The hot hatch market is getting increasingly crowded with the arrival of the Peugeot 208 GTI, Golf GTI and Mercedes-Benz A250 in the local market. All of them are here for a piece of the pie the Mini Cooper S once had all to itself. The Cooper S, after all, had the distinct pleasure of being one of the first hot hatches introduced in the market.
Having had the pleasure of test driving one for a few days, we find out if it still has what it takes to keep the new competitors at bay.
It's not hard to recognize a Cooper S from afar. Its distinctive retro-throwback looks, striped hood and aggressive lower valence make it both cute and subtly menacing. This new F-56 body gives the Mini a sort of underbite, extending the front bumper forward a bit more than the previous model in the name of better crash protection. The Cooper S can be distinguished from regular Coopers by the scoop in the hood, two small scoops on the front valence, and a central twin exhaust pipes in the rear.
Mini says the F-56 is also bigger than its predecessor though it's not that apparent for the passengers. Inside, the vehicle is still fairly tight confines for two passengers and even tighter if you decide to squeeze two more behind.
Nonetheless, the real appeal in owning a Mini is how it injects personality into every corner of the ride. Everything from the switches, door handles, stalks and interior panels are uniquely Mini. It doesn't feel at all like a BMW platform-derived vehicle. The speedo has now been moved into a binnacle on the steering stalk, with a small tachometer on the side and Mini's unique LED fuel gauge.
This makes the center display more like a conventional vehicle, save for the bright colors and cute illustrations, featuring settings for entertainment and climate, as well as to display settings and driving modes. Unique touches are in the form of changing LED mood lights in a ring around the center display. There are also classic toggle switches for things like the windows or hazzard lights.
On the center divider is the automatic stickshift, surrounded by a plastic ring that acts as the drive mode selector. A circular knob, lower on the divider, works practically like the iDrive of BMWs, making it easy to navigate through menus. There's also the disc-shaped key fob which slots easily into the ignition, either way.
Hauling the Cooper is a 2.0-liter TwinPower turbo inline-four rated at 192 PS from 4700 - 6000 rpm. It has and a wide peak torque range of 280 Nm from 1250 - 4750 rpm. This is mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox. As mentioned before, drive modes are very intuitive to call forth by twisting the selector either left or right to call forth Green, Normal and Sport modes. Accordingly, the central display gives a brief explanation of what each drive mode is configured to with a more youthful choice of words as opposed to the typical dry explanation.
Bring on Sport mode and the throttle response is quick, gears shift higher, the steering stiffens and the exhaust comes alive. There are paddle shifters just behind the wheel so there's no need to reach down and shift manually. As expected, the Mini also handles exceptionally, behaving practically like a go-kart with little hint of understeer that is typical of front wheel drives.
Its performance practically borders on sports car territory with the twin power turbo able to rocket you up steep slopes or quickly accelerate to overtake. The handling is exceptional, imbuing the driver with confidence to take on turns faster than they normally would thanks to the vehicle's firmness and stability.
Normal and Green modes tame this response time in according increments, while also lightening the steering stiffness to make it easier to drive. The Mini has also been fitted with BMW's Eco Pro start/stop system that kills the engine when left idle for a while and automatically restarts it when you're ready to go. This can also be turned off if the consant stopping and starting begins to get to you.
At more practical paces, the Cooper S begins to show some of its drawbacks. The ride is rather firm over bumps. We recommend not subjecting any friend to the torture called a back seat. This car really is a two-seater at best. The fuel consumption averages at 7 km/L in the city and can go up to 11 km/L in the highway.
All told, the Cooper S three-door is still a remarkably fun hatch to drive, whether out of town or in the city. In fact, with its price and size, it's probably best compared to other sports cars. Its small size makes it delightfully easy to squeeze through traffic or into tight parking spots. Its engine's power is more than enough to shame a couple of sports cars. So long as you don't have to carry more than two other passengers and nothing more than a week's groceries, it should be a fairly practical ride around the city. Anyway, there's the five-door Cooper S model to answer those practicality concerns.
The JCW model adds a bit more horsepower, unique wheels, red trim, a sport seats and trim, and that lovely burbling exhaust. Nonetheless there's quite a lot packed in the Cooper S as it is.
It's now one of the pricier hot hatches in the local market, at P2.7M. However, none of its competitors exude as much personality as the Mini does, be it in the styling, or the quirky interior touches. You're constantly reminded you're driving a Mini — a young, hip car that practically feels alive — with the exceptional design and all the looks you get while driving it. It's that extra mile Mini puts into these aspects that helps to justify the high premium.