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First drive: MINI Cooper S manual. Image by MINI.

First drive: MINI Cooper S manual
We get behind the wheel of the fastest third-generation MINI on European roads, in manual guise, for the first time.

 



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| First Drive | Mallorca, Spain | MINI Cooper S |

Overall rating: 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5

As with our findings of the petrol-fuelled Cooper models in Puerto Rico, and our drive of the Cooper D sibling here in the Balearics, the Cooper S is a more mature performance hatchback than prior versions. But it's perhaps a less scintillating 'on-the-limit' steer as a result.

Key Facts

Model tested: MINI Cooper S
Pricing: 18,650 standard; 24,895 as tested
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Body style: three-door hatchback
Rivals: Audi S1, Ford Fiesta ST, Volkswagen Polo GTI
CO2 emissions: 133g/km
Combined economy: 49.6mpg
Top speed: 146mph
0-62mph: 6.8 seconds
Power: 192hp at 4,700- to 6,000rpm
Torque: 280Nm at 1,250rpm

In the Metal: 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5

We're docking the Cooper S half a mark over the Cooper D model because its front-end treatment is just too cluttered. It's hard to know what draws your attention most - the gloss black bar in the gaping trapezoid grille, or the chrome highlight and S badge just above it, or the jutting section in the lower air dam housing two (optional chrome) vents, or the fog lights and their attendant recess line, or the big MINI badge on the bonnet, or the cooling scoop just above it, or the daytime running light rings... Opt for bonnet stripes and there's another layer of visual activity thrown in. It's not exactly ugly but by no stretch of the imagination is it pretty, either. We'll settle for 'distinctive'. Still, familiarity breeds contempt and fans of the marque will love it regardless. The rear is only let down in our eyes by the gargantuan light clusters, with the central twin exhausts and chunky bumper pleasing on the eye.

There's a fantastic driving position and good seats in the Cooper S, while the dashboard is as conscientiously stylish as ever. All the new technology makes it feel premium and the head-up display works as well as in BMWs, and endless personalisation choices inside and out remain available. Obviously, the same packaging compromises of any MINI Hatch come into play with the S, but the company has added space in a few crucial areas in order to make it a bit more practical. However, as people of average height, we still wouldn't want to be in the back seats for long.

Driving it: 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5

While there is no doubting the Cooper S is possessed of ride composure that would make the older MINIs seem embarrassingly nervous, this is one of those cases where knocking the damping down a few notches has perhaps gone a step too soft. There is a weird mid-bend yaw action that shows up in the Cooper S when you've got the traction control fully disabled and you're in Sport mode, as if neither end of the car is fully keyed into the tarmac at the same time. The optional adaptive dampers (375, on top of the 135 needed for the MINI Driving Modes switch behind the gear lever) might cure this slop in the suspension, but the standard S could do with being a bit stiffer at the rear.

It's also much more prone to early-onset understeer in tighter bends, possibly due to the biggest engine it has had in terms of swept capacity, as the front tyres let go with barely any warning from the strangely numb steering. Lift off to tighten the line and the rear end starts to move round, but then the front bites again, you get that disconcerting yaw and the car presents an unsettled attitude. Yes, it rides better than the old S models, but it's nothing like as capable on a tight, twisting road at anything above eight tenths. It's not helped by traction control that's too intrusive on its halfway house setting and a front axle that's unruly under full power with the system turned off completely.

On the plus side, the engine is a peach, ultra-smooth at all revs and muscular. It quickly becomes flat near the redline but the pops and bangs the exhaust issues on the over-run are entertaining, while the excellent six-speed manual gearbox seamlessly rev matches on downshifts in all traction control modes save fully disabled. You can do heel-and-toe yourself easily enough in this latter set-up. The brakes are good but the Cooper S did squirrel around under harder applications; maybe something to do with glassy roads covered in Mediterranean dust, so we'll reserve final judgment for UK driving.

Finally, not only are the ride and refinement levels of the F56 in another league compared to R56 MINIs, the Cooper S is hugely stable in a straight line at speed. Not that we advise you to do this regularly, but take your hands off the wheel at 75mph and the car remains firmly on a true course. More practically, this means you don't make half as many minor steering corrections as you did in its predecessors, leading to totally unstressed cruising.

What you get for your Money: 3 3 3 3 3

This is testing price point marketing to the limit. On the face of it, the minimal cost increases over the old model range leave the basic new Cooper S - with extra equipment and a better, greener engine - looking reasonably competitive at 18,650. But load it with the sort of additions that MINI says customers will spec, such as the Chili Pack (a faintly alarming 1,900, although it does bundle 11 extras and upgrades together for that cash), Media Pack XL (1,175) and Head-up Display (375), and the price will be pushed well beyond 20,000; our car was almost 25,000 and that's a huge outlay.

Especially when you consider the awesome Fiesta ST Mountune will give it a dynamic spanking, has more accommodating rear seats and a bigger boot, and will give you more than 6,000 in your pocket, as it costs just 18,594 based on an ST-2 model. If you favour style over substance, the endearing Fiat 500 has just been revised and isn't actually that much smaller inside than the MINI, plus it's much cheaper to buy - albeit it can't match the Cooper S for pace. The all-wheel drive Audi S1 will start from 24,900 and that makes an optioned-up Cooper S look very dear. Only the MINI's strong residual values work in its favour.

Worth Noting

Those eye-catching (and not necessarily in a good way) vents in the lower front bumper serve no functional purpose whatsoever. Opt for the exterior Chrome Line finish (110) and they get highlighted in said shiny metal, which make them more dominant in the overly-fussy front end. We'd stick with them in all black standard format, in order to calm down the nose's styling memes.

Summary

While it may seem odd to penalise the MINI Cooper S by half a star for the same sort of relaxed attitude the Cooper D exhibited, the problem with softening up the hottest MINI to this extent is that is loses too much of its previous vivacity when cornering on the limit. That's not so much of a crime in the Cooper D, which automatically sets the bar of expectation lower, but if you bought an R53 supercharged S or R56 turbo version for its ability to truly delight on your favourite back road, the F56 might leave you a bit cold. Hopefully, forthcoming John Cooper Works and GP3 versions will address this issue, but for us it's a shame the standard S has lost its sparkle. Nevertheless, it will continue to storm the sales charts, so it's mission accomplished for MINI.


Matt Robinson - 18 Mar 2014









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2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.

2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.



2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.
 

2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.
 

2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.
 

2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.
 

2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.
 

2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.
 

2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.
 

2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.
 

2014 MINI Cooper S. Image by MINI.
 






 

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