Driven – 2011 Mini Cooper S

Associating with car enthusiasts doesn’t usually present too many challenges. There are, however, a few instances that have the tendency to become a little awkward. Chief of these is the road trip. Every car enthusiast believes that they are the best driver of the group by far and should therefore be the one tasked with the responsibility of delivering the rest of the group safely to their destination. The problem is of course compounded when any sort of racing or rally driver is involved. Eyes dart shiftily around the room, and everyone becomes suspicious of everyone else’s motives as soon as the question of who should drive is raised.

I found myself in this situation a few weeks back. We were sitting around one Sunday night having a few beers at Mt Buller after the completion of the Targa High Country rally. Three of us were due to make the trip back to Melbourne the next day, and our transport, a gleaming new Mini Cooper S, was waiting patiently outside our chalet. I’d had my eye on it all weekend and had been hoping for a drive, so as I noticed the keys sitting on the counter top I casually mentioned that I’d be more than happy to drive us back to Melbourne the next day. With no objections from the group, the driver’s seat was now mine. Of course, it helped that one of my travelling companions was asleep and the other was in the bathroom, but those were rookie errors on their parts. They would learn that the tactical game of ‘who drives’ is constantly being played.

The first challenge was how to fit three people, two of whom are over 6 foot tall, and their luggage into the little Mini. Suffice to say we did it, but there literally wasn’t any free space and our poor back seat passenger shared company with my suitcase. The second challenge came when attempting to start the car. The key is a black circular disc about the size of a large wrist-watch face which slides and clips into a receptacle in the dash. From an affordance perspective I found it challenging, its form giving no clue as to its use. Its needless complexity bugged me because it was no easier to use or better than a conventional key.

From what I’ve previously read I had very high expectations of the Mini, and I’m happy to report that it lived up to them and more, even within the first few kilometres. The steering is alive in your hands, relaying exactly what the wheels underneath you are doing. It’s very direct, too. Brake, turn in to the corner, feed on the power to exit. It’s an infectious combination of movements that results in a large smile on the drivers face.

It’s a smile that might not be shared by your passengers, however because the Mini is actually quite quick. The Cooper S is powered by BMW’s fantastic 135kw turbocharged 1.6 which is more than powerful enough to move it’s 1150kg kerb weight. With three people plus luggage aboard I was expecting sluggish performance, but it actually felt faster than its 135kw would suggest. This could possibly be due to the overboost function which increases torque from 240nm to 260nm in short bursts when required. Cruising the highway at 110, all it requires is a quick change from sixth to fifth gear to easily pass slower motorists. Knock it back into third instead, let the revs build more boost, and the slower cars in the mirror disappear quite a bit faster than you expect. Flick the engine management into sport mode and it even pops and cracks on overrun at higher rpm.

The power is nice and useable, although it does torque steer on sharp acceleration and it lights up the inside front wheel coming out of slow corners which can catch you off-guard if you’re not expecting it. I feel a little dirty for saying this because I’ve driven other front drive cars with atrocious torque steer, but in the Cooper S it kind of adds to the enjoyment. The steering wheel tugging at your hands and the front wheels scrambling for traction as you power down makes you feel like you’re at speed on the special stage, even if you’re just travelling moderately quickly.

From the outside the styling is what we’ve come to expect from Mini – a simple, cute and purposeful two box design. The high belt line and piano blacked pillars enhance sleekness, with large wheels and minimal overhang at each corner adding to the stocky aesthetic. However this is all brought undone by the carbon fibre detailing on the body. The carbon air intake in the bonnet looks a little wanky and is almost acceptable, but the carbon/plastic rear spoiler has to be a joke. If this were my car it would be the first thing to be removed and heartily tossed in the bin.

The interior is a nice place to be and has a feeling of solid quality, something that was lacking from the first generation of ‘New Mini’ a decade ago. The Harmon Kardon stereo is superb and replicates the bass line of ‘My Humps’ in pimping fashion – how I know this isn’t important. Ergonomically, the major controls of the Mini are very well placed. You sit low, with the chunky three spoke steering wheel perfectly matched to the stubby manual shifter. The floor hinged accelerator takes a while to get used to, especially on your first take off, but once accustomed it feels better than a conventional top hinged pedal. The seats are supportive and comfortable and do an equally fine job of keeping you planted in the twisties and pain free on long trips.

The interior is a chic, retro take on the spartan qualities possessed by the original Mini. I felt that it did sacrifice some useability for the sake of fashion – in particular some of the lower switchgear was fiddly to use and for performance driving the font and redline on the tacho could be more legible. The adjustable cabin mood lighting (purple, red or green) did redeem the situation, enabling us to determine exactly what type of ‘groove atmosphere’ we wanted for our journey. The handbrake chime, which sounds when the handbrake is pulled while the car is rolling, was a little eerie. It is identical, I mean actually identical, to the noise a Windows PC makes when you pull a USB stick out without ejecting it. Strange.

For me, the Mini would be ideal if space or finances only permitted ownership of one car. It’s a cracking fun car to drive down a twisty road, a reasonably comfortable long distance tourer and a civilised commuter. Its $40,700 list price pegs it squarely in the same region as cars like the Subaru WRX, RenaultSport Megane, Audi A1 and Alfa Romeo MiTo, and I think it provides an ideal combination of all of them. It’s not quite as quick as the WRX or Renault but a more respectable car to drive everyday, not quite as stylish as the MiTo or A1 but significantly faster. Forty years ago you wouldn’t have thought a Mini would make an ideal all-rounder, but it’s a different story today.

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