Twenty grand for a hot hatch. Easy decision, no? Buy a Ford Fiesta ST and pocket some change. But there’s something the Blue Oval can’t deliver, and that’s premium appeal.
‘Premium’ may be a winceworthy word around these parts, but few are totally immune to its lure. So in a bid to have our cake and eat it, we’ve chosen two rapid hatches that add a layer of gloss to their go.
And it’s a story of little(ish) and large. Today’s Mini is far from petite, but our Volcanic Orange Cooper S is still a full 418mm shorter than the used Volkswagen Golf GTI against which it is pitched here. With three doors, the 189bhp Mini retails at £18,840.
Our specced-up example costs £24,415, but choose the popular Chili Pack (highlights: 17in alloy wheels, dual-zone air-con, half-leather seats, switchable driving modes) instead of our car’s optional extras and the price comes to £20,740.
For £20,799, you can buy an early (read 2013) Mk7 Golf GTI with 15,000 miles on the clock – comfortably within its three-year, 60,000-mile warranty. With two more doors than the Mini. And a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, adaptive damping, parking sensors and 18in wheels. Not to mention the Performance Pack that adds 10bhp for a 227bhp total, an electronically activated limited-slip differential and uprated brakes.
Our Mini does have adaptive damping (a £375 option), but still, little David had better bring his slingshot for this battle.
Inside, they take wildly different approaches to ‘premium’, the Golf’s trademark understatement clashing with the Mini’s barmy architecture. Personal preference wins here, but for what it’s worth, the Mini’s set-up tries far too hard by my reckoning.
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.
Yes, the GTI is rapid across country, but the engine and gearbox – and the fancy diff that seems to unprogressively chime into action during cornering – leaves me a little cold next to the more visceral, gung-ho, have at ’em Cooper S. And that’s just the spirit that we want – nay, need – from our hot hatches.
Your sensible hat says the boot is too small and shies away from the over-egged styling, but the new, larger Mini is a respectably practical car, and shouldn’t a hot hatch look a bit rowdy?
You can pick up a three-door manual GTI without the performance extras from about £18,000. That would be a closer call. But I’d still take the Mini.
Mini Cooper S 3dr
Price today £18,840; Price when new £18,840; Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc, turbo, petrol; Power 189bhp at 4700-6000rpm; Torque 206b ft at 1250-4750rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1235kg; 0-60mph 6.9sec; Top speed 146mph; Economy 49.6mph; CO2/tax band 133g/km / 21%
Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG 5dr (2013)
Price today £20,799; Price when new £28,895; Engine 4 cyls, 1984cc, turbo, petrol; Power 258lb ft at 1500-4600rpm; Torque 227bhp at 4700-6200rpm; Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch auto; Kerb weight 1405kg; 0-60mph 6.5sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 44.1mpg; CO2/tax band 149g/km / 24%
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