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Review: 2015 MINI Cooper S Hardtop

by Mark Elias

The 2015 Cooper S builds on MINI\'s long-standing fun-to-drive tradition.

More rounded than the iconic four-seater that inspired it from the 1950s up to 1999, MINI's 2015 Cooper S Hardtop continues to refine and refresh the legacy with each passing year. Essentially one of the progenitors of the so-called "city car,” it had its place and the enthusiasts who loved it. Their love for it then has helped to make it a classic today.

And did we mention it's cute? But don't let that adorable face fool you into thinking this car is kid's stuff. Underneath its skin lies a serious contender in the "most fun to drive” category.

Read on to find out why we still think it provides some of the best times you can have on four wheels.

What is it?Now into its third generation, the MINI Cooper S Hatch, or Hardtop, as it is known at the factory in Oxford, UK, continues after a redo in 2014. The hotter version of the hardtop, it is equipped with an upgraded version of the 2.0-liter twin-power turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine that produces 189 horsepower between 4,700-6,000 rpm, and 207 lb-ft of torque at a barely-alive 1,250 rpm.

Available with a standard six-speed manual transmission, our model featured a quite-stout six-speed automatic transmission that is extremely sure of itself. Able to be shifted by lever or steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, the EPA says to expect 26 city/ 33 highway with an average of 29 mpg. It was also equipped with ECO start/stop functionality to eke out every drop of fuel mileage.

Our Cooper S rode on a suspension comprised of MacPherson struts in front with a multi-link kit in the rear. An electrically-assisted power rack and pinion steering system helped to point the way. Other functional (and standard) driving or safety-based features included Dynamic Stability Control, Dynamic Cruise Control, Electronic Brakeforce distribution, ABS and Corner Brake Control, which is MINI-speak for brake-based torque vectoring.

Buyers of the MINI Cooper S Hardtop can also choose the less-potent MINI Cooper with its base 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbocharged engine or, at the other end of the spectrum, jump up to the John Cooper Works version with its 208 horsepower and 192 lb-ft of torque four-cylinder.

A variety of other versions are available that include the MINI Clubman, Coupe, Countryman, four-door Hardtop and Convertibles.

What's it up against? Others in this most competitive sub-compact set include Hyundai's Turbo-Veloster, as well as Fiat's 500 and V-dub's Golf, all of which can also be had in higher forms of tune then their entry-level versions.

How does it look?The look of the MINI Cooper S is iconic, even if it does look like one half of a pair of children's roller skates. Just oozing fun, it's one of those looks that will bring a smile to even the most hardcore curmudgeon. Part of the fun in a MINI is customizing it to truly be your own. Starting with the basic Cooper S Hardtop, ours was dressed up with the chrome line exterior, which outlines the greenhouse with a strip of brightwork to set it off. Graphics ranged from side stripes to Lemans-type hood striping that framed the functional Cooper S hood scoop. Accessories are available and run the gamut from roof graphics, to rally lights to mirror caps and other such celebrations. Using John Cooper Works Pro accessories, our charge was equipped with red, black and grey mirror caps, accent badging on the sides and other JCW trim pieces. But the fun doesn't end there.

And on the inside? In the first generation MINIs, the center console housed a large round face that included the car's speedometer. It now features a more common speedo-over-the-steering-column arrangement, as well as an available head up display, literally with a twist. This HUD is equipped with a device that allows the projection lens to rotate, so the blacking out that occurs with polarized sunglasses at opposing axes are now a thing of the past. When setting up the system with sunglasses on, simply turn the control and stop when the screen numbers are brightest.

The center console is now home to our "Fully Loaded” Cooper S's MINI Navigation XL and Bluetooth package that is centered on an 8.8-inch display that works in conjunction with the 10-speaker Harman/Kardon premium audio system. It also featured LED mood lighting, which changed color according to its, um, mood.

We liked the coddled feeling we received from our MINI sport seats, which kept us firmly in place while tossing the car about. The Cooper's rear seats are a different story, however, with the tight confines best suited for short trips.

Our tester was equipped with accessories including a red, black and grey competition motif on sill plates, special carpets and rear window screens that carried on the theme, while at the same time doing their part to avert prying eyes. Cargo space is 8.7 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and expands to 38 cubic feet with the rear seats folded forward.

But does it go? The MINI Cooper S Hardtop is a two-door Pocket Rocket in the truest sense of the phrase. Feeling every bit like a jet-propelled go-kart, it is one of the most exhilarating rides most people will ever experience on four wheels.

Getting situated in the sport seats is an easy job that allows for a good driving position for most occupants. Flip the pulsing red center console-mounted toggle switch and the turbo two-liter roars to life with an aggressive braaaap from the twin-mounted tail pipes. Our 189 horsepower mill supplies 207 lb-ft of torque, with blinding acceleration, since most of that torque is available so low in the power band. As a result, the car just rips from a standing start. Zero to 60 mph comes in 6.4-seconds and top speed is reached at 146 mph.

Although not equipped with a JCW-tweaked engine, our Cooper S had lots of ‘Works accoutrements inside. With steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to control the six-speed automatic gearbox, we kept both hands gripping the wheel and just blipped the gearbox at will. In other cars it can seem a bit contrived. Here, it seems outright fun.

With three drive modes, including ECO, and "Middle,” we found ourselves settling into the more aggressive Sport mode. Acceleration at this point was effortless as equipped. When cornering, the car hurtles itself around the turn, almost asking a driver "is that all you've got?” Cornering comes in an exceedingly flat manner but still screams at you to pedal it hard through the turn. We answered the call by a harder pressing of the throttle.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe MINI, in almost any of its configurations, is a blast to drive. When stepping on the accelerator, you'll have a car that really enjoys getting out of its own way, fast. Able to leap off the line, corner flat through a hard turn, and stop on a dime, not to mention be able to find a parking space virtually anywhere, it is truly a special ride. Unfortunately its small size may not be enough for everyone.

2015 MINI Cooper S base price, $24,100. As tested, $36,950.Thunder Grey Metallic, $500; Cloth leatherette, $750; Cold Weather Package, $600; Fully Loaded Package, $4,500; Headlights with ringlights, $250; MINI Your Interior, $350; Park Assistant Package, $1,000; Sport Automatic transmission, $1,500; JCW Steering Wheel, $250; Comfort Access keyless entry, $250; Chrome Line Exterior, $250; Rear View Camera, $500; Storage Package, $250; Headliner in Anthracite, $250; Satellite Radio, $300; Head Up Display, $500, Destination charges, $850.

Photos by Mark Elias.

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