MINI Cooper S Chili Pack

After years at the top, is class leader finally beginning to look vulnerable?

Having invented the premium supermini segment in 2001, MINI finally has some competition. Even so, there’s no mistaking the British hatch in this trio.

With looks inspired by the Fifties original, the latest version is a modern classic. And while its unmistakable outline is a familiar sight, buyers are able to personalise their car thanks to a huge array of options. That means it’s still possible for a MINI to stand out from the crowd.

The classic references continue inside. For instance, the dash is dominated by the huge central speedo, while eyeball-style vents direct the flow of air around the cabin. However, MINI ownership demands compromises when it comes to space. For a start, the minuscule 160-litre boot is the smallest here, and rear legroom is in short supply for adults. The pair of sculpted back seats fold down to increase luggage capacity, but the MINI is strictly a four-seater.

What it lacks in space it makes up for with first-rate build quality, which really sets the Cooper S apart from its rivals. Switchgear is logically laid out, and neat touches like the separate rev counter on the steering column and old-fashioned toggle switches add to the sense of occasion on every trip.

All the controls are perfectly weighted, and few cars can match the MINI for feedback. The Cooper S turns into corners sharply and responds with greater verve than either of its opponents in this test, while the most progressive brakes and slick gearbox add to the dynamic appeal. On a twisty road, the MINI is more agile than the Alfa, and it’s more alert and willing to change its line than the Citroen. Body control is excellent, too.

But the Cooper S has the stiffest suspension in our line-up. Combine this with the optional 17-inch alloy wheels and run-flat tyres fitted to our test car, and the ride is unforgiving over rough surfaces. Mid-corner bumps upset the car’s composure, and motorway journeys can be tiring due to the road and wind noise.

Shorter gear ratios mean the MINI revs at nearly 3,000rpm at 70mph, which also compromises refinement. However, the low gearing of the six-speed transmission helped it to log the fastest responses in all but third gear. It’s important to note we tested a 2009 model year car. If you order a Cooper S now, you’ll get a 2010 model with an extra 9bhp – taking power to 181bhp.

Emissions have been reduced, too, and the latest MINI’s CO2 output of 136g/km is an impressive 19g/km lower than the less powerful Citroen. The Cooper S pips the Alfa in the green stakes, too, even though both models come with stop-start.

Fixed-price servicing and amazing residuals also make a strong case for the Cooper S.

Fit the £1,990 Chili Pack, though, and it begins to look expensive – this add-on is virtually essential, due to the car’s miserly standard kit. And even without it, the Citroen is £1,115 cheaper.

So while the MINI is the most engaging choice in this test, its more comfortable and affordable rivals threaten to steal its crown. 

Ratings

Styling: 3/5 Although the retro MINI is a very common sight, it remains a fashionable choice. Cooper S gets twin exhausts, bonnet bulge, and discreet roof spoiler. Big wheels look great, but harm ride comfort.

Interior: 4/5 WIith a low-slung driving position, the MINI wraps around you. The quality and style of the cabin are hard to fault, although it’s short on space – there is seating for only four and a tiny boot, so it demands practicality compromises.

Driving- 4/5 Sharp steering, excellent body control and lots of  feedback mean the MINI is great fun. Performance is strong, but the ride is unforgiving and it can be a tiring long-distance companion compared to its rivals in this test.

Costs- 3/5 When fitted with the Chili Pack, the MINI is the most expensive model. It costs £3,105 more than the Citroen DS3 DSport. Yet strong residuals and fixed-price servicing help trim running costs. Low CO2 will appeal to business users.

Green- 4/5 Latest Cooper S engine emits only 136g/km, while the official combined fuel economy figure of 48.7mpg is the best here. The fact the car is built in the UK adds to its eco credentials.

Details

Chart position: 2WHY: The Cooper S still oozes desirability – and it’s the car all new entrants to the premium supermini sector have to beat.

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