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Click for pictures“MINI Cooper S:
  You don’t have to
  drive it like you’re in
  The Italian Job to
  enjoy yourself —
  but what’s exciting
  is that you think
  you could!”


YOU'VE NEVER had it so good. An old cliché it might be. But if you're talking about the MINI Cooper S it is just so true. That's the irritating thing about clichés and why, like the Rolling Stones, the MINI Cooper S and clichés will not fade away either.

When BMW launched the new MINI One and the Cooper in 2001 it seemed like a very good thing indeed. Then, when the Cooper S rolled off the Oxford production line in June 2002, we knew we'd got it even better!

Okay, so everyone knows what a MINI is. And what it looks like, so we don't need to waste time extolling its virtues. It's the same... well, the same, only better. But the part we're keen to get to is how she goes. The sassy-looking Cooper S differs from its less potent siblings with
a functional air-intake scoop on the leading edge of the bonnet to feed its supercharger, body-coloured horizontal slats on the radiator grille,
a honeycomb pattern grid covering the lower air intake cut into the bumper, chromed side grilles with clear indicators on the front wings,
a chromed fuel cap and — at the back — chrome-plated twin exhaust pipes and a body-coloured boot handle. And the classy, clean-lined, road-hugging wheel-at-each-corner styling still attracts lots of attention.

Far more important is the reason why the S appeals not just to MINI aficionados who currently own a One or a Cooper and want to trade up, but equally why it seduces many who would vociferously claim that the last thing they are is a dyed-in-the-wool MINI fan.

At the core of the Cooper S's appeal is a quality lacking in a number of so-called 'performance' cars. It's called adhesion. Not the kind that holds together some of today's cutting-edge aluminium-bodied cars, but the rubberised variety that's the only thing keeping most drivers safely on the road. Tyre technology has come a long way over the last twenty years, to a point that it, you might argue, has eclipsed suspen-sion technology. As you read this there are a number of performance-oriented cars out there whose chassis aren't quite as good as you'd expect and whose grip/handling limit is determined not by the chassis's ability but by how much the tyres will grip.

The average driver couldn't tell you if their tyres or their chassis define the limits of their car's dynamic performance. Nothing to be ashamed
of there. You don't need an engineering degree to be a world-class rally driver or even just to enjoy driving. However, the 'secret' of the Cooper S's amazing chuckability and fun handling is down to the fact that BMW's engineers designed the Cooper S's chassis to deliver its wonderful handling — not to rely on just the stickiness of its tyres to keep it out of trouble. This is exactly how it should be.

Okay, let's back it up a little here. Lift the bonnet and you'll discover another key ingredient of the Cooper S's undeniable charisma. In addition to the 1.6-litre, transversely-mounted, 16-valve 4-pot engine that — without the 'blower' — powers the standard Cooper, is a state-of-the-art supercharger and intercooler. Driven by the engine via a toothed belt, the compressor delivers torque in a progressively smooth-er manner than conventional exhaust-driven turbochargers. Despite this, supercharged engines are few and far between. Probably the best known supercharged cars today are Jaguar's S-Type R and XJR. But they cost £48,000 and £63,000 respectively. Which — at a cost of £15,185 — puts the comparatively 'bargain priced' Cooper S in very good company indeed.

A major benefit of the S's supercharger is an abundant spread of torque (163lb ft) which, accompanied by the enjoyable and distinctive tuned whine of the blower, you can feel kick in strongly as the rev-counter needle flicks past the 2,000rpm mark. On the road this endows the S with terrific flexibility and meaty acceleration.

Paper figures of 170bhp at 6,000rpm, 138mph and 0-62mph in 7.2 seconds only tell half of the story. Thanks to a well-chosen stack of ratios in the 6-speed Getrag gearbox, fast progress is smooth as the short-throw lever snicks up and down the 'box — a tactile treat for keen drivers who delight in keeping the power flowing. The Cooper S
is an engaging car to drive. Everything it does, it does decisively and with gusto, and on the move it's clear that it's geared to exploit to
the full the punchy mid-range torque.

While you quickly come to value the urgent get-up-and-go that's always on hand — join a motorway on full power and the other traffic seems to be floundering in treacle behind you — what's even more satisfying is the tactile sense of the Cooper S's wonderfully-balanced chassis and road-holding abilities that put many other 'performance' cars to shame. Even heavy-handed drivers will struggle to force intervention from the S's stability and traction control systems. And not because they're slow to respond. You can, literally, bet your life
on them cutting in the instant it becomes really necessary even though there's so much benign ability already built-in that you rarely have need of them.

It's a very democratic machine, the S, allowing drivers of even modest skill to exploit its sweet, front-drive capabilities without fear of pay-back. There's seemingly inexhaustible grip, both engineered-in and
from the 205/45 Dunlop SP Sport tyres riding on 17-inch, split-rim, ten-spoke alloys. On the move all the controls come together with a satisfying precision and, as befits a car wearing the Cooper name,
the S's ability to zoom round winding roads with minimum drama and impressive neutrality is amazing. And very more-ish.

The immediate and slack-free electro-hydraulic power steering is an important ingredient, serving up crisp turn-in and decent feel allied to
a tight turning circle with a sporting 2.5 turns lock-to-lock. Another cliché — cornering on rails — comes to mind as the S flicks through double bends at speeds that would undeniably put others into the hedge. Town driving is a hoot, courtesy of the S's kart-like handling — sorry, another cliché — which makes exploiting every gap a grin-provoking odyssey.

Given its performance-biased 'Sports-Plus' suspension, the ride quality — even with the optional 17-inch alloys — is surprisingly good and sits well with the smart interior. Those travelling in a Cooper S needn't worry about downgrading their comfort as they are well-insulated from the outside world. At town speeds the firm ride remains well-mannered, even over the poorly maintained roads that are becoming the norm in the UK. Cruising is easy. Seventy miles per hour in top requires an unstressed 2,500rpm and wind noise is hushed even at high speeds, leaving you free to appreciate the S's reassuring high-speed 'big car' stability.

Climb aboard and it's immediately clear that the Cooper S is built up to BMW's usual high standards — and most definitely not down to a price. The iconic dash also makes a strong statement. Two-tone, figure-hugging sports-style cloth and leather seats are standard, along with
a multi-function leather-trimmed steering wheel incorporating cruise and audio buttons. The seats and steering column all adjust for height. A circular rev-counter and speedometer are mounted side-by-side on the column itself — a neat and simple solution that ensures that they're never obscured whatever height the steering wheel is set at.

The instruments feature easy-to-read large dark grey graphics on silver-grey which look great in the daytime but look absolutely brilliant at night thanks to a luxuriant orange glow and orange needles.

The widespread use of silver-coloured plastic is offset by a clever mix of different trim colours, textures and styles that keeps the cabin visually interesting. The gear knob is a large chrome-and-leather ball that makes charging up and down the precise gate an additional pleasure — and which is why you not only always know you're in a Cooper S but, more importantly, you always know exactly what gear you're in, too.

Music-lovers, meanwhile, will definitely appreciate the iPod jack in the air-conditioned glovebox (it's also lit and lined) that allows them to turn-on and tune-in via the standard CD/Radio controls as well as the steering wheel-mounted audio buttons. Another stress-busting touch
is the foolproof on/off button for traffic news. In fact, all the buttons on the audio unit are easy to remember and use, as are those on the steering wheel.

Talking of which, the Cooper S's three-spoke item is yet another
tactile treat with a nice meaty leather rim that's comfortable for your thumbs at the 10-2 position. The short column stalks, capped with stylish spaceship-shaped ends, are fingertip-flicking good to use.
The trip computer is likewise easily operated via the top of the lighting stalk, with the information being legibly displayed in the rev-counter.
A large combination dial located dead-centre of the black grained fascia covers secondary instrumentation with fuel, water temp, oil temp and oil pressure gauges.

Below this is a smooth, satin black stack housing the slim CD/Radio, simple A/C controls, a bank of 6 'gated' toggle switches for the one-shot electric windows, central locking, etc., and an open, shaped storage tray perfect for designer shades. In addition to the standard sun-visors with illuminated vanity mirrors, the Cooper S driver also
gets an extra side visor. Lots of convenient cubbies, cup-holders and interior lights are supplemented by accommodating door pockets that can handle both large and small objects and a full-width oddments shelf.

There are four seats in the Cooper S but most passengers will want
to ride 'shotgun' alongside the lucky driver. There's plenty of space for six-footers up front and two grown-ups will be content to travel in the individually-shaped rear seats on shorter rather than longer journeys. That said, our friend regularly runs her two boys aged 18 and 21 up and down the M1 in the back of her MINI One with no complaints.

Getting in and out of the rear seats is far easier that you might expect, thanks to doors that open to a full 90 degrees and easy slide-and-tilt front seats. Once seated in the back there's fair legroom and good head and shoulder room, and the back of your head is a safe six inches away from the rear screen. Worth noting, too, is that rear passengers can easily slide 'n' tilt the seats to get themselves out. While seated in the back, the feel is airy and the view out of the side windows good.

With just two on board you can free up a very handy 670 litres of load space by folding the 50:50 split rear seatbacks down flat. The high-opening, top-hinged tailgate ensures good accessibility from the back — and the electronic fingertip pressure boot release is a nice touch.
In fact, it wasn't until our MINI-owning friend recently moved house last year that we all appreciated just how much stuff you can squeeze into 670 litres of space!

Four-channel ABS with discs all round (ventilated at the front), elec-tronic brake-force distribution, cornering brake control and automatic stability and traction control are all standard equipment and together provide brilliant stopping and stability. The run-flat tyres are backed-
up by a puncture warning system which alerts the driver if pressures fall below a pre-determined level. Visibility is excellent, even through the lozenge-shaped door mirrors, while the Cooper S has passive safety well-covered with four 'smart' airbags that react according to the severity of an accident. Side curtain airbags are an option and also standard fitment are ISOFIX child seat mountings.

The Cooper S has been a 'hot' buy for keen drivers looking for 'cool' wheels since the moment the first one hit the UK's mean streets. Classless, classy, tremendous fun and a real driver's car, the £15,185
S represents a compellingly-competitive package. No wonder owners love them to bits. And for a one-off payment of £150, the optional 'tlc' service pack covers all routine maintenance for five years or 50,000 miles — take-up on this is almost universal, proving that just about everybody is smart enough to know a really good deal when they see one. Depreciation-busting residuals are almost guaranteed and would appear to be — if you'll forgive just one last cliché — as safe as houses. Our overall test consumption worked out to 33mpg, so factor in economical fuel consumption and it seems you really can have your cake and eat it. You can bet your bottom dollar!

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MINI Cooper S | £15,185
Maximum speed: 138mph | 0-62mph: 7.2 seconds
Overall test MPG: 33mpg | Power: 170bhp | Torque: 163lb ft

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---------------------------------------------------------------------- MINI Cooper S