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If, like us, you think that the Mini is the Next Big Thing (and yes, the pun is as bad as Editor in Chief Brauer thinks it is), then it isn't so much a decision of whether or not to buy the Mini, but which version the basic Cooper or the sportier Cooper S.
On paper, at least, the decision should be easy, especially for those of us who still think we're boy racers at heart. Though only minor styling touches differentiate the two models, such as chrome side louvers, twin exhaust pipes, larger wheels, and a hood scoop, it is this last item that signals the major difference between the Cooper and Cooper S. Unlike many such appendages adorning the hoods of sports cars, the Cooper S' scoop is functional, force-feeding air to an intercooler, a sort of air-to-air radiator that cools the incoming air for greater density and more power.
The reason that the Cooper S needs the intercooler is because its diminutive 1.6-liter single overhead camshaft four has grown a supercharger. Belt-driven and amazingly compact, the roots-type blower increases horsepower from 115 to 163 and ups maximum torque from 105 pound-feet to 156. That's good enough, says the company, to propel the Cooper S to 62 miles per hour in just 7.4 seconds, distinctly quicker than the 9.2 seconds the company claims for the garden-variety Cooper.
And the supercharger certainly does make its presence known at low speeds, as the Cooper S' engine pulls from much lower rpm than the normally aspirated version. Although there's still a flat spot until 2,000 rpm, low-end torque is greatly improved, requiring less shifting of the gearbox (with six speeds on the S) to maintain forward momentum. Because the engine isn't always clawing for revs, it feels a little less strained, and the cabin is calmer for it. Nonetheless, the performance improvement didn't feel as potent as the big jump in numbers would seem to indicate. Perhaps it's because the S version weighs almost 200 pounds more than the base version.
Harnessing the increased power is a sportier suspension and wider tires than on the Cooper. Not only have the spring rates for the front McPherson struts and rear multi-arm independent suspension been increased, but the S wears antiroll bars on both axles, whereas the base version only gets a stabilizer bar on the front. Tire size is up substantially, as well, from 175/65R15 to 195/55R15.
Since our original test revealed little to complain about in the handling department, it'll come as no surprise that the Cooper S offers even more of the "go-kart" corners-as-if-on-rails sensation we found on the base Cooper. The steering, with electromechanical assist, is as direct and communicative as ever, and body roll is almost completely banished. Mini offers an optional 17-inch wheel/tire package that upgrades the tires to 205/45R17s, but they should be considered a cosmetic advantage to anyone not planning on taking her Cooper racing.
The flip side to the S' superior cornering ability is a ride that is noticeably stiffer than the Cooper's. Not all of the blame goes to the stiffer suspenders, though. Part of the blame lies with the low-profile run-flat Dunlops specified by Germany. Their tire design necessitates a stiffer sidewall than a conventional tire's, so it's inevitable that the ride quality suffers. It's worth noting that BMW claims that the Cooper can drive as much as 90 miles on a flat tire (as long as speeds don't exceed 50 miles per hour) and that trying to fit a spare would eat up the cargo space that is already at a premium.
But given a choice of the two models, we'd probably opt for the base 115 hp version. Yes, we're surprised, too, but the S' suspension is just too hard for everyday use.
Incredibly, both editors who have driven our test Minis selected almost identical equipment levels. We'd option the base Cooper out with the CVT tranny ($1,250); the Sport package ($1,250) that includes the larger wheels, sport seats and a rear spoiler; and just because we like the symmetry of having both speedo and tachometer on the steering column, we'd spend the $1,600 for the nav system. Last, but not least, we'd get the white "bonnet" stripes to accent the electric blue paint, just like the poster car that hangs in our office.
That totals up to $20,400. Not bad for a car that will never fail to put a smile on your face.