Head back in time more than 50 years and some incredible feats of engineering and driving ability placed Britain head and shoulders above some of the world’s most illustrious names on the global motorsport stage. The legendary Mini Cooper S was the vehicle and drivers such as Paddy Hopkirk, Pat Moss and Timo Mäkinen were the ones to take it to greatness at numerous events that included the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally.
This tiny Briton beat off giants of the automotive world including Ford, Porsche and Lancia.
Sir Alec Issigonis’s original design was a master stroke and the spirit of that original Mini has made its way into each successive generation of the new, BMW-era models. (Which hit the streets as long ago as 2000 already!)
With the latest iteration of the classic three-door hatch in Cooper S guise, the bigwigs at Mini certainly seem to have been more aware of this heritage than ever. This facelifted third-generation Mini hatch echoes its British heritage and global dominance in spades. The Union Jack is a prominent example of this – innovatively incorporated into the taillight design and in the passenger-side dashboard inserts, backlit for a bit of extra spark.
With the optional John Cooper Works (JCW) package, our Cooper S sported even larger air scoops to add to the menace up front, with a bulky rear airdam framing the dual, centre-exit exhaust tips. Undoubtedly the sexiest aspect is the hatch spoiler, along with which two-tone 18-inch JCW lightweight alloys added to the racy theme. Finally, our car wore a liberal application of (optional) piano black accents and dual racing stripes over the bonnet, which all left me with the itch to add some racing numbers to the doors…
Nevertheless, this is still – in my humble opinion – the best body shape for any Mini.
Except, to be honest, when it comes to practicality. You’ll be lucky to fit a week’s worth of shopping in the boot – though the rear seats are useless to a normal-sized adult, so I’m sure they’ll be happy to take the overflow. Not that practicality is the immediate motivator for buying a three-door Cooper S.
No, to discover that you have to jump back into the front seat, admire the high quality of fit and finish; the flashy Union Jack dashboard; the new gear selector and mildly re-organised button layout, and thumb the starter. A bark from the big-bore pipes settles into a not obnoxious burble as the turbocharged two-litre warms up its 141 kW and 280 Nm.
Heading out, two things immediately become apparent. First is the absolutely perfect driving position; low and with the chunky JCW steering wheel (yes, optional) set squarely at your chest. The second is the immediacy of the controls. Flick left or right and the car darts around with a tight, controlled vigour and intense levels of cornering grip. Mash the accelerator and turbo-lag is virtually non-existent – with max torque on tap from just 1 350 r/min, you’d expect nothing less. Tap the brakes and the S pulls up with urgency and little interference from the electronic braking aids.
There’s no denying that the Cooper S echoes its historic forebears as a weapon through the bends. (It even still has a good old-fashioned handbrake lever!) However, although it’s claimed to accelerate to 100 km/h in just 6,7 seconds, it honestly doesn’t feel that quick as you move through the seven ratios of the dual-clutch box … strong, yes, but not entirely quick. Sounds good, though – the turbo whistles and chirps, complementing the bassy exhaust note and odd pop on the overrun.
When you don’t feel like playing Hopkirk, Moss or Mäkinen, the Cooper S can still do sedate. Comfort is … good enough, and there is a nice array of equipment to keep you happy (such as auto wipers and lights and electronic climate control) and safe (such as six airbags and radar-guided cruise control).
While it might not be the most hardcore Mini in the modern-day range (that wold be the JCW), for the most part you will (if you’re anything like me) probably find yourself behind the wheel of the Cooper S, imagining it’s the early ‘60s and your competitors are eating your dust… But, do its modern competitors eat its dust?
At a base price of R452 600 there is no denying that the Cooper S is pricey. With modern competition including the lauded new (five-door) VW Polo GTI at R381 500, the Cooper S should probably rather be stacked up against more “enthusiast” players such as the limited-edition Renault Clio RS18 F1 (R459 900) or Abarth 500 595 Turismo (R424 200). Against the Polo, it’s a hard sell, against the other two, its flashbacks of ‘60s Monte Carlo…
CyberStoep rating: 7,5/10