Richard Aucock discovers the sophisticated side of the Cooper S on a test drive around Mallorca
MINI, that most celebrated of British icons, played a blinder when it launched the /new model earlier this year. It held the event on Puerto Rico, a tiny Caribbean island hardly famed for its amazing driving routes. It then invited just a handful of carefully selected journalists to write about it. Even some of the writers chosen by Mini to go along thought it bonkers. What was Mini trying to hide?
It wasn't the first challenge this third generation Mini (that's the BMW Mini, as opposed to the original Mini) has faced. Images were leaked early, revealing styling that seemed a combination of same-as-before but with a long nose added on the front. Internet forums exploded and much of it was not, er, complimentary.
Then there was a toe-curling official reveal at Mini Plant Oxford, complete with Dominic Sandbrook (he of Britbashing Das Auto TV documentary fame), union flags and bulldogs called Spike (yes, really). Audience members visibly cringed.
But for the Cooper S launch, Mini UK finally got it right: off to Mallorca, then - an undiscovered mecca of stupendous driving roads - to find out.
Mini could have quelled debate about the styling months ago by simply showing the car outdoors. You may not think it from the image above, but you will spot this as the new car out on the road. It's bigger, yes, and the prominent nose is apparent from some angles, but tireless attention to detail means it still looks fresh. Like a new Porsche 911, it slowly grows on you and makes the old car look dated.
The interior is a much bigger leap. The dashboard is higher quality, easier to use and now has a huge central circle pack that, if you pay for it, houses the BMW-grade infotainment system. It means you can even go online in a Mini if you want. Surrounding this is what can only be described as a glowing ring of colour, that alters according to driving mode, engine revs or other mood-enhancing functions. Bizarrely cool.
In the back - for the first time ever - adults can actually sit in comfort. The amount of space is more than passable for city jaunts and a much bigger boot may help Mini owners shop at superstores rather than off-licences.
Options and configurability run into the millions, and MINI actually lets you match any interior trim with any exterior colour - and one of three contrast roofs - for free. Roof graphics and other features are a few hundred pounds more, but you may get pulled over by the taste police if you indulge.
The Mini Cooper S virtually sells itself before it even leaves the showroom. But BMW didn't stop there. It's given the Mini a set of oily bits that will be shared with future, larger BMWs. This has made the little hatch immeasurably more sophisticated, with a vastly improved ride and much better refinement.
Crucially though, it's almost as much fun to drive as the old one, despite its newfound maturity. I tested the brilliant Cooper S, complete with a 192hp 2 litre turbo out of a BMW 3 Series, and the combination is as appealing as it sounds. It takes just 6.8 seconds to speed from 0-62mph and it has the on-road muscle to back it up. Whoever thought of putting a big 2 litre engine in a tiny Mini (it's still only 3.8 metres long) is a genius.
It doesn't even guzzle gas. Nearly 50mpg is possible in the manual model and the city-friendly auto actually goes one better: over 54mpg and just 122g/km CO2.
Not that I bothered about fuel economy on the glorious Mallorca test roads. I simply drove the MINI, hard, and discovered it's still the same bundle of fun it always was, only with newfound practicality, sophistication and comfort. Makes you wonder why they were so cagey, really.
Richard Aucock works for motoringresearch.com
THE FACTS: MINI COOPER S
0-62MPH: 6.8 secs
TOP SPEED: 146mph
CO2 G/KM: 133g/km
MPG COMBINED: 49.6mpg
DESIGN Four Stars
PERFORMANCE Five Stars
PRACTICALITY Three Stars
VALUE FOR MONEY Three Stars