Our Top 12 Best Buys small hatchback winner features here in facelifted five-door form...

You can’t really miss them, those Union Jack-patterned brakelamps on the latest Mini hatchback. They’re a small part of both a superficial and mechanical facelift but demand all your attention as you appraise BMW’s smallest car, and they leave no doubts about the origins of the brand. Some members of the CAR test team loved them; others wondered how much it would cost to swap them for pre-facelift units.

Misplaced patriotism aside – at least, at the southern tip of Africa – the facelift nicely updates the four-year-old Mini package, adding to the Cooper S such items as LED headlamps (adaptive tech is optional) with driving lights encircling the entire unit, newly designed alloy wheels, fresh paint colours and graphics, and a piano-black option for the lamp and grille surrounds.

Hop inside and the tweaks continue, with the Visual Boost 6,5-inch touchscreen infotainment screen standard across the Cooper and Cooper S models (optional on the One). Additionally, buyers have the options of new Malt Brown trim and extra lighting in the piano-black trim strips.

On the Cooper S, included in the list price are climate control, sports seats, various driving modes, cloth/leather-combination seat trim and a storage package. The latter can feel like a misnomer applied to a five-door Mini, as storage isn’t exactly plentiful fore and aft. Nor is legroom, which we measured at a class-average 650 mm, but headroom all round is sufficient even with the fitment of a R11 700 dual-sunroof option. This lack of practicality begs the question why buyers wouldn’t simply save themselves some cash and get the three-door (which happens to also look far more balanced without this variant’s too-small rear doors).

Still, plenty of customers do opt for the five-door and they get the usual Mini strengths of excellent perceived quality beyond anything else in the small-hatch segment this side of an Audi A1; a driving position that’s millimetre-perfect (the sports seats offer adjustable under-thigh support, which makes a big difference for taller drivers); and class-leading iDrive connectivity. That scattergun control layout does, however, still demand some time for familiarity to set in.

Unlike the One models, which now boast a three-cylinder 1,5-litre engine in place of the defunct 1,2-litre, the 2,0-litre unit in the Cooper S remains unfettled. What is different is Mini has slotted in a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission in place of the old six-speeder. The carmaker claims shorter shift times than the torque-converter.

In practice, it’s an alert transmission, displaying little of the low-speed lethargy that often plagues such units. Up the speed and the shifts are indeed quick and smooth.

Which is just as well because, with 141 kW on tap to propel all of 1 340 kg, performance is sprightly rather than electric. The 2,0-litre engine is buttery smooth and even sounds good – with delicious cracks and pops on the overrun with the drive mode set to sport – but it never feels especially potent and lags behind the Volkswagen Polo GTI in most performance-test parameters.

On the road where such figures matter less, the Cooper S is an engaging drive. The engine feels stronger than its performance figures suggest, and the transmission hooks the right gear without resorting to histrionics when the throttle is planted. The steering, however, is the main draw. Nicely hefty but quick, it makes the Cooper S feel alert whether tackling the drag of commuting, or traversing a favourite mountain pass.

That’s allied with close suspension control (so close, in fact, that it sometimes feels as if it’ll run out of travel on a bumpy road; skilfully, it never does) and strong brakes – recording an average stopping time of 2,98 seconds – rendering the Cooper S a fun point-and-shoot machine.

The ride comfort does suffer somewhat from the resolute suspension tuning but it’s entirely liveable day to day and gets caught out only by abrupt scars. As you’d expect from a BMW-backed product, fuel consumption is excellent. We registered 7,80 L/100 km on our standardised fuel route, and even less on a relaxed weekend that took in lots of highway driving at 120 km/h.



TEST SUMMARY

It's a relief every time we get into a Mini and discover BMW hasn't fiddled too much with a winning recipe, the main ingredient of which is fun driving dynamics.

 

In attendance, too, are illogical cabin control placement — although we suspect the quirky layout forms part of the appeal for many buyers — and compromised practicality, especially in five-door form, where tight door apertures and little room in the rear or boot suggest the bigger, R30 000 pricier Cooper S Clubman is the better buy if space is on the list of priorities.

 

The CAR team, however, would happily junk the need for bigger rear seats and opt for the Cooper S three-door, which looks better than this somewhat dumpy five-door and is cheaper to boot. However, with the newest Polo GTI proving an impressive package, will the Mini retain its Top 12 Best Buys crown in January 2019 when we vote for the winners? Based on this test and the improvements made to the Mini range, there might be a few drawn-out debates among CAR's staffers...

 

*From the October 2018 issue of CAR magazine...

 

ROAD TEST SCORE

Hatch MINI Cooper S Hatch 5-door auto
84 / 100
  • Price: R473,380
  • 0-100 km/h: 6.8
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 141 KW @ 4700-6000
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 280 N.m @ 1250-4600
  • Top speed: 232
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 5.4 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 123 g/KM