Mini Cooper S: Test drive

Its potential isn't the only thing that's huge about the Cooper S
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This car, say its creators, is smaller than any of its direct rivals. Well, thank goodness for that; it means it can justify the name of Mini, with its obvious promise of smallness.

All of which is fine if we're talking in the relative sense – but the overriding impression of this latest Mini model is that it's enormous. Every detail seems larger than life: the bonnet is long, there's a bit of a bustle behind the rear wheels and the whole things seems a parody of what a Mini used to be. Nor does that comparison apply only to an original, tiny Mini; even compared with the first of the BMW-era cars, launched in 2001, this is a brash, coarse and rather ugly creation.

It isn't quite as much of a mutant as the lofty Countryman, but it is almost as large, save in height. But then, the Countryman sells in droves, so BMW is naturally going to extend the brand's reach as far as possible, and most of today's buyers have forgotten all about the original, tiny Mini other than as a piece of retro intrigue.

Pragmatically, this five-door addresses the two main concerns of potential buyers of the regular, recently updated, Mini: a lack of space for both rear passengers and luggage. It achieves this by increasing rear legroom by 72mm, and adding 89mm to the boot floor. The new rear doors are thinner than the smaller car's rear side panels, enabling BMW to claim enough width for three passengers in the back – though in reality no one would want to sit on the hard central seat-hump for long.

So the lengthened body achieves what it sets out to achieve, for which BMW charges an extra £600. But what's it like to drive?

Compared with the previous two BMW- era Mini generations, this one is bigger in all dimensions and powered by a new range of engines, all turbocharged. Three three-cylinder units are spread among the One and Cooper models, a 1.2-litre fuelled by petrol and a pair of 1.5s, one petrol and one diesel, the latter offered in two power levels both rated under 100g/km CO2. The top Cooper S versions get 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engines, the petrol making 192bhp, the diesel 170bhp and a monstrous torrent of pulling ability.

Inside, the larger-than-life theme continues, with exaggerated dashboard and door-trim sculpting, multi-coloured ambient lighting and a giant, circular, central screen which has finally relinquished its role as an original-Mini-referencing speedometer. That function is now relocated to a conventional dial pod on top of the steering column; the central screen, meanwhile, handles the myriad multimedia functions now vital in a car like this.

And the drive? The "go-kart" feeling always extolled by BMW in these cars is now formally acknowledged when you engage Sport mode, upon which a screen message tells you this feeling will be at its maximum. Actually, it makes the Mini hyperactive, while rendering the steering heavy at speed and the ride choppy.

Normal mode is best. Thus set, the car flits happily through bends with a planted-on-the-road precision, and even with the five-door's extra length and weight, it retains the flickable agility its looks lead you to expect. The optional automatic gearbox is smooth and alert, and both the S and SD (diesel) engines match crisp-edged pace with smooth quietness. To drive, these new Minis are the best yet. I just wish they didn't look quite so much like cartoons.

Mini Cooper S Five-door

Price: £19,255 (range from £14,350)

Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharged, 192bhp

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 144mph, 0-62 in 6.9sec, 47.1mpg, CO2 136g/km

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