Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2013 Mini Cooper S Hatch

I am a pretty excitable bloke. I’m also a huge fan of pocket rockets. I have driven an old Mini in the past, including one kitted out with a historic racing setup, and I’ve long been a fan of the brand. I hadn’t yet got myself into a turbocharged Mini Cooper S though – until now.

Regular readers will recall me waxing lyrical and pretty much losing my mind over the Volkswagen Super Beetle some time back. It was that which prompted Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony to make sure I had my run in the Mini. “You’ll love it even more,” he said.

Oh. My. Goodness. He was right.

Within minutes of leaving BMW’s headquarters in my British Racing Green Cooper S tester I was grinning from ear to ear. By the time I pulled up to the offices, I was so excited I did a happy dance.

Why? Well maybe it was the sudden surge of effortless acceleration as I drove out onto a highway ramp. Maybe it was the way my expectation of a loud, buzzy rev-box was totally rejected by the Cooper S. Where I expected harshness and fuss, there was pure, smooth, grunt. At 110 km/h the Mini was only turning 2,200 rpm – not bad for a little fella.

Maybe it was the fact that the steering wheel is not so much connected to my hands, as it is directly to the central nerve cluster in my brain that fires out the signals for “left” and “right”.

Or maybe it was the brakes. Oh, the brakes. Stab. Stop. Chuckle. Repeat.

It could have been the JCW aerodynamic body kit that made this thing look like a cage fighter, but it definitely wasn’t the instrument display and switch cluster. Those are like the horrible shirt your hilarious friend always wears out; they’re the quirky excess that is mildly irritating if you let it get to you.

I didn’t. Instead I found the button marked “Sport” and pressed it. Then I selected a lower gear. “Bark, burble” went the Mini. “Squeeee,” went its nerdy driver. Yes. I really did say “squeee”, then I rang my wife (using the voice commands and Bluetooth connection) and went “squeee” down the line, and then I changed down again, so she could hear the exhaust sound. She was too busy laughing at me to hear it. Probably because I was geeking out like a teenage girl at a Hanson concert.

But back to the switches in the centre console. At first the tubing that separates all the toggles is charming, and adds to the race-car atmosphere of the cabin, but not long after that it becomes too messy. There just isn’t enough room in here to muck about with garnishes like that. Without those, the toggle switches are actually really cool. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but maybe BMW/Mini could take some cues from Scion in that regard. Lose the over-done separators but leave the toggles. I was also left confused by the placement of the power window button, but that’s just me.

Mini’s iconic centre-mounted speedo is not going to be around much longer, but in this model it also housed a large touchscreen for the navigation and BMW’s human-machine interface system. There is a lot of information here, and it’s fun to explore, but the iconography is not intuitive, largely unhelpful and downright ugly. I am hopeful that the the refresh address this system in the upcoming 2014 Mini, but I won’t hold my breath.

Subjective complaints aside, the system is fast, has a lot of information, is as easy as any smartphone to use and has neat technology like text-to-voice, which I find important.

Of course, all of that is only as important as the time you spend using those systems, and in a car like this one, that means they aren’t important at all. It’s not too many cars that entertain me so completely with just the pedals, the steering wheel and the gear lever but this car does. I’m a tech-head and sometimes get too involved with the HMI of a car, mostly because these days the HMI offers more of a connection to the driver than the aforementioned steering and velocity controls.

But with the Mini, I never found myself getting invested in the technology, I was too busy with the wheel. I have never been as tempted to use work zone witch’s hats [That’s a safety cone in Australian. –Ed.] as an impromptu slalom course. For the record, the Mini handled the course brilliantly. Is the ride comfortable over the mangled roads of Constronto? No. It doesn’t even try to be. It’s more like the car is saying, “Oi! This is bumpy and unfun, where are the corners at already?”

The Mini gets up and goes too. With 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque it’s not got sky-high figures, but it doesn’t have a big waistline either. Because it weighs in at only 1,210 kg (1,230 for the Auto), you simply don’t need much more than that. You’ll be doing 150 km/h before you can say “Oh bother, what’s the speed limit here?”.

With such stiffness and razor-sharp steering you might think the Mini would be skittish, but it’s not. The body stays flat even over mid-corner bumps and the whole car tracks true. There is push, but not a lot of it and the back end is well behaved. It’s a nimble, fun car without any pretense, no “dialed in virility”, no “setup-induced oversteer”, just good, solid cornering with a lightning-quick turn in.

The seats are well-bolstered too, so that aggressive turn-in doesn’t throw you into your passenger’s lap, nor them into yours. Which is a shame really because my passenger is hot as hell. This tester also included an optional centre armrest, which was a bit dinky and liked to move around into silly positions almost all by itself. I’d happily leave that out of the equation. Unfortunately it’s part of the $2,100 premium package, which I would have to buy because that’s how you get a sunroof, and my daughter loves them.

I don’t want to shock anyone with this next revelation, so I’d ask you to sit down and please take a deep breath before reading on; ready? The cabin of the Mini is very small. Very, very small. I know, shocking, right? They should call this car a mi… oh wait.

I had booked this Mini the week of our big move into a new apartment, and as luck would have it, our movers were unable to take one of our bits of furniture because the elevator was too small, and I didn’t have time to dismantle it before they were due to head out. That meant dismantling the 180 cm x 180 cm bookcase (Ikea Expedit, five squares by five squares) and transporting it myself later. I never thought I’d get it into the Mini, but I did. Front seat folded back, rear seat folded forward, in went the eight 180-cm long planks and 1,876 smaller square shelves. They fit, in one trip! Hallelujah!

There are other neat solutions for cargo in the Mini too. Cargo nets kept my tool boxes and backpack safe, and the cargo nets affixed to the side of the centre console are perfect for storing wine – unopened of course.

To again steal a phrase from our contributor Tom Sedens, Wife Acceptance Factor was ballistic. She’d buy one in a heartbeat, small size and all. This car is so charming, so much fun, so fast and so easy to park in our condo complex car park it ticks all of her boxes. It even gets good fuel economy. I thrashed on the throttle, making the exhaust make that awesome little burble at every change, smashing the loud pedal from every light just to chuckle at the bigger cars behind me, and still I managed an average of 8.5 L/100 km. Pretty good given the EPA rates it at 8.1 L/100 km in combined city/highway driving (and 9.1 city/6.7 highway).

That Wife Acceptance Factor was nowhere near as high for the Super Beetle. That car needed a certain type of personality, someone who was happy to embrace being frivolous and silly for the sizeable-but-not-necessarily-externally-evident thrills. This car doesn’t. This car is just balls-out fun, which appeals to all sorts of drivers, regardless of their masculine/feminine/tough/gentle hang ups and personalities. It’s a car with broad appeal, and insane amounts of raucous entertainment.

The Mini Cooper S hatch is one of those cars you’d expect to see in any serious car collector’s garage – and it would probably be their favourite.

Honda Civic Si
Hyundai Veloster Turbo
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Subaru WRX STI
VW Super Beetle

Model Tested 2013 Mini Cooper S Hatch
Base Price $28,950
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,655
Price as Tested $39,060
Optional Equipment
JCW Package - $2,900 (17-inch wheels, leather steering wheel, JCW Aerokit, Bi-Xenon headlights, Dynamic Traction Control, JCW interior and exterior package), Premium Package - $2,100 (Sunroof, heated front seats, front fog lights, rain sensor with auto headlamps, front centre armrest, Wired Package – $1,850 (Voice Recognition, integrated visual display, Bluetooth and USB audio, smartphone integration, MINI Connected, MINI navigation system), SIRIUS XM tuner - $550, Metallic Paint - $490, Comfort Access  (keyless entry) - $390, Black Headlights - $75.