The MINI Cooper S, track car?

20110405-080857.jpg
20110405-080940.jpg

20110405-080947.jpg

20110405-080952.jpg

20110405-081002.jpg

20110405-081008.jpg

20110405-081013.jpg

20110405-080957.jpg
Paul Healy

By virtue of my association with various publications I have spent a considerable amount of time in Mondello Park over the years. I can normally be found somewhere in the paddock wielding my trusty pen n pad. Every once in a while, though I manage to make it trackside. Race prepared road cars, dedicated drift machines and even a bit of exotica has played host to my clenched butt cheeks as the driver blasts headlong towards Honda corner. I was memorably scared half to death by Ron Cuming while I was strapped to the passenger seat of the Kildare circuits own Lola B07/90 GT super car but the most fun I have had around the track was behind the wheel of a MINI.

The new MINI has always been a great car. From the moment of its launch both enthusiastic reviewers and passionate owners have bored the ears off anybody who would listen as they raved about the cars go-kart like handling, its crisp turn in and seemingly unwavering levels of grip. It seemed BMW had got their rebirth of a motoring icon just right with the retro styling being just the right side of kitsch and the price being just about exclusive enough for those who craved the baby Beemer. All these elements tied together had half the population drooling in anticipation of the new cars arrival – the female half!

There was just something about the new MINI that was a little bit girly. No red blooded male could be seen driving one for fear of being seen by somebody he knew. Even the Cooper version still had an element of Prada handbag to it. Then all of a sudden, the MINI developed a bit of a hairy chest in the shape of the supercharged Cooper S. It still had stupid spec levels like salt and chili chicken with noodles or some other rubbish but the S finally turned the MINI into a hot hatch and soon men whose names were neither Toni nor Guy were not afraid to be seen behind the wheel.

The Cooper S in question belonged to a friend who had also brought along his turbocharged six-cylinder wangan destroyer and after tearing a few inches of rubber from the rear tyres of the smoky saloon it was time for the MINI. The whine from the supercharged engine was intoxicating while the chassis offered seemingly unbreakable levels of grip just enticing you to attack each lap with more gusto. Even with the traction control switched of it remained composed – until you pushed it a little bit further. Then the real fun began!

So when one of the girls in the office came to me looking for advice on a fun hatchback to replace her Golf Gti the Cooper came straight to mind. Time and time again it just seemed to tick all the boxes she had lined up – good looks, street cred, fun to drive with enough power to compensate for the Golf. In the end she plumbed for the later turbocharged version but that just gave me a chance to compare the two engines when she arrived in to work a few days later with a Cheshire cat grin and tossed me the keys.

Despite growing by 60mm, having its headlights reshaped and position and generally gaining a slightly more grown up look the newer car retains that distinct shape that has been so appealing to many buyers. The wheels, like those on a shopping trolley, are still set as far into each corner as possible with minimal overhang while a redesigned, higher waistline gives the appearance of a more hunched, purposeful car. It is under the bonnet where most of the changes took place. The old Chrysler developed supercharged unit was binned in favour of a turbocharged engine jointly developed by BMW and Peugeot offering useful low down torque for what is primarily a city car. As well as the torque power also jumped from 163bhp to 175bhp which results in a 0-100kmh time of 7.1 seconds and a top speed of 225kmh – something I wouldn’t be achieving on this test drive.

The first thing you notice is the torque provided by the new turbocharger makes the Cooper an even better city car than the old model. The extra 50Nm results in fewer gear changes while tootling around town although the sweet six speed gearbox goes entice you to make the most of all the revs when you venture out of the city. Another advantage the turbo has over the old supercharger is an increase in fuel economy – 6.3 L/100km compared to the old cars 8.5 and a drop in Co2 emissions from 202g/km to 149g/km which equates to a whopping saving of over €700 a year on motor tax.

Interior wise it’s pretty much as you were from the old car. More toggles and switches that take a while to get used to and the centrally mounted rev counter that just seems to make the car seem smaller than it actually is. I have seen cars fitted with optional sat nav that sits in the central position that results in the rev counter being shifted to its more natural position behind the steering wheel and unsurprisingly it makes more sense. The cars growth has seen a small improvement in interior space – the MINI is still a 2+2 but at least now you are not just restricted to carrying kids in the rear seats. That’s not to say they will be particularly comfortable after a long journey but it’s a vast improvement over the old car which is more than you can say for the boot space. Yes it may have grown by a whopping ten litres to 160 litres but it’s still smaller than some glove boxes. Ok maybe not that small but if this is your only car you won’t be doing your weekly shopping without collapsing the rear seats.

At the end of the test drive I almost regretted handing he keys back. I say almost as I didn’t have as much fun in the newer car as I had had in the supercharged model but there was never really any comparison. One test was a quick blast around the roads surrounding the offices while the other was hooning around Mondello. Strangely the owner of the new car did not take to my idea of letting me drive her pride and joy around the Kildare circuit. I wonder why???