I’ve never done this – never, ever. When a new car is introduced and there’s a choice between two different versions of said car, one faster than the other, I’ve never recommended the slower version. My reasoning is pretty much unassailable: Faster equals more fun.
However, I’ve just driven the all-new 2014 Mini Cooper (the “slow one”) and Cooper S (the “fast one”) around the sun-soaked island of Puerto Rico and I’m torn between the two. Here’s why: The Cooper is powered by a turbocharged, three-cylinder engine – yes, three cylinders – that’s so refined and so refreshing, it needs to be celebrated.
But let’s take a step back and look at how this latest Mini, the third-generation version since the iconic British brand became a standalone entity under the BMW Group umbrella in 2000, differs from its immediate predecessor.
First, the newest Mini Cooper is larger than ever. A quick glance reveals that the new car does, indeed, look bigger than before. The hood is certainly longer, a design decision that probably resulted from increasingly stringent pedestrian safety regulations.
The wheelbase has also grown, as have the front and rear track. The result is a car with more interior space and more cargo volume. All told, the newest Mini Cooper is some 25-per-cent longer and about 22-per-cent wider than the original Mini from 1959. Cue the outrage from the purists.
Here’s the thing, though: Research conducted by BMW found that many people who showed initial interest in a Mini walked away because the car was, well, too small. These findings first begat the Mini Paceman, a larger two-door coupe that was introduced last year; now, they have resulted in the slightly larger new Mini Cooper.
In other words, the market has spoken.
Out on the narrow, winding, sometimes uneven roads of Puerto Rico, both versions made a bid for top-dog status – but the Cooper won the day. This was, no doubt, mainly due to the fact that the car was fitted with the six-speed manual transmission, while the Cooper S featured the six-speed sport automatic with paddle shifters. (The automatic is marginally quicker in a straight line, but less involving.) But there was something else afoot, something that seems to have resulted from the Mini’s growth spurt.
You see, the new Mini used to be the sharpest handling, most fun-to-drive, most entertaining compact car in the world. This was true of the coupe, the convertible and the Clubman. But it wasn’t true of the Mini Countryman or the Mini Paceman, the brand’s two largest models, and I fear the same thing has now happened here with the larger Mini Cooper S.
Without a doubt, these things can still handle the corners; both versions were fitted with racy Pirelli P-Zero tires and there was never a question of either one losing grip or sliding off the road, no matter how hard they were pushed nor how broken the pavement happened to be. The revisions to the suspension system also seemed to have paid off; the Cooper S retained the firm ride of old, but with an added measure of control and composure when the roads became particularly rough.
Yet, the legendary “go-kart-like” handling, a staple of the Mini brand promise, seems to be vanishing into the distance. Perhaps the handling of the old, new Mini was too crisp, perhaps the steering was too direct – maybe the market spoke here, as well. (I’ve heard the previous generation referred to as being “jittery” by some.)
Given this apparent development, my vote swings towards the Cooper because it’s slightly lighter than the Cooper S and, as a result, it felt more nimble and more engaging. In addition, the car’s engine is so incredibly smooth and capable, there’s no sense whatsoever that it’s down at least one cylinder to everything else on the road today.
Back on the positive side of the ledger, the passenger cabin of both versions is more impressive than ever. The classic Mini quirkiness has been maintained in the toggle switches, large analog speedometer and tachometer, even larger centre console screen and the decidedly round theme to the dials and readouts. There’s a higher quality feel to the materials used, which serves to make the Cooper S even more suited to the premium compact segment.
For me, the big question about the 2014 Mini Cooper S is whether I would recommend them over, say, the 2013 versions of the same car – I’m not convinced that I would.
2014 Mini Cooper/Mini Cooper S
Type: Compact sport coupe
Base price: $20,990/$25,490
Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged inline 3-cylinder / 2.0-litre turbocharged inline 4-cylinder
Horsepower/ torque: Cooper, 134 hp/162 lb-ft; Cooper S, 189 hp/207 lb-ft
Transmission: six-speed manual/six-speed sport automatic
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Still to be announced
Alternatives: Audi A3, Mercedes-Benz CLA 250, BMW 228i
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