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Circa 1967. Steve McQueen—the original anti-hero—is redlining his 1967 MINI Cooper S 1275 down Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. “We were heading down, and at the last instant, Steve decided to take a right turn up one of the canyon roads. The rear right-tyre caught the curb which put the car up on the two driver’s-side wheels. We must have gone that way for 150 feet, McQueen working the wheel to keep us from rolling over or hitting any of the parked cars on the opposite side of the street,” recounts Lee Brown, auto paint-and-body expert, in a recent book on the Hollywood legend by Matt Stone (McQueen’s Machines: The Cars and Bikes of a Hollywood Icon), who was in the car with McQueen on that little adventure.
For a car that had its genesis in the Suez fuel crisis of 1956 (when there wasn’t enough fuel to go around in Britain to power big guzzlers) and in which performance has always played second fiddle to the car’s surfeit of personality, the MINI Cooper series was quite remarkable when it debuted in 1961. (For the uninitiated, the MINI Cooper series is the sporty performance-oriented line-up in MINI’s stable; others are simply MINIs.) John Cooper—owner of the Cooper Car Company and designer and builder of Formula One and rally cars—famously collaborated with the company to create a performance version which was christened the MINI Cooper.
McQueen’s car, exciting as it was—putting out 76 horses, which propelled it to a top whack of 160kmph—shared no mechanicals with the new Cooper S. I recently had the chance to zip about in it on the empty stretches in Aamby Valley City in the Western Ghats, and on the township’s airstrip. With 192 horses-on-tap via a twin-turbocharger, the new three-door Cooper S blitzes to 100kmph in less than seven seconds, and pulls to an electronically-limited speed of 233kmph. BMW calls the driving experience ‘Furiously Fun’, and I can vouch for the fun bit. All you want to do behind the wheel of this car is have fun: slide it into corners, spiral into doughnuts on the track, pop the windows down to take in that sporty raspy sound. The Cooper S is like a manic pup scampering about on its first walk in the park.
BMW hasn’t tinkered with the DNA of the car: Sir Alec Issingosis’s original model has endured for a reason. But the new MINI Cooper S is definitely larger—both on the outside and in cabin space—and there’s a welcome addition of a ‘Comfort’ option in the damper settings. These cushion the ride when you hit a bad stretch. On the inside, fans will instantly lament the demise of the central speedo (which is now at a more traditional place behind the steering), but the new infotainment system placed in its stead manages to look visually similar.
As with all Beemers, there’s a veritable goodie-bag of equipment including Bluetooth connectivity, an on-board computer and sports seats, but BMW has been stingy with the iDrive user-interface (optional). Optional accessories for those who’d like to customise their car are endless (and expensive!); music buffs would do well to consider the optional Harman Kardon stereo and the Media Pack (which even allows you to post on social media).
For all the modern tech incorporated into the car, the MINI, crucially, hasn’t departed from the quirky character that has made it the most iconic car in British history. Things are very different, of course: in 2000, the MINI, orphaned by its long-time owner, Rover, went to its fawning new parent, BMW. It accepted the car’s inherent personality traits, but went about imparting its own set of values to the car. And, as the last decade-and-a-half have borne out, that is precisely what the precocious, but rough-around-the-edges MINI needed. As a whole, the Cooper S is very much a MINI, but its details are cutting-edge German-engineered. It still looks as eccentric and is capable of behaving like the MINIs of yore would have liked to, had they the ability to. In fact, there’s never been a friskier MINI, and—nostalgia aside—I am glad that this terrier comes to heel when asked to. Does that make it less lovable? Not a bit, but it does make it easier to live with.
John Cooper would have been pretty pleased with the latest MINI to carry his name. And Steve McQueen would have found a way to drive it on two wheels.
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