With each new version of the BMW-era Mini, the cutesy hatchback has swollen in size. It looks fuller and more bulbous than the 2001 original, and perhaps not as well-proportioned, but there’s no mistaking it for anything else.
The underlying dynamic character is broadly the same now as it was 17 years ago – bundles of agility, a darty front axle, mobile rear end - but this latest model actually feels quite different out on the road compared with that first version. There’s a soft, rubbery edge to all of the major controls, whereas earlier versions had crisp steering and slick gearshifts.
Soon enough, though, you get used to the stiction and springiness in the steering and the inconsistently weighted manual gearshift, and you get on with the important business of pedalling it along as quickly as you dare. Dynamically, nothing has really changed. You still feel the trademark Mini pivot the instant you turn in to a corner, sensing the outside rear corner scudding around slightly to keep the front end on a tight line. The steering is still quick and direct, and whatever work Mini’s engineers have done to disguise that extra weight over the front axle has been extremely effective.
For the first few miles, you feel perched high up on the seat. The way the car leans in bends gives the impression of it being quite tall, too, and of the track widths being very narrow. You find yourself wishing the car would squat down by an inch or two, whereas previous generations sat you so low to the road you worried you might scrape your own rear end on speed bumps.
Again, though, that impression does pass very quickly and when the bends come thick and fast you stop thinking about it entirely. Instead, you revel in the car’s agility and its eagerness to dart from one apex to the next. The familiar sense of the car yawing about its gearlever the moment you turn in to a corner is addictive. The Sport driving mode introduces too much dead weight to the steering, but otherwise the helm is accurate enough that you can place the car with real precision corner after corner.
Our test car was fitted with Pirelli P Zero tyres. They were grippy in the dry and reasonably stable in hard cornering, although there are other high-performance tyres at this level that would deflect even less and bring yet more precision. It should also be noted that three other tyre options have been homologated for the Cooper S, one being the Michelin Primacy - a mid-range tyre that has no place on a hot hatch like this one.
Relatively firm springing and a shortish wheelbase cause the Cooper S to rock front to rear and bounce around on a rough road, like a small boat being tossed around in a storm. It isn’t exactly uncomfortable, but the ride is certainly busy. All things considered, however, the Cooper S is a brilliantly entertaining thing to thrash along a winding road. A mechanical limited-slip differential would help it claw itself out of bends more quickly and add a new dimension to the driving experience but, sadly, there’s no factory option.
The engine, meanwhile, is brawny and muscular, but it’s no rev-happy screamer. In fact, having started pulling hard from 2500rpm, it’s done its best work by 5500rpm, so you don’t chase the redline like you would in many other hot hatches. Out on the road, you find yourself holding onto higher gears and leaning on the slug of turbocharged torque instead.
Aside from that initial sense of sitting a little too high off the ground, the Cooper S is a hoot to drive in the finest quick-Mini tradition. What’s most impressive about it, though, is that it combines its willing and effervescent character with a refined, grown-up demeanour when you just want to get to where you’re going.