Car review: The art and thrill of a Mini Cooper S

ONE THE ROAD

The Mini Cooper has always fancied itself as an iconoclast. That sureness has shown itself in its body for the past 60 years; a body, car historians will never forget, that saw a transverse engine slotted in sideways so the tiny car had enough interior room to fit at least one adult person.

Such concessions might be a thing of the past, but its identity remains familiar. Select British purists would have a thing or two to say about that, but even in the BMW-governed 21-st century, the Mini has always retained the essence of the Mini. If anything, German ownership makes it more surprising that the spot-the-difference game of new releases is always a challenge. We’ve seen doors added and roofs chopped off, but the core offering has remained consistent through two decades.

Still, like any other product of the churning market it must re-fashion itself — however mildly — every so often. The latest of these attempts is now arriving on our streets.

We met at the Radisson Red in Rosebank for the official launch. From there it was quickly into Minis for a winding road trip, which took us up to the Union Buildings in Pretoria and then curve around Johannesburg to meet at the Nirox Sculpture Park just north of Krugersdorp.

A Mini Cooper S handled the bulk of the trip.

First impressions are anything but. Anyone who has ever been inside a Mini Cooper will know that it is unlike anything else on four wheels. The formula has remained the same for 20 years: there’s a huge ring in the middle of the dash, previously filled with a giant speedometer but now containing the infotainment screen. 

A smaller gauge sits above the steering wheel – again formerly an analog rev gauge and now a digital driver’s display.

With the same basic layout cloned by almost everybody else, it’s pleasing to see a car stick with its divergent frame (even if that frame means you and your passenger will duel to the death over the cup holder space). 

The car is starting to feel more and more posh. The interior uses quality materials to create surfaces that feel pleasantly soft and squishy. Also worth a special mention is the “start engine” flick switch (instead of a button), which sits in red near the centre console. On the “S” version, the sport switch is enticingly next to it.

Arriving in central Pretoria, the Mini Cooper finds its home ground. Tight shoulder lanes, aggressive traffic, narrow one-ways; this is the sort of habitat in which it thrives. 

For better or worse its diminutive nature, and subsequent sporty handling, has always given it a reputation for being a bit of a go-kart. A car that can be tumbled down a flight of stairs if need be, as in The Italian Job. That sensation becomes slightly less pronounced with every iteration, but for the purposes of weaving through clogged roads there aren’t many better options.

After stopping for a cool drink and to admire the cascading lawns of the executive capital, it was back onto our route. The expanse of the N14 highlighted the other facet of the Cooper S’s performance: its engine. The S is endowed with a 2.0 litre turbo block which produces 141kW and 280Nm of torque. With a 0-100km/h time of 6.8s, these numbers translate to an experience that is enjoyable but not thrilling.

Which, again, is a bit of a moot point. The Cooper S was born in the highly successful Monte Carlo Rally races of the 1960s. It was made to chop in and out of corners, not be sent down a straight line.

The other reason one would buy a Mini is the looks. At the risk of labouring this point, the brand remains idiosyncratic to this day. Is there any other vehicle silhouette as recognisable? Depending on your outlook, the Mini could function as a fashion statement … or perhaps even a work of art

Saying that last bit out loud explains the choice of destination. The Sculpture Park is one of Johannesburg’s special places. No matter how many times you walk its immaculate lawns, there is always something new that draws the eye’s attention. A fresh angle or glint of light that alters your perspective.

Guided by a philosophy of impermanence, the sculptures in the park are designed to blend into their environment. Many of them, particularly the works of renowned artist Willem Boshoff, are created using natural elements, whether that be rocks rearranged to form a druid circle or the grass mowed to spell out a message.

The Mini, surely, would love for you to think of it in the same vein; an artwork driving through time against the backdrop of the ephemeral urban landscape. 

There were a couple of cars on the day that had been propped up as if they were sculptures. One of them, parked at the walk-in entrance, was the new Mini Cooper SE — the brand’s new offering to South Africa’s shallow pool of all-electric options. (Random fact for the day: special electric Minis were built almost 20 years before this release for that aforementioned staircase scene because the City of Los Angeles wouldn’t allow exhaust fumes in its subway.)

Lunch continued the theme of creative expression. The “And then there was Fire…” restaurant serves food primarily prepared over flame and coal. Naturally. In the Argentine tradition, meat flowed onto the table — from tender pork belly to rump steak sheathed by a charred crust — with an apple salad and mushroom ceviche serving as a perfect complement. For dessert we had a chocolate marquise, a tart so deliciously sweet that one spoonful felt like a bolt to the frontal lobe.

These intangible sensations are what the Mini Cooper has always been about. And little is different this time around. In truth it’s hard to recommend purchasing one on purely logical grounds. Those that do will do so because of how it makes them feel. Perhaps it’s the unparalleled hatch experience or the desire to break free from the confines of traditional car design. But all have been transfixed in some way or other. 

There is no such thing as a casual Mini fan. 

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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