Are you in the market looking for a sensible and practical transport? If you are, look away, the MINI is not the car for you. In other showrooms, the RM240k that our Cooper S test car asks for gets you metal like the Audi A4, the Renault Megane RS250, or the BMW 320i. You even get change if you go for the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
The MINI is clearly a car that you buy if you have cash to burn. If you have family commitments to frequent, you’ll need something with four doors parked alongside it in your garage. So, practical it is not, but the MINI has a very desirable combination of virtues that sees it appeal to both enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike.
The BMW magic in its driving dynamics ensures the allegiance of petrolheads, and its funky styling extends goodwill to the hairdressers, fashion designers, college girls and well, everyone else. It is not often that I bring a test car that attracts such universal appeal from both petrolheads and non-petrolheads.
The first BMW MINI rolled out in 2001, and was replaced by the current R56 generation in 2007. Both versions wear the familiar silhouette penned by Sir Alec Issigonis over 50 years ago, but of course suitably altered to meet modern requirements. A facelifted version of the R56 was rolled out last year, and here in Malaysia, our line-up consists of the Cooper, Cooper S, and John Cooper Works.
|Retains the classic MINI silhouette|
Our test car for this review is the Cooper S model priced at RM239,888 before insurance, which our Insurance Calculator estimates to be in the region of RM6,300. Fitted to our test car is the MINI Connected package which adds another RM14,988 to the price list. Essentially a watered-down BMW iDrive, the MINI Connected system is a centralized interface with the car’s onboard computer; it is iPhone-friendly and Bluetooth connectible.
The MINI Connected’s user interface, displayed in the central speedometer’s housing, will be instantly familiar to regular users of the iDrive, although its perky little control knob will take some getting used to. We were unable to fully test out its claimed functionality with the iPhone, but the unit did sync very well with our Nokia test phone, being super quick in importing contacts, and also providing crystal clear conversations. Speakers used are supplied by Harman/Kardon, but its sound quality wasn’t as crisp as we expected.
|MINI Connected display is housed inside the speedometer.|
Rest of the cabin is typically MINI, being dominated by circular motifs. At a glance, it is almost indistinguishable from the cabin of the Countryman which we reviewed earlier. Like the Countryman, the MINI’s cabin design seem to follow a form over function approach. The flick switches look cool and possess good tactile feel, but lose marks on ergonomics for not being straightforward in their operation.
Fortunately, however, when it comes to the driving part, the engineers never lost sight of the need to imbue the MINI with what can only be described as class-leading dynamics. Despite having very cramped dimensions to work with, BMW refused to opt for the torsion beam cop-out at the rear, choosing to engineer a proper multi-link setup instead. They did, however, ditch hydraulic power steering in favour of an electric-assisted setup.
The electric steering did nothing to dull the go-kart handling which the MINI is renowned for. Steering feedback is good, and grip levels are generous around corners with minimum body roll. The only flipside is that the suspension’s stiff settings make for a slightly harsher ride and that its composure can get easily upset by mid-corner bumps. Skittish is the word that comes to mind. The brakes, however, stop with reassuring firmness with excellent feel on the pedal.
|Steering is electrically assisted, but still has good feel and precision.|
In the engine room, we have the award-winning 1.6-litre Prince engine providing propulsion for our Cooper S test car. The Cooper and JCW versions get this engine in different setups, but in the Cooper S, it has a twin-scroll turbo and direct injection to enable the extraction of 184hp at 5,500rpm. This state of tune was only introduced last year, and it helped secure the 1.4-1.8 category title in the recent International Engine of the Year 2011 awards.
It is not a verdict which we can find any room to object, for this engine has a few praiseworthy virtues. It starts with a delicious spread of torque – 240Nm available from 1,600 to 5,000rpm is plenty enough, but an overboost facility allows 260Nm to be briefly summoned on full throttle. Second is its amazing economy. Quite simply, you won’t expect the price of such performance to be 9.3 litres/100km, which we clocked on the trip computer despite making a few dashes to the double ton.
The MINI’s near universal appeal has made it something of a fashion statement, albeit one backed by solid driving dynamics. Enthusiasts will no doubt enjoy the lively performance and handling of the Cooper S, and the hard core ones might even go all the way for the JCW version. Those looking for a fashion accessory, however, will be better off going for the basic Cooper model with its less powerful engine and more forgiving setup.