Mini Driving Experience returns for 2023

A lot of people view a classic Mini and immediately picture Mr. Bean. But for car enthusiasts like me, it is more than just a humble steed of Rowan Atkinson's iconic character. I've come to know and respect the legend of the Mini Cooper S.

Circuit Drive: 2023 Mini Cooper S 3-door image

Everyone loves an underdog story, and the OG Mini had one of those about 60 years ago. Over bigger and more powerful competitors, the original Mini Cooper S came through and won the tight, twisty, and tricky Monte Carlo Rally. If you ask what the Monte is all about, a quick Google search will give you all the info you need.

But going back, the story of the Mini is one of the reasons why I chose to own a hatchback. I've come to love what a low horsepower, yet nimble handling car can do on a track over something that's big and powerful, but proves to be a handful in the corners. That is why when my editor-in-chief asked me if I wanted to take part in the 2023 Mini Driving Experience at Clark International Speedway, I said “Yes” as quickly as an F1 driver could react the moment the five red lights go out.

Circuit Drive: 2023 Mini Cooper S 3-door image

Mini Philippines already held this Driving Experience many times in the past, and this most recent event is the first one since 2018. In the earlier editions of the Mini Driving Experience, my teammates had a chance to try out the entire Mini model range, from the standard 3-door to the largest which is the Countryman. But upon arriving at CIS, I found out there's only one model we're trying out for the event – the latest 3-door Cooper S. Oh yes.

After a short briefing about the activity for the day, I had the chance to have a good look at what we were about to drive. If you're not an avid follower of the brand, you'll be mistaken for looking at the Cooper S 3-door as an all-new model. But the truth is, it's already a 10-year-old platform. It's just that it has retro-modern look that never goes out of style. Think of the FJ Cruiser and the 911. It's the same treatment done in the Cooper S.

Circuit Drive: 2023 Mini Cooper S 3-door image

This latest update was introduced in 2021, where slight changes to the grille, the LED headlights, and the union jack pattern on the taillights were made. But nevertheless, it still has very short overhangs, it's nice and low and it has a wide stance. I can only think of two cars having those proportions - one is the Mini and the other is a go-kart.

Once we made our way to the track itself, three examples of the Cooper S were waiting for us in an autocross course. And I thought to myself, “Have I seen this one before? Three Mini Coopers for precision driving?” pictures in my head see the remake of The Italian Job. Yes, that scene with Charlize Theron behind the wheel of a red Mini. Before there was Gisele in Fast and Furious, there was Stella Bridger doing a heist.

Circuit Drive: 2023 Mini Cooper S 3-door image

As soon as I had my helmet on, it was time to see how the Mini would perform. The course consisted of a series of left and right corners and a 180-degree turn that goes straight back in the opposite direction. Afterward, the course ends in a stop box. You hit the blue cone in the middle, and you get an automatic 5-second penalty.

In this part, the Mini Cooper S showed how agile it was in changing direction, and the wide track meant body roll was kept in check. Not to mention, the stop box at the end demonstrated how easily the four discs could clamp down the 1300kg hatchback. I may have enjoyed it a little too much because, by the end of the day, I was given an award for setting the fastest time on the autocross course.

Afterward, we had a short break when the organizers set up the next part of the driving experience. We were about to do a full lap of the whole Clark International Speedway in a four-car convoy. While waiting, I took some time to check out the cabin while enjoying an ice-cold drink.

Circuit Drive: 2023 Mini Cooper S 3-door image

I was surprised how the Cooper S manages to hide its age well inside. Obviously, the funky theme is still there, but the gauge displays, the switches, as well as the fit and finish manage to keep up to modern standards. BMW made it a point to give the Mini its own set of parts bin, as none of the buttons look like they were pulled out from other BMW models - except for the shifter.

The latest interior update of the Mini was introduced in 2021, where the previous analog instrument cluster behind the wheel was replaced by a digital unit.

This generation of the Mini Cooper S is powered by a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder TwinPower Turbo that puts out the same 192 PS and 280 Nm of torque. It's been that way since 2013, but the latest update that Mini did is to put in a 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox, and I definitely had good use of it once we exited the pits at Clark.

Circuit Drive: 2023 Mini Cooper S 3-door image

From the get-go, the dual-clutch gearbox feels right at home on a race track, especially in Sport mode. The upshifts are fast and crisp, while the downshifts feel smooth as it also has an auto-blip function. With a potent 2.0-liter turbo, the Cooper S has plenty of go for this type of track. Since peak torque comes in early, there's plenty of pull coming out of corners.

The Mini Cooper S is a front-wheel drive, but it doesn't handle like one. There's very little hint of understeer at entry, and the front is very eager to turn without ever losing the rear end. I would have wanted to push the Cooper S a bit more, but since we were doing an FTL (follow the leader) session, I had to follow the pace of everyone else. Nevertheless, it was enough for me to enjoy the hatchback through Clark's long corners and twisty sections at the end.

Circuit Drive: 2023 Mini Cooper S 3-door image

But before I had too much fun, the checkered flag was waved and we had to enter the pits, since it was the next batch's turn. Honestly, I wish I had more time with the Cooper S. Yes, there's a 5-door version of this that would be the more practical choice, but for those who want to enjoy the original fun-to-drive characteristics of the classic Mini, the 3-door is exactly what the doctor ordered.

The only thing missing now is to test the Cooper S on the road and as a daily driver. And no, I won't be doing any of the Italian Job stunts. Unless they do allow me, of course.