The Wurlitzer-style coloured lighting arc around the 8.8in multimedia screen, relaying the likes of driving mode, revs or parking distance, is a case in point. But the gap in quality isn’t huge.
Both feel solid, with just a few more sections of hard plastic to be found in the Cooper S. The Mini has the firmer seats and more under-thigh support, but both are comfortable, and the VW’s tartan upholstery and slightly lower seating position work in its favour.
With four 6ft 2in occupants, both cars accommodate rear passengers without interference (although the Golf offers a couple of inches more legroom), but only the VW will seat a fifth. If the wriggle needed to access the Mini’s rear seats poses a problem, £600 buys two more doors, but there’s no avoiding the fact that its boot is just over half the capacity of the VW’s, whether the 60/40-splitting seats are folded or not.
The Cooper S’s exterior would need to wear wing-mounted water pistols to match its interior lunacy, but it still looks fairly outrageous next to the consistently restrained Golf.
Effort has clearly been made to harden the traditionally cute Mini’s look, resulting in some heavy-handed touches such as the pair of gobby low-level brake ducts. Still, on looks alone, you’d assume it was the quicker car.
That’s not the case: the Golf reaches 60mph 0.4sec sooner, in 6.5sec. But the gap is less than you might expect, given the (admittedly 170kg heavier) VW’s 20% power advantage. The Golf’s 2.0-litre turbo four needs to be worked but, past 3000rpm, momentum builds strongly all the way to the 6750rpm limiter. There’s a fair amount of lag, though, and you couldn’t call the noise it makes anything more than slightly sporty.
Shirking pocket rocket conventions of low capacity and high revs, the Mini has the same engine size and configuration as the VW, but it employs them altogether differently. It pulls well from a mere 1750rpm and yields a tasty sweet spot at 4000-5000rpm before tailing off at higher revs. There’s less lag and a louder, racier sound. Both engines are quiet at a cruise – a state into which each car settles nicely.
The gearboxes on offer are, of course, chalk and cheese. VW’s six-speed DSG is, as always, blindingly slick, whether moping around town, chasing auto shifts up the rev range or overriding with the paddle shifts.
In the drivetrain’s Sport mode, the otherwise clinical operation of the gearbox gains a little fun, with blarting upshifts and blipped downshifts. The latter also feature in the Mini’s rev-matching six-speed manual gearbox, whose shifts feel slightly synthetic but can be executed quickly.
Both cars skip a bit over low-speed lateral ridges (even with dampers in Comfort mode) but it’s the Golf that gains more pliancy with pace. The Mini’s ride becomes a bit reactive as speeds climb, but not unsettlingly so and far less than its bouncing predecessor.
This means that you can comfortably goad the engine along B-roads, where the steering – overly light in Normal mode but artificially heavy in Sport – tightens at the top of second and third to reassure you that you’re at the helm of a little front-drive nutter. Its turn-in is marginally the sharper of the pair, and although it leans a bit through corners, it feels utterly stable in doing so, the front wheels gripping gamely.
On the same roads, the Golf’s steering is nicely weighted in Sport mode (which, unlike in the Mini, is fully separable from drivetrain and chassis settings), but you feel quite isolated from the speeds you’re generating.