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Not the automatic choice

Before we get on to how good the new Mini Cooper S automatic is, why has it taken so long to arrive? After all, the rest of the line-up has had a self-shifting option from the start.

The official reason is that the time’s been spent developing the new ’box so it didn’t compromise the performance of the sportiest Mini. A more cynical view might be that the CVT system fitted to other two-pedalled Minis is dire, emasculating them with appalling loss of poke and grim fuel economy.

Thankfully the Cooper S has been spared. This £1050 option is a conventional six-speed torque converter ’box, lifted from other parts of the BMW empire and so complete with the opportunity for DIY shifting via the selector stick or wheel-mounted paddles.

So, back to the question, is it any good? Not bad, actually, and light years away from the CVT. The factory figures say that you’ll lose half a second in the 0-62mph time over the manual (7.7sec plays 7.2) but in reality extending your right foot in the auto treats you to the same fireworks. The same brief chirrup of the front tyres, the same punchy mid-range urge and the same whining but curiously engaging soundtrack from the supercharger. And all the while the ’box behaves impeccably, unobtrusively carving its way through the cogs.

Ratios are well chosen, too. There’s little of the kerfuffle you often get when a four-cylinder engine is mated to an auto, so it’s rarely hunting for gears or kicking down unnecessarily. But when it does, it does it decisively and swiftly. Sixth is languidly high, though, which improves refinement and economy but means that you’ll often be dropping a gear or two to make headway.

Like most autos with manual change facilities you’re not allowed to totally control your own destiny. Being able to change down yourself is a useful ally for engine braking, but when you get back on the throttle it reverts to ‘D’ again, so you can’t hold it in gear.

The biggest reservation is that it takes away a lot of the Mini’s magic. In standard form it’s one of the most engaging cars we can think of. Add an auto and, curiously, it becomes more soulless, more of a conveyance, and that shouldn’t be what a Cooper S is about.

If you must have an automatic, go ahead, you won’t be disappointed. But we’d stick with the stick.

Chas Hallett

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