Right, that’s enough practicality; onto the important stuff. We’re back on the road, heading out on the motorway into mountains in the centre of the UAE, where the roads become much more amusing. It’s our regular stomping ground and one I know well, so it should allow us to focus entirely on the differences between the two cars.
The 90-minute drive out, north into the emirate of Sharjah and then inland, passes without incident. The ‘Rocco remains very civilised, especially on the smooth motorways that mean I don’t need to worry about the stiff suspension. The standard cruise control can be set to the speed limit and forgotten about, and there’s a connector for my iPhone so I can listen to music. There is quite a lot of wind and road noise however, and more than I remember from the regular Scirocco. I suspect the low profile sporty tyres could be to blame.
It’s not the finest of days in the Arabian Peninsula and sand swirls against a grey, cloudy sky as we head into the mountains, much to photographer James’ chagrin. As the arrow straight road ends, we pull over to discuss the plan and get a further update on each other’s progress.
“I’ve been spoiled by cruise control,” admits Rami, emerging from the MINI, which doesn’t have it. “And also by cars that don’t rev quite so high in sixth gear. I was hitting around 4000rpm at cruising speed, so it was quite noisy. It is low on creature comforts, there’s nothing in it. The Scirocco has most of what you’d expect, like sat nav and Bluetooth, but this is pretty much a race car with a radio and AC. And when you accelerate hard it almost feels like one, although it’s not so loud.”
As we contemplate the two cars side-by-side, Rami reveals that he really likes the MINI’s look. “Even with the stickers and funny rims, I like it, although I’m not sure about the red mirrors. And the VW looks better than the standard Scirocco. With the body kit it looks more full in shape, but it sits better as it’s lower.”
Getting rolling again, we give the acceleration a work out. I’m not a betting man, which is just as well as I had no idea how the two would compare in a drag race. Sure, the Scirocco has an extra 40bhp, but it also weighs 129kg more. So from a slow rolling start, we hit the gas side by side. And immediately the Scirocco pulls ahead. Rami later tells me that the turbo lag was the main reason why the MINI lost ground – planting the right foot in the Volkswagen’s second gear sees it eagerly leap forward and the rev counter sweep upwards with vigour. As soon as the red line approaches there’s a burp from the exhaust as the DSG lines up another cog immediately, and the pull continues. In the time it takes for the GP’s turbo to spool, I’ve pulled out a three car-length lead. But once the MINI comes on song, it keeps up well, even with the extra time it takes Rami to change gear manually. The ‘Rocco’s lead barely increases well into license-jeopardising territory.
We continue the charge into the mountains, the roads rising and falling with pace, the corners a mix of the fast sweepers and blind – but still quick – crests. I’m being relatively cautious as I can’t quite tell how the front of the Scirocco is going to react. It feels just a fraction distant at the front end – there’s plenty of grip but I’m not sure how and when it’s going to run out, and such are the speeds that it can pull, I’m concerned that I’d only find out when things are quicker than I’d like. With that in mind I’m not pushing too hard into the bends, but such is the power and the speed of the gearbox in reacting to my right foot that I can really power out once the road opens up again. Rami is keeping up with me, but I wonder if that’s more to do with his talent than the car.
I’m covering ground quickly, but the adrenaline isn’t flowing as fast as I expected it too. Sure, I’m going fast, but it doesn’t really feel that fast. So composed is the R that it’s just lacking a bit of drama, that seat of the pants excitement.
We turn off the main road onto a tighter, more winding section of mountain pass, seemingly designed by someone doodling squiggles on a map. It’s an epic section of road, almost entirely smooth save for a couple of concrete sections at the base of some drops, and boy do I feel the transition through the Scirocco’s thin-sidewalled tyres. There’s a thump-thump as the wheels pass over the join, although it doesn’t upset the car. In fact, not much seems to upset the car. I’m learning more about what the Scirocco can cope with up front – it’s easier in the tighter corners when the speeds are a bit lower, and the epic grip continues, but again, I’m not as excited as I could be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving the hefty steering, the almost instant response from the wheel-mounted paddles and the superb traction out of the corners, it all just feels a bit too easy, slightly disconnected from the action.
At the top of the hill, we hope out to compare notes.
“That was a lot of fun,” Rami grins. “The front end of the MINI feels awesome going in to corners, although it feels like it doesn’t want to hold on so much at the back. It’s easily controllable though, and it’s a lot shorter wheelbase than the Scirocco so I’m not surprised by it. I trusted it, although on hard braking it went really light at the back, so you need to watch it. Again, much like a racing car. Coming through and out of the faster corners I could just see myself catching up, and then you’d start to pull away again with the extra power.”
It’s time to swap. Hopping into the MINI, I’m greeted by a familiar set up – chunky controls and that huge central speedometer that’s become an icon of the ‘new’ MINI range. But overall, it’s spartan and focused, with plain plastic trim, hugging sports seats and a fat steering wheel devoid of buttons.