Mini Cooper S delivers big in a small package

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2014 Mini Cooper S and 1991 Mini Cooper. Photo / Ted Baghurst.

It's more than 50 years since that first groundbreaking little Mini rolled off the production line. A lot has changed since those early days, after the Mini's resurrection by German giant BMW. There's a great deal of love for the brand courtesy of the tiny pioneer, and a strong sense of nostalgia that has helped drive sales of what is, essentially, a very different machine.

They're a lot bigger these days, and while the face is familiar, today's Mini has more in common with the modern hatch than with its forebears.

It is now into the third generation, and we secured the first local drive of the latest Cooper and Cooper S before they go on sale this weekend.

We also borrowed a 1991 Mini Cooper (above) from the president of the Mini Club of New Zealand, Murray Grant. The Mini was the last in a group of 25 imported by Motorcorp, and Grant bought it from his sister and brother-in-law who had purchased it 10 years ago from the original customer, a car museum owner.

Sometimes things just work out better than expected - and the attitude of the new Cooper S indicates the three-cylinder Cooper exceeded expectations.

Now making 135kW (95 more than the original), the Cooper S oozes performance behaviours - but only when you push the right buttons.

Eco mode, auto and "greened" engine maps make the S behave more like the 1961 version than it probably should. John Cooper would not have signed this off.

However, if you engage Sport mode, turn off the hippy-dippy stop/start function and flick the traction control switch to engage dynamic mode once, it would have passed the test with flying colours.

Mini pimps "go kart feel" in this mode, and it's not far wrong - with the eco-cuddly mode more like "go yawn". I'm guessing that in order to keep the S living up to its name in light of the standard version's excellent performance, the BMW boffins were forced to turn the wick up.

The car behaves more like the JCW (John Cooper Works) go-fast version of the second generation "new" Mini, popping and cackling on gear changes and revving like a demon. The four-cylinder two-litre turbo is a well-fettled mill, revving freely and cutting though the six-speed auto (sadly the manual version wasn't available) like there is no tomorrow.

As an auto it's not the cheapest small car on the road at $47,200, with $3000 off for the manual gearbox.

An aggressive set-up isn't every driver's cup of Earl Grey, and the green modes do calm it down - but perhaps sedate it too heavily. If you like it both ways, this is the way to go; if you're more Miss Daisy than Italian Job, the three-pot is the best pick.

The S design touches are quite racy - body-hugging bucket seats, visual boost display, sport gauges and bigger rims add up to a better-looking car. Everything that you'd expect from a brand built by one of Europe's top manufacturers is packed into the slightly larger new model - Bluetooth, customisable LED accent lighting, a set of selectable drive modes, servo power steer and a funky red-accented jet fighter-style stop-start switch.

One thing that absolutely made my day though is the removal of the massive centre-dash mounted speedometer. The nod to the early Minis was cute to start with, but by the second "new" Mini was feeling very played out. It's now the main screen for the infotainment interface and is very simple to use with a toggle-and-push wheel mounted between the seats, although some might find its positioning initially awkward.

The Cooper S will dispatch the sprint to the legal limit in seven seconds, with its 240Nm (260Nm with over boost function) all available from 1600rpm, and the top speed is a claimed 225km/h.

It creates a motorway menace that's small and nimble with enough "naughty" potential to indicate that the JCW version will be an angry wee animal.

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