Mountain Wheels: The ferocious Mini Cooper S hardtop
2015 Mini Cooper S Hardtop four-door
MSRP: $25,100: As tested, $35,900
Powertrain: 189-HP twin turbo four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA MPG figures: 29 combined: 26 city, 33 highway
Still the darling of the weirder-than-thou crowd, the BMW-build Mini Cooper has, in recent years, been spun off into so many variations — seven, plus the John Cooper Works models — that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of what happened to that iconic little, British-born road wrangler.
But some time with the four-door, hardtop Mini Cooper S, a relatively straightforward iteration of the Mini platform, is a good chance to see how small, intense motoring is still very much the name of the game here. Emphasis on both small and intense.
The most recent round of updates to the Mini have further sussed out that gleeful, happy-go-lucky exterior and created an all-black, glassed-in greenhouse that’s a bit like what they do with the Range Rover — black window supports and all — topped with an improbably bright lid.
My tester, which started as a base model priced at about $25,000 but ended up as a rather BMW-ish almost $36,000 with loads and loads of options, did of course sport greyed-out British flags on the side mirrors and the body side signal repeaters, for the most mild of Austin Powers flashbacks. LED headlamps, a panoramic moonroof, a great harmon/kardon sound system, carbon fiber-styled interior highlights and a $1,500 automatic transmission swap-out largely contributed to that price increase.
And in this S model, the twin-turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder spits out a feisty 189 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque, which gets a major multiplier effect considering that the car weighs just over 2,900 pounds (but is not, thankfully, entirely made of recycled plastic bottles and carbon fiber, like last week’s odd BMW i3).
Add the optional six-speed sport transmission and you are definitely in the mood for thrashing all roads, at all times; the Cooper S is a screamer, and it sticks pretty hard most of the time, especially when upgraded to 18-inch wheels and sport tires.
Regular motoring is quite entertaining, as the car accelerates tremendously well and its size and agility make it great fun for working your way around a world of Tahoes. You must remain constantly vigilant as you are dwarfed by even Volkswagen Beetles; speed and stealth and resolve are indeed a part of the Mini driver’s rulebook.
The major real-world consideration remains the question of how big the car is on the inside, optical illusions and “Actual Size” bumper stickers aside. As I found, you may find yourself feeling a little cramped, actually, especially behind the driver’s wheel.
Yes, you can ratchet the seats down as low as they’ll go, using the funny pop-up toggle to adjust the seatbacks, and tilt the wheel to give yourself a little elbow room, but you’ll still find it a tight experience. BMW-style under-thigh seat extenders are now in place, as well.
The ergonomics just get plain weird when you try to deal with the new BMW-sourced iDrive touchpad and buttons, which control a very wonderful if not slightly strange 1950s science fiction-styled screen in the very middle of the dash (surrounded by a bewildering ring of lights that glow in strange colors to indicate, sometimes, speed, loudness, proximity to other vehicles, or what, I was not sure of).
That is, the controller is almost directly underneath the small folding center armrest, so you can’t really have both functionalities at the same time, unless you are weirdly jointed.
Suffice to say that the smaller rear doors will indeed make it easier for you to load adult-sized passengers into the pixie-like vehicle, and they’ll have a modicum of room; alternately, you can drop those rear seats and turn the Mini into a 40.7-cubic-foot hauling machine, which is pretty good considering the 101-inch wheelbase.
The recent update to the Mini’s interior has added some practicality to the affairs, but still with a great sense of irony. The bank of toggle switches now contains a red lever to start and stop the engine, like some sort of mad scientist’s kill switch, and the AC controls are updated and easier to handle.
The pod-like instruments behind the wheel also have added video functionality — the first scrolling playlist at eye level I’ve ever seen for my USB-loaded MP3 music files, and there’s also a handy head-up display that pops up like a sheet of glass from behind the instruments.
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