I'm parked alongside the road to Castellet, España, in a spanking-new 2007 Mini Cooper — an S version, for the record — when Officer Jose Lopez of the Policía Local de Catalunya rounds the corner. Instantly, his roof lights snap on as he angles his cruiser across the one-and-a-bit-lane road, ending up nose-to-nose with my Hyper Blue example of the freshly redesigned two-door hatchback.
"Documentos, por favor."
"Huh? I'm just sitting here," I say to myself.
Apparently, his radio had been crackling all morning with reports of a Mini buzzing along multiple roads on his beat, seemingly all at once. Looking at our 2007 Mini Cooper S with bewilderment, Officer Lopez wants an explanation.
"Velocidad es nada. It must have been someone else, señor," I manage to explain via a halting combination of hand signals and years-dormant junior-high Spanish. Several someone elses, in fact, as 40-plus examples of the 2007 Mini Cooper S hatchback are simultaneously in the hands of a global plethora of others like me. After an eventual call to the jefe at HQ confirms my story, Office Lopez eases up a bit. The perplexed look remains, however, as he scans my Mini Cooper with renewed interest.
Perhaps he is trying to spot differences between the new model and its predecessor, and having no luck. I know how he feels. In presentations by BMW brass last night, the preservation of the "Mini design language" had been a recurring theme.
Basic dimensions like the wheelbase and track widths are unchanged, while height and overall width deviate by a pencil width or less. European pedestrian impact standards, gruesome though the visuals may be, made it necessary to extend the nose 1.5 inches and raise the hood above the engine by about 0.8 inch to create a bit more crushable volume for the cranial protection of hapless jaywalkers.
By paying careful attention to the proportions of the rest of the car, such as carrying that 0.8-inch increase down the length of the belt line and adding a like amount to the rear overhang, the reverse rhinoplasty is all but invisible. It still looks like a Mini. The icon remains intact. The faithful can exhale.
"I have a Mini," exhales the now smiling Officer Lopez out of nowhere.
Room to vroom
I open the door so he can look inside, where the most visible differences reside. The even larger central speedometer now houses the radio controls and display. It's now big enough to house the optional navigation system screen while still functioning on the perimeter as a speedo.
With most of the radio relocated upward — the volume knob and disc slot remain lower down — the climate controls could be reworked. Some might think the Mini logo shape of the button array is gimmicky, but at least controls of different sorts aren't crammed together anymore. Toggle-switch fans need not worry, as they're back in full force, with a second set added above the rearview mirror.
The biggest news for drivers is that the center stack remodel made it slimmer, resulting in a substantially bigger foot box. Now my wide-ish pair of size 13s no longer snags the pedals while dancing through corners. Equally good is the new telescopic steering wheel, which gives the knees more room to work. More comfortably sculpted seats complete the picture.
Officer Lopez has seen enough, and says good-bye as he climbs back into his squad car, but not before he releases me with broken English and hand gestures to "Have at it, but be careful." Who am I to argue with an officer of the law?
The road to Castellet is narrow, undulating and sinuous. The new Mini Cooper S eats it for lunch. While the suspension layout — struts up front, multilink in the rear — and the tire sizes are essentially the same as before, there are noticeable revisions.
Slightly increased wheel travel lets the suspension breathe a bit, while lighter rear trailing arms, aluminum instead of steel, reduce unsprung weight and allow the chassis engineers more freedom with the damping. Revised steering geometry and a quicker ratio make turn-in more immediate, yet improve straight-line stability. Fourth-generation Dunlop 195/55R16 run-flat tires feature less rigid sidewalls.
It all results in handling that's just as epic as before, with much less kicking and screaming when the road gets lumpy. Even the optional 205/45R17 tires, brutish at times on the last car, have a shot at being livable on the streets and freeways back home.
My personal biggest fear about the new Mini was the switch to electric power steering (EPS). Thankfully, I, too, can exhale as BMW has managed to do what others have not: make EPS, through careful hardware and software tuning, feel like "regular" good steering. And even though the rack itself is solid-mounted to the chassis for good direct feel and immediate response, the EPS system nicely filters out steering nastiness like shimmy and kickback. Kudos.
New and improved
Partnering with PSA (a.k.a. Peugeot and Citroën) BMW invested a lot in two new engines for the Mini Cooper, in order to rid itself of the Chrysler-derived, South-American-built mills found in the old car. The new power plants are built at BMW's own Hams Hall engine plant, a short lorry ride away from the Mini assembly plant in Oxford. This alone accounts for a big chunk of the increase in U.K.-sourced parts content from 40 to 60 percent.
An all-new turbocharged, not supercharged, 1.6-liter engine sits under the Cooper S's engorged hood. That turbo is a twin-scroll unit, which spins up faster. Direct injection allows a high 10.5:1 compression ratio. Valvetronic variable valve timing and lift does away with the traditional throttle butterfly altogether. And the major bits are aluminum, making the whole thing lighter.
Horsepower is up to 175, from 168, peaking now at 5500 rpm instead of six grand. Torque not only increases from 162 to 177 pound-feet, but peaks at a mere 1600 rpm and stays there all the way to 5000. Short bursts of 192 lb-ft overboost await the command of a heavy right foot. Despite all of that, fuel economy allegedly improves 18 percent. We'll have to wait a few weeks for U.S. EPA test figures.
The base Cooper's 1.6-liter engine is also all-new, albeit without direct injection. Output increases are modest as horsepower rises by 3 to 118, and torque climbs 8 to 118 lb-ft. Fuel economy is said to increase 16 percent, making a U.S. highway rating of 40 mpg possible. We'll have to wait and see.
Transmission choices have thankfully improved, as the five-speed manual and continuously variable transmission have been axed. Now all Coopers start with a six-speed manual, with improved synchros, including reverse. The previously S-only six-speed Steptronic automatic with manual mode is optional across the board. Propulsive forces feed out of these gearboxes through equal-length driveshafts, cutting torque steer off at the knees.
What that all boils down to on my Mini Cooper S is a helluva good time, as the new S doesn't run out of breath nearly as easily as its predecessor. Apart from the welcome increase in thrust, the absence of supercharger whine is immediately obvious. This engine simply goes about its business, pulling strong and smooth, with no appreciable lag or turbo whine. Driven at a moderate pace, upshifts are accompanied by a pleasant exhaust burble.
It's all good
Even though the Cooper S has been redesigned, with no major parts shared with the outgoing one, every mechanical change has been for the better, while the iconic styling that we all know and love has been painstakingly preserved.
Prices, which are not expected to rise significantly, won't be released until January. BMW would not confirm when U.S. sales would begin, but indications suggest late February is a safe bet.
Excuse me while I figure out how to get my name on the waiting list. Shall I put your name down for one, too, Officer Lopez?
The manufacturer loaned Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.