You see jaws dropping, eyes widening, kids squealing with joy, bus drivers honking ‘for a purpose’, for a change, and cars on the other side of the road pull over so their drivers can take a closer look at yours? Then you are seeing the world through the windscreen of a MINI.

Car brands aspire to acquire a distinct character that every model in their line-up epitomise. Sporty, sturdy, sexy, safe, even cute – one of these or all of them can be what brands stand for. But, there are few, if any, that can lay claim to being so adorable that it puts a smile on every face that turns towards its cars.

That unique trait belongs to the MINI. Being awesome effortlessly, and just when you thought that looks is all it has to offer, it can stun you with near super sports car performance in a super compact body style. That quintessential MINI experience is what the Cooper S offers. And while I was secretly hoping that I would, instead, be the one, for a week the object of everybody’s affection was the MINI that I was driving.

Yes, S

The MINI Cooper S is the sporty version of the legendary hatch (the original body style), and is also the one offered with more features and options. The classic MINI styling and design cues are all captured beautifully, while there are some additional bits to capture the essence of the Sporty spirit too. Unmistakable features like the hexagonal bonnet grille, the large, round headlamps, the short overhangs leading to the wheels on the edges of the car and the floating roof are all instantly recognisable as MINI traits.

Even after the Mini was taken over by BMW and the re-interpreted new MINI was born, there has been a conscious effort at retaining many of the charming and unique characteristics of the original. Some of that include simply the overall shape, the circular elements in the exterior and the interior, and the way the knobs and controls in the cabin function. But it also includes more subtle hints such as the diagonal seam between the bonnet and indicator lights which hark back to the welding seams at the same point on the classic Mini.

The new MINI Cooper S is larger than the previous generation by being about 61mm longer, much of it coming in more for the sake of new safety regulations, including pedestrian safety. With features like the flared, muscular wheel arches that are filled out nicely by the 16-inch alloy rims (17-inch with low-profile tyres are optional), the large airdam in the front bumper and the bonnet intake vent, the twin exhaust pipes sticking out at the rear and the special chrome side vents with the 'S' logo on them, the MINI Cooper S' sporting intentions are adequately clear even at a glance.

Inside Out

The chrome lipping for the bonnet grille, headlamps and the tail-lamps manages to give the Cooper S a classic, yet modern touch. We know how dated it looks in the other car in our midst with round headlamps. The dominating circular elements theme is carried into the cabin too, very much like in the original Mini. But, there are significant changes to the interior of the Cooper S, which contribute to boosting the perception of premiumness and quality of the new cabin.

The most striking circular feature, of course, is the new centre speedometer, which also incorporates the other features like the MMI along with the music system and the navigation. The aircon vents, the engine rpm-meter and the ignition key itself are the other circular elements in the cabin. Slotting the cute key fob into the dash and pressing the engine start / stop button fires up the Cooper S' engine. The front seats are beautifully crafted with the right support bulges and are wrapped in soft perforated leather. The same can not be said about the rear seats, which seriously lack legroom and can just about barely accommodate adults of average height and build.

Sporty trim in racy colours and customisable LED mood lighting add to the car's youthful profile. Wide opening doors, a low seating position that is also substantially set away from the steering wheel give you the feeling of driving a car with serious intentions of speed. Panoramic sunroof and the seriously endowed Harman Kardon music system are such awesome additions to the car. The rest of the interior is quite simplistic for a car priced alongside large luxury sedans. But there is never a slip up in the feel of quality to all the elements inside the Cooper S.

Power Play

When you sit behind the wheel of a MINI is when you can truly appreciate its abilities. The famous feeling of being in a go-kart is so true and it just gets even more accentuated in the Cooper S. It is the equivalent of a kid, an adrenaline junkie on a sugar high. And giving it that prowess is just a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine. Consider the rated prowess - peak power that is about three times that of the average Indian hot hatch of similar weight, a top speed of just over 220 kmph, and a 0 to 100 kmph run in about 7 seconds.

Translate that performance into numbers and it reads somewhat like this - a peak power of 184 bhp and a peak torque of 240 Nm available between 1,600 to 5,000 rpm. Mind you, that is a four-cylinder, 1,598cc engine. Helping (the same basic engine as in the Cooper) achieve that 50 per cent hike in performance over the Cooper is a twin-scroll turbocharger and fully variable valve control and timing technology. Peak power is delivered at 5,500 rpm and when accelerating really hard, peak torque is raised to an even higher 260 Nm by boosting charge pressure briefly.

That level of sports car performance can really be felt at the steering wheel, where I actually get the feel of the amount of torque being delivered to the wheels. For a front wheel drive car, the taste of urgent acceleration that one can actually feel at the wheel of the MINI Cooper S is phenomenal. The new tech in the engine also manages to give it a 20 per cent boost in fuel efficiency.

Married to this engine is a six-speed automatic transmission, the same as in the MINI Cooper. Only, the Cooper S is offered with Steptronic setting and the addition of paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. A different set of gear ratios also give the Cooper S its sporty driving character. A normal driving mode and a sport driving mode are offered in addition to the manual input option. In sport mode, the Cooper S' character changes dramatically, and gear shift times are shortened electronically.

Licensed Go-Kart

The remarkable part about the MINI Cooper S is its surprising agility and handling. Precise steering responses, almost no-turbolag from the engine and negligible body sway makes it feel the serious performance car that it really is. The stiff body shell and a rigid chassis give the car that sporty character. The low-centre of gravity and the wide track give it even more confident handling during all sorts of driving conditions.

The suspension is extremely rigid in keeping with this sporting image. And while it helps in gripping the road, like a serious sports car, the ride is not exactly comfortable in Indian road conditions. It didn't help that my test car came with the 17-inch rims and low-pro tyres option. The ride was not teeth-chatteringly bad, but the chassis and suspension do send up quite a bit of the road. On the contrary, on smooth tarmac the Cooper S can drive you mad with its agile performance. A mechanical limited slip differential is on offer to prevent wheel slip. Safety equipment offered is on a par with sports cars including six-airbags, cornering braking control and a stability control programme that can even be switched off by the driver for greater on track fun.

Bottomline

Just like the performance numbers show, the MINI Cooper S is not some cutesy mobile which makes it only a looker. But, at about Rs 29 lakh, it doesn't come cheap and the number of luxury car options that are available at that price is a long list. But if you are looking for exclusivity, fun, and even a bit of heritage in a compact set of four wheels, the MINI Cooper S is the obvious choice for its price.

And it will be an addiction you'll want to live with.

muralidhar.s@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on September 11, 2012)
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