Mini Cooper S

Even though the old (new) Mini was a blast, it always failed the acid test, which for almost any car is the answer to the following question: "Would I buy one?"

Gloriously, the new (new) Mini - which looks almost exactly like the old (new) Mini but is not to be confused with the old (old) Mini - absolutely nails it by virtue of replacing all the things that worried us slightly with something better, and not messing around too much with the things we already loved.

We tested the rather warm Cooper S variant, which was always buckets of fun but due to a variety of minor niggles never gave you the confidence you felt you needed to really chuck it about like you know it wanted. The new version is a whole new proposition, though.

Looks wise, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the factory had forgotten to switch over to the right machinery. In fact, there's so little aesthetic difference to the first generation of BMW-made Minis that unless you put the two next to each other you'd be lucky to be able to put your finger on anything obvious.

The truth is that every single panel is different (didn't Porsche say the same thing about the 997?) and when you do see them next to each other, you begin to appreciate how much better looking the new one actually is.

Narrower windows, curvier corners and chunkier wheels give the latest Mini a much more balanced look, mixing aggression with likeability. It's not so cute as the one it replaces, but that's a good thing.

Inside, things are also much improved. Some of the less desirable elements of the quirky design have gone, which means cheap-feeling plastics have been replaced and everything just feels that bit more special.

You get some nifty touches such as variable colour mood lights above the seatbelt point and on the centre ceiling console, which may sound silly but make you feel rather special.

The signature half-hoops separating switches remain, as does the basic layout - you still get a whopping speeds dead centre and the rev counter above the wheel. Unfortunately, the layout of all the other switches for stereo control and air-con is way too confusing and it'll take a while to get used to the set-up. The petrol gauge could also do with being more prominent.

Not that economy is a real problem. The Cooper S, even ragged hard, will return respectable fuel figures. But it's when you rag it that you realise what a different beast this new Mini is.

The all-new turbo-charged Hams Hall 1.6-litre engine really makes you feel like your behind the wheel of a totally new proposition, despite the minimal cosmetic changes. At first, you'll think it's crap; raspy, thrashy and rather less refined than the wonderfully super-charged first-generation Cooper S.

The turbo (with its overboost function that gives an extra shot of power when you press the loud pedal hard) makes a big difference but it sounds peculiar at high revs - as though someone under the bonnet is spinning aluminium plates while making a cappuccino.

Once you get used to it and tailor your driving style to the power band, you get one of the most rewarding experiences you can get behind a three-spoked steering wheel. And with even better handling than its forebear, chuckability is supreme, while the standard automatic stability programme helps you get the power down to the wheels nicely and helps the chassis cope with the 175bhp.

Verdict

So what's the catch? Well, the Cooper S starts at £15,995, which for the size of the car does seem a little pricey. But to really get the most from the S, you'll want the Chili Pack (£1875) with its sports suspension, 17in alloys and steering wheel controls. The Leather Punch interior (£550) also looks fantastic, but with that and the Chili Pack, you've pushed the price to a budget-busting £18,420.

Maybe waiting to get hold of the new Honda Civic Type-R doesn't seem so silly now but, wow, the Mini is fun. If you can afford it and you don't need too much space, buy it because this truly is a modern classic.

TECH SPECS: Mini Cooper S
Engine: Turbo-charged 1.6litre in-line four-cylinder Hams Hall direct injection Max power: 175bhp @ 5500rpm Top speed: 140mph
0-62mph: 7.1secs
Economy: 40.9mpg
Emissions: 164g/km