Only one car can rival the VW Beetle for stylish retro appeal: the MINI. With its blend of cheeky looks, an upmarket cabin and razor-sharp driving dynamics, the car has been setting the standard for over a decade.
But the brand hasn’t been resting on its laurels. In an effort to stay on top, the MINI has benefited from a recent mid-life refresh, bringing even more powerful engines, lower emissions and better economy. Not that you’ll be able to spot the changes from the outside.
Designers have left the exterior alone, which means you get the same compact dimensions and familiar retro lines. Racy Cooper S models also feature an aggressive air intake in the nose, a large tailgate spoiler, centre-exit exhausts and 16-inch alloy wheels. And as with every MINI, there are endless customisation options, including contrasting roof colours and bonnet stripes.
The cabin is equally stylish, featuring the trademark large central speedo, pod-mounted rev counter and metal toggle switches. It’s also solidly screwed together from classy, soft-touch materials. Yet it can’t match its rivals’ generous kit count. While air-con is standard on the Cooper S, you’ll have to fork out extra for automatic climate control or Bluetooth.
Unfortunately, the MINI also trails the VW and Vauxhall for rear space. There’s decent room for the driver and passenger, but the back seat is extremely cramped. And while you get plenty of cubby space, the boot will only accommodate 160 litres of luggage – a massive 220 litres less than the GTC’s.
Yet for most people considering these cars, performance and driving fun will be much more important than practicality – and the Cooper S doesn’t disappoint.
Despite being fitted with less grippy winter tyres, the tweaked 182bhp MINI blasted from 0-60mph in just 7.3 seconds. Even more impressive was the Cooper’s devastating in-gear acceleration – it sprinted from 50-70mph in sixth gear more quickly than its rivals could manage in fifth. A snappy gearshift and throaty exhaust note simply add to the car’s high-performance drama.
On the road, the MINI feels much quicker than the VW or Vauxhall, while the agile chassis and beautifully weighted controls make it more fun in corners. The steering is direct and brimming with feedback, and the wheel-at-each corner stance allows the car to dart through corners with unrivalled precision and enthusiasm. However, the price you pay for these sporty responses is a very firm ride.
If the ride is unforgiving, the MINI’s price is much more appealing. At £18,075, it’s a huge £3,405 cheaper than the Astra. That means you’ll have plenty of cash left over to spend on extras and personalisation.
Plus, the MINI is the most cost-effective choice for private and company drivers, with its excellent 50.6 per cent residuals, pre-paid servicing pack and low 136g/km emissions. In short, the Cooper S will take some beating.
Chart position: 1
WHY: Trend-setting MINI mixes high fashion with driving fun. Recent updates have increased the power and reduced emissions from the 1.6-litre turbo engine.