Back when the last-generation Cooper S was freshly unwrapped, MOTOR was privileged enough to score one on long-term loan – navy blue, white roof, 17s, but otherwise standard issue.
This review was originally published in MOTOR’s May 2007 issue
Then, several months into the S’s tenure, Mini upgraded it with a John Cooper Works kit for 29kW more power and a crackly, popping exhaust. At ten grand, the JCW kit was ludicrously overpriced, but it transformed the flawed Cooper S into a far more covetable device. And yet, somehow, the chunky little Mini continued to be overlooked in the scramble for keys on a Friday afternoon.
Some of that prejudice could’ve been attributed to its compromised two-plus-two seating, but at the same time, it was hard to come to terms with the Mini’s hard seats, its even harder ride, its limited storage, and its toy-land interior plastics. Reading that, you’d think it was a bloody Lotus.
As a consequence, cars like Renault’s hugely talented Clio 182 put the Cooper S into painfully sharp focus. As an homage to retro design, it was brilliant, but as a well-rounded performance car, it was either too patchy (regular S) or too pricey (the JCW iteration).
Enter generation two – the ‘New’ New Mini. Ultimately, it really isn’t that different. It sits on the same 2467mm wheelbase, has virtually the same track widths, and even with its longer, chunkier nose (to meet pedestrian-impact regs), it’s barely 59mm longer. It has the same turning circle (10.7m) and, despite an all-new engine design, even the same bore and stroke.
Know where to look and the Mk2 Mini isn’t that hard to spot, but until you’ve trained yourself to look for the pointers, it remains a dead ringer for last year’s model. Progress? Apparently.
But the second-generation Mini really is a sizeable improvement. The irritating little things about the old car have been smoothed over, making it much more liveable than before. The Poms see that as a dilution of the Mini’s character, and to a mild degree, they’re right.
Its steering no longer whirrs, the S’s engine no longer whines, and the exhaust doesn’t pop anywhere near as often as it used to on overrun. But the fact we’d be happy to drive even a base Cooper auto on 175/65R15s says volumes about the latest Mini’s rise in the rankings.
Crucial in expanding the Cooper S’s repertoire is its all-new engine – a joint venture between BMW (Mini’s parent) and Peugeot-Citroen. Unlike the French versions, the Mini’s direct-injection 1.6-litre four is built in Hams Hall, England, and unlike before, the S engine is now turbocharged, not supercharged.
Power and torque peaks are little changed – 128kW versus 125, 240Nm versus 220 – and the Cooper S’s power-to-weight is up only slightly (113kW/tonne versus 110), but it’s the engine’s dead-flat torque curve (from 1600-5000rpm) that gives the game away. At virtually any moment in any gear, the turbocharged 1.6 is a stormer.
While it doesn’t quite have the character of the old JCW unit, and doesn’t quite rev as hard, either (cut-out is now six-six instead of seven grand), the S’s new engine is bursting with muscle. It’s very linear, disguising its forced-induction nature by limiting the boost from its twin-scroll turbo to 0.8bar (11.6psi) at 1400rpm, then ramping up quickly to its (unspecified) maximum.
There’s even an overboost function that increases torque briefly to a diesel-rivalling 260Nm from 1700-4500rpm, as well as a ‘Sport’ button just ahead of the gearshift that alters the S’s throttle response from alert to razor sharp. Not surprisingly, the overall combination is a winner.
So chubby is the new Cooper S’s engine that first-third-fifth gearshifting becomes the norm rather than the exception. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Cooper S’s precise, fast-changing six-speed manual – it’s just that there’s so much torque to play with.
That said, putting the boot into the turbo 1.6 is a real pleasure. It’s impressively smooth, has some lush induction rort when hammering hard and still delivers a smidge of exhaust pop-and-crackle on overrun if the Mini is warm and in the right mood.
Needless to say, the new S is several tenths faster than the old one – clocking an easy 7.1sec to 100km/h (but with potential for a sub seven) and storming down the 400m in 15.1. That’s Golf GTI territory, as it should be for the price, and the numbers certainly bode well for Mini’s inevitable JCW version.
But not only is the direct-injection turbo great as a performance engine, it also cuts the mustard for Bob Brown types. It uses 20 percent less fuel than the blown 1.6 (and is even more economical than the old atmo Cooper) while pumping out 21-percent less carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. Which means you can drive the Cooper S harder, for longer, for less.
After tasting its polished dynamics, you’ll certainly want to. While the Mini’s ragged edges have been buffed clean, it remains a darty, well-balanced, super-keen handler.
Its new electric steering – two-mode as standard in the S – now has only 2.3 turns lock-to-lock (was 2.5) and manages to maintain all the feel and linearity of a good hydraulic set-up. The electric steering’s default mode is great for parking, but in the Sport setting, it’s so consistent and intelligently weighted, you’d be mad not to use it all the time. And you’d swear it was hydraulic.
Blending cohesively with the new steering is the Mini’s re-engineered suspension. The Cooper S runs the same set-up as the regular Cooper (a sports version is optional), meaning firmness has been wound back somewhat from the old car, and it’s all the better for it.
While the suspension is still firm and springboards from some bumps, it is absorbent enough to keep the Mini on line through bumpy corners and makes the car much more fluent to drive, while maintaining all the eagerness and balance the Mini was always known for.
Classic MOTOR: 2013 JCW GP review
There’s a tad more body roll, but somehow it serves to make the Mini feel less skittish. Tail-end adjustment has been reduced, which is a bit of a shame – a little more rear-end action would make the new Cooper S truly great – but you’d have to be dead, comatose or completely numb not to appreciate the new Mini’s supreme chuckability.
Back in showroom land, the Mini’s appeal is greater than ever, too. Variations on the now much-classier retro theme are near endless – you can choose from three different seats (all much softer and comfier than before) with nine upholstery options, and six dash and door finishes, not to mention 10 exterior colours (with stripe/roof/mirror variations) and 12 different wheels, as well as a tough John Cooper Works body package. Our car was a basic Cooper S manual ($39,900) with no less than 16 options, one of them no-cost. Total? $52,555, and counting.
So, as before, there’s a price for all the Mini’s visual flair and individuality. But this time, it has the depth of talent to make its exalted entry ticket that much more tempting. Yes, its back seat is still occasional and its boot is a joke, but the Mini no longer prefers princesses over purists.
2007 MINI Cooper S
BODY: 3-door, 4-seat hatchback
ENGINE: 1598cc inline-4 DOHC 16v
BORE/STROKE: 77.0mm x 85.8mm
POWER: 128kW @ 5500rpm
TORQUE: 240Nm @ 1600-5000rpm
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual
0-400M: 15.1sec @ 155.0km/h
SUSPENSION: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)
TRACK: 1453mm (f); 1461mm (r)
BRAKES: 294mm ventilated discs (f); 259mm solid discs (r)
TYRES: Dunlop SP Sport 07 205/45R17 (f & r)
PRICE: $52,555 (as tested)
LIKES: Better in virtually every way – steering, engine, ride, interior
DISLIKES: Larger, but still far from roomy; handling not quite as adjustable
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
Cooper Junior - Base MINI now a bit of a goer, too
Frustrating car, the old Cooper – spoiled by cadaver-like throttle response and zero low-end grunt. On paper, the new Cooper doesn’t look much chop either, seeing its all-new Valvetronic 1.6 puts out barely 3kW and 10Nm more, but glory lies in the details.
Thanks to a greater use of aluminium, the new, larger Mini is down 10kg. And while the torque peak of its perky new engine is 160Nm at 4250rpm, there’s at least 150Nm available from 2500 to 5500rpm. The difference is dramatic. The new engine sounds throaty, is effortlessly punchy and even mates beautifully with the six-speed auto (replacing the woeful CVT), let alone the slick manual. Seriously, it’s good.