– Excellent handling
– Competent engine
– Head-turning design
– Cramped interior
– Painful in traffic
– Expensive for its size
Whenever we hear the Mini mentioned anywhere, the first image that comes to our minds is the old yellow one driven by none other that Mr. Bean! The British Mini is now owned by BMW, and the German marketeers can spin it anyway they like, with taglines like “Let’s Motor,” spelling MINI with all capital letters, and upscale pricing, but it still cannot hide its humble econo-car heritage–and Mr. Bean still drove one!
The new Mini has been reinvented as a completely different car, fairly bigger than the classic Mini, but still smaller than most other cars on the road. It also costs a heck of a lot more, and is now an image vehicle more than just a cheap runabout. It has positioned itself as one of the few great driver’s cars ever built, but most of us shy away from it simply because of its strong appeal to a feminine clientele, as evidenced by spotting women behind the wheel in 90% of automatic Minis on the road. Our tester however is far removed from those girly base vehicles, even though it doesn’t look too different. The Mini Cooper S is gunning for the weekend racer crowd, and the newly-available S convertible we tested is just cherry on top of the cake. The S comes exclusively with a supercharged engine, sporty suspension and a six-speed manual.
The exterior of our test car came in a bright shade of orange, and it looks like one of those things which you just have to turn around to look, not matter how hard you try not to. Accented with black plastic, a fabric roof and smatterings of chrome, the S would look just like its lowly non-supercharged brethren if it were not for the massive wheels and the mailbox slit on the hood for better breathing. The inside theme is as shout-out-loud as the exterior, with metallic and plastic curves in all the places where you wouldn’t expect it, with original touches such as an oval-shaped rear-view mirror and toggle switches for power windows and such, all of which favour form over function. In fact, there are curves on the supportive bucket seats, curves around storage pockets, and on the door handles. It all seems to be designed to take your mind off the cramped quarters, which are fine for front passengers, but hellishly tight for rear passengers, along with a luggage trunk that’ll fit a day’s worth of groceries. People who wear tight “free-size” clothing can forget about riding in this little can. The funky interior design also distracts you from the completely plastic cabin treatment, including the metal-look trims and the body-coloured surfaces. We expected more exotic materials from a car that costs twice as much as a Toyota Yaris. The overall build quality is very good though, in typical German fashion, even though the car is built in England. And we love the fabric roof that opens partially like a big sunroof or fully like a proper convertible, but the stereo and the a/c could be better.
But this car wasn’t really designed to a luxury cruiser. It was designed to be driven hard, and that is exactly what we did, whether BMW’s PR department approved or not. Powered by a buzzy little 1.6-litre four-cylinder unit, supercharged to bump up power to 170 hp, it is good for 210 Nm of torque, and pulls the car with authority with some perfectly timed shifts. Getting from zero to 100 kph took less than 8 seconds, which does not make it a rocket, but it is wholly adequate for some decent fun with this car, while drinking as much petrol as a 2.4-litre Honda Accord. The car can do a moderate top speed of 220 kph, though we only went up to around 180 kph before the wind noise got unbearably high, with roof on. The rumble is already high at 120 kph with the roof up, but with the roof off, we had to start shouting to communicate with passengers at just 80 kph. There is no such thing as cruising quietly with this party animal. In slow traffic, there is no joy either, as the steering, clutch, shifter and brake pedal are all so painfully hard that we were getting an unwanted workout shifting gears as we inched along in the jam–so much for skinny women using this as an image vehicle. It is easy to zip in and out of little gaps in traffic, but rearward visibility is near-zero thanks to the huge roll hoops at the back covering the rear window, so we had to manage with the tiny oval side mirrors for lane changes and singing parking sensors for slipping into available spaces.
While it is an average performer in the straights, the Mini really comes alive in the corners. With its relatively miniscule dimensions, low stance, wider low-profile tyres and wheels stretched to the corners of the car, it handles–to repeat an overused quote–like it’s on rails. And this time we mean it. What is even more amazing is that the Mini manages this with a front-wheel-drive platform, which are traditionally notorious for early understeer. The Mini, however, just keeps on turning. We kept wringing the steering wheels harder and going faster, but we barely got a squeak out of the tyres in whatever limited runs we could perform. We could not feel much body roll as the car gripped the tarmac like glue, and the only way we coaxed a slide was by yanking the delightfully strong handbrake. The car is easily manoeuvrable in any situation we threw at it, and it has great brakes to slow down the car quickly. A set of front-and-side airbags and roll hoops keep you safe should you do something stupid. You’d really have to be stupid to flip this thing over.
The Mini is, according to us and a lot of other enthusiasts, one of the greatest driver’s cars ever. It is BMW’s only front-driven car, yet it still gave us as much driving pleasure as a BMW-badged product. Of course, it is hard to drive in traffic, impractically small, and for the price of our supercharged tester, you could buy a midsize Japanese 4WD, so we definitely think it is overpriced for what it is. But it will surely provide some fun weekends if you can afford to keep it as a second car — remember, Mr. Bean drove one!