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ROAD TEST: 2014 MINI COOPER S

All new, third-generation BMW Mini improves on pricing, interior and suspension to make it a more friendly companion.

  • ROAD TEST: 2014 MINI COOPER S
  • ROAD TEST: 2014 MINI COOPER S

What a great time to be a car enthusiast with about 30 grand in your pocket! There?s a great selection of highly entertaining and competent cars out there: the new VW GTI, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Ford Fiesta ST, Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S and Subaru WRX, for starters. Also in the fray is the all new, third-generation BMW Mini.

It?s a little bigger and more refined and better built, but, on first blush, you?ll be hard pressed to tell it apart from the outgoing model.

Which is exactly how parent company BMW wants it.

As custodians of this iconic British nameplate since 2000, they?ve done the seemingly impossible; they?ve created a hugely successful, and ever expanding niche of British whimsy wrapped around German know-how, and done so in a form that stays true to the essence of the original Austin Mini. Which is a car most new Mini owners likely know nothing about.

So what of this new Cooper S that is fresh from stem to stern?

I think it looks great . . . especially in Volcanic Orange with these $740 Cosmos Spoke Black wheels. Sure, it?s pretty cartoonish with the big buggy headlights, prominent grill and rectangular air intake below, but isn?t that what the Mini is all about?

From past experience, I?ve known the Mini Cooper S to be overpriced, blighted with a cheap interior and bestowed with a suspension apparently fashioned from concrete. Thankfully, we can strike all three quibbles from the list.

With a six-speed manual transmission, the front-drive 2014 Cooper S, which sports a new 189 hp 2.0L turbo-four, starts at $25,490. Option packages are now more realistically priced. This well-kitted tester came in under 32 grand, which slides in well below a comparably equipped VW GTI.

The Mini?s new dash sticks to the circular script inspired by the original car?s round central speedo, but materials and build quality are kicked up several notches. This is the first Mini I?ve driven in recent memory that hasn?t been plagued with a persistent dash rattle.

Finally, it feels like a premium car in here.

Things have been moved around a bit from the last model. The window switches are now on the doors and there is an analogue speedometer (along with the tachometer) mounted on the steering column. Before, we either tried to decipher the indicator on the outer edge of the big central circle, or looked at the digital speedo readout in front.

The manhole-sized central display now shows all the menus and info called up through the iDrive controller, which replaces the fussy little joystick from the last model. The interface is easy to use and the graphics are great. You?ll be wanting the $1,850 Wired Navigation Package that adds front centre armrest, navigation, integrated visual display, Bluetooth, USB and Mini connected wire package.

Might as well go for the $2,100 Loaded Package. This bestows a proximity key, rain-sensing wipers, auto headlamps, auto climate control and dynamic damper control, which takes most of the sting out of the ride.

The Mini has always been about the driving, and this new edition sticks to script.

The fact that many of the rough edges have been smoothed out does not take away from its essential Mini-ness. The steering is still direct and super quick, but not as nervous. There is less torque steer and the cabin is quieter. As noted earlier, with the available adaptive damping, the Mini now has an acceptable ride. Even in the firmest Sport mode (which also sharpens throttle response, adds more steering heft and opens up the exhaust), it doesn?t crash over the rough stuff as the previous model did.

And it sure does handle. The Mini is still one of the most entertaining devices for unravelling a twisty road.

The short throw shifter and clutch work beautifully together, and Sport mode calls up automatic rev.-matching on downshifts, which makes you sound as though you are a heel-and-toe hero.

The new turbo 2.0L four generates 189 hp and 207 lbs.-ft. of torque with a temporary overboost of 221 lbs.-ft. Compared with some other 2.0L competitors (GTI at 210 hp, Focus ST at 252 hp), it?s a little light and it doesn?t charge with the authority of the VW or Ford. Nonetheless, the output is nicely judged. Beside, Mini has to leave something in the pot for the upcoming John Cooper Works edition.

This is a super frugal little thing, too. I saw 5.9 L/100 on an extended highway jaunt, and my test week concluded with 6.8 L/100 km.

Those looking at the new Mini Cooper S will likely be cross-shopping other front-drive hot hatches: the $20,995 Fiat 500 Abarth (a loud, diabolical toy masquerading as a real car), $22,638 Ford Fiesta ST (the most entertaining front-driver money can buy, a gem), $26,769 Ford Focus ST (fast, crass, tricky on the limit) and $27,995 VW GTI (a Rhodes scholar, the new benchmark).

Bottom line? The new 2014 Mini Cooper S may not have the edge of the outgoing model, but it?s still a whole lot of fun, and a whole lot easier to live with.

The vehicle tested by freelance writer was provided by the manufacturer.

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