the pick of the bunch—the Mini Cooper S six-speed manual. The latest version uses a turbocharged 1,6-litre petrol engine that produces a whopping 128kW of power, and an even more impressive 260Nm of torque between 1 700 and 4 500 rpm.

Torque is that magical stuff that gives you a boot up the bum when you floor the gas pedal, and the Mini Cooper S’s abundance of grunt from low down in the rev range makes it impressive. Torque steer—the tendency of powerful front wheel drive cars to pull to one side or the other under hard acceleration—is evident, but controllable, and not enough of an issue to be off-putting. Top speed is about 225km/h and the 0-100km/h sprint will, according to road testers at specialist motoring publications, be done and dusted in a smidgeon over eight seconds. That means that the car’s not going to be embarrassed in a drag race, and its brilliant handling makes it better than most pocket rockets through the twisties as well.

Race car designer John Cooper, who developed the (relatively) lively 997cc Cooper and 1275cc Cooper S versions of the original Mini, would be intrigued by the effort that’s gone into making the latest incarnations of the car as quick as they are.

Where the original Cooper coughed up 42kW or so, and the “S” impressed with 57kW, BMW’s Mini Cooper S with its 1,6-litre BMW/PSA Peugeot-Citroen engine uses a turbocharger to stir up the 128kW mentioned earlier. Although the wheels are still tucked away in the corners, they now measure not 10 inches, but 17, with low-profile 205-45 rubber filling the wheel arches.

There are, of course, ABS brakes and traction control, and the car comes with all the comforts you’d expect at the price. Apart from being considerably bigger than the original Mini, the new Cooper S, at 1 205kg dry, is also much heavier than its little predecessor, thanks to all the electric windows, air-conditioning components, sound system and other gizmos that fill the cabin.

But don’t get the wrong idea—the Mini is still one of the nimblest cars imaginable to drive. While evaluating a test car I make notes for myself on a little electronic voice recorder, and my closing words on the Mini were simply “steering direct and quick. This car sticks to the road like a go-kart. It’s absolutely gorgeous!”

So what if there isn’t much room in the back for passengers? Nobody told you that the Mini makes a great family car!

The Mini Cooper S can justifiably be accused of being too expensive—at R278 600 for such a small car it’s not going to find its way into most homes. On the other hand, the car’s as much fun as anything else on the road, and more entertaining than most to drive hard on a winding road. If you have the cash to spare, why not?

Those who can’t afford the Mini Cooper S and want to experience the feeling of the original Mini without spending a fortune can shell out R40 000 or so for a second-hand eight-year-old Daihatsu Cuore. That’ll be cheap, reliable, easy to park, and lively enough for everyday use while at least looking a little like a Mini. Just don’t expect it to be anywhere near as much fun as the German effort…

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