What happens when you re-invent an icon? crankandpiston.com travels to Puerto Rico to find out by putting the brand new MINI Cooper S through its paces.[Not a valid template]
When word first broke of a new MINI last year, it was difficult not to be swayed one way or the other. Some – myself included – welcomed the new era, a chance to re-invent and (hopefully) improve a model that has dominated the small car scene in one form or another since the late 1960s. Others however – purists to the core – were wary: ‘you don’t re-invent the wheel and you don’t touch the iconography of the MINI Cooper’, a concern that was similarly broached when the Mini name returned with BMW in 2000. Like then, aesthetic changes may be subtle but the BMW Group would be unwise to introduce what it calls ‘a hallmark emotional design’ without remaining true to the quirky heritage: as Porsche and Volkswagen will tell you courtesy of the 911 and the Golf, it’s a tough balancing act. For the new MINI then, there’s no room for ‘Normal’ when you’re re-inventing more than 50 years of heritage.
So far so ‘not normal’ then on crankandpiston.com’s sojourn to Puerto Rico, flyboards, jetskis and a cover of Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ during the opening ceremony being just the cherry atop a highly unorthodox cake. Our 12,000km trip has taken in two days and a short layover in New York, a ritzy – and greatly appreciated – night’s sleep in San Juan, some stunning scenery and a myriad of winding mountain roads on which to put the new MINI to the test. The entertainment is soon put to bed, and after a few ‘please drive carefully’s from the MINI PR team, crankandpiston is escorted to the new Cooper fleet where we get our first look at the re-design. ‘Not normal’, phase one…
The new Cooper boasts a new hexagonal front grille, softer head and taillight designs with thicker chrome detailing, a more prominent front overhang and a sharp new rear bumper. It measures 3850mm in length, some 98mm more than the outgoing model. It stands 1414mm high and 1727mm wide, 7mm and 44mm more than its predecessor. To underscore the contrasting black roof, it even features some tidy 17-inch Cosmos Spoke alloys in black. The Cooper does look larger, but the re-styling is so subtle you’d be forgiven for not even noticing. Purists rejoice: the MINI Cooper is still as handsome and cheeky as it ever was.
The real difference is on the inside, the slightly stouter MINI Cooper now offering more load space and extra legroom (I’ll refrain from saying ‘plenty’) for rear passengers. There’s new ergonomic sport seats to encourage enthusiastic cornering, plus driver assist technologies like a Head-Up display, park assist and a rear-facing camera, and a cleaner-looking centre console. A personal favourite though was the MINI Connect Web Radio, which allows you to listen to any radio station in the world online. It’s a very clever system, and one that has improved my salsa music knowledge no-end.
It all sounds worryingly grown up for a MINI, but fortunately that added Cooper cheekiness remains. The glowing red keyless Stop/Start switch is a particularly racy addition on the centre console. The speedometer has shifted to the instrument cluster in front of the driver, but the huge dash-mounted infotainment screen remains, around which now runs a funky light strip. A rotary dial now surrounds the gear-lever, allowing you to switch between ‘Sport’ and ‘Green’ motoring, offering a far easier setup than before. There are though a few teething issues. The larger rotary dial by the gear-lever is much less fiddly than its predecessor, but while it makes navigating the infotainment system easier, it is set a little too low and taller drivers might struggle to use it comfortably. And while the new cabin in our test model is a lot more practical and of a higher standard and finish, it feels just a little understated compared with the flashiness and ‘fun’ of the previous Cooper. You might want to hit the interior trim options list.
Aesthetics is just one ‘not normal’ item on the checklist though, the other – arguably more important – being MINI’s new engine generation boasting MINI TwinPower Turbo Technology. Options include a 136bhp 1.5-litre three-cylinder and a 192bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder, the latter of which is stapled down in the Volcanic Orange Cooper S we’ll be driving today (bigger, even in a MINI, is usually better). Mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox, the four-cylinder unit pushes the S from 0-100kph in just 6.8 seconds on its way to a top speed of 233kph. The sound is muted rather than earth-shattering (four-cylinder, remember), but there’s a much baser warble in the S than its predecessor, a wonderfully deep note that resonates about the cabin and seems to scream ‘punch it’. Which, of course, we do.
Pull from the 1998ccs is strong, albeit with a touch of added grunt over the outgoing unit. The big surprise though is the 207lb ft of torque, which allows me to hold the higher gears and lower revs on San Juan’s steep climbs without bunny-hopping or losing momentum. First and second are as feisty as ever through the six-speed automatic gearbox (and crisp changes through the paddles allow me to push them hard), but the unceasing pull from third upwards catches me by surprise: there’s now some serious beef alongside the MINI nippiness. Not normal, but it takes none of the fun away from the experience.
Something else that catches me off-guard is the road. So far my attention – when not focused on the beautifully comfortable seating and ever-increasing pitch of the Cooper’s four-cylinders – has been routed to the Puerto Rican colour whizzing by in the shape of rustic looking bridges, garages and vividly painted houses. It’s soon riveted to the road surface, which in a matter of kilometres changes from gorgeously smooth to rutted and pot-holed: MINI’s decision to host the launch here seems suddenly all the braver. It’s no problem for the new struts/multi-link suspension though, which despite offering a firm ride (a bi-product of the stiffened chassis for added dynamism) doesn’t rattle my spine to dust.
Avoiding the holes is child’s play regardless, thanks to the go-kart like handling the Cooper is famous for. The steering is still as sharp as ever, the front end still very pointed and traction through all four-wheels making understeer and oversteer moot points. It’s all so wonderfully easy to control at pace, grip and feel for the front end sharp and oh-so easy to send to the apex without hassle. In a heavier car it would feel balanced, but such is the poise of the MINI’s clever weight distribution and miniscule size that the Cooper S appears to dance through the corners rather than take them, thanks in part to the sensation of speed in the hot seat.
Purists beware, the new MINI Cooper has done some growing up thanks to a re-designed and more ergonomic cabin, improved practicality, and a new engine range. But the fun that makes a MINI, well, a MINI, has not been lost as a consequence. There’s nippiness, pinpoint handling, a durable gearbox, a pokey engine, and – more importantly – a great sense of fun. It’s still there, regardless of how much extra legroom you have and how much more you can squeeze into the boot.
There’s no room for Normal in the new MINI Cooper. Good.
|Engine:||Inline-4cyl / MINI TwinPower Turbo / 1998cc|
|Power:||192hp @ 4700-6000rpm|
|Torque:||207lb ft @ 1250-4750rpm|
|Front suspension:||Single-joint McPherson spring strut axle with aluminium swivel bearing and anti-dive control|
|Rear suspension:||Multilink axle with weight-optimised trailing arms|
|Wheels:||6.5J × 16 light alloy front and rear|
|Tyres:||195/55 R16 front and rear|