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Mini battles the Beetle

Retro icons tug on the heartstrings, but which one wins?

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2013 MINI COOPER S vs 2013 VW Beetle GSR

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2008 Mini Cooper for $15,800

2008 Mini Cooper

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This week, Nick Tragianis and Jodi Lai find out which European hatchback wins their hearts with heritage and cuteness: The 2013 Mini Cooper S or the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle GSR.

Nick Tragianis: The Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Beetle have a lot in common. They were both poster children of the 1960s and their reputations precede them by a long shot. Chances are, even if you couldn't care less about cars, you could instantly recognize the Beetle's iconic bubbly shape or immediately know the Mini Cooper's signature look is a lime green body with a black hood (with an armchair on the roof or a padlock on the driver's door). In fact, today's pony car trio notwithstanding, few vehicles on the market bulge at the seams because of all that heritage packed beneath their body panels.

Jodi Lai: Both of our competitors are backed by a rich history and pay homage to it with their retro vibes. The Beetle GSR (I thought it stood for German Super Rocket, but apparently it stands for Gelb Schwarzer Renner, which means Yellow Black Racer in German) is a 40th anniversary edition of VW's iconic little racing bug, while the Mini is, well, a Mini. Being retro comes with the territory.

This test was an exercise in logic versus emotion, however. While the Beetle at first glance is indisputably an all-around better car on paper (it's more robust, gets better reliability ratings and has a better build quality), the Mini won my heart -- against the wishes of my logic -- because it has this weird connection to my soul. Overdramatic, it may be, but you feel connected to the Mini when you drive it. Actually, you drive the Beetle, but the Mini drives you. As my husband said, the Mini only has two speeds: Fast and get the f--k outta the way.

NT: That's strange. I thought the Mini had six speeds. You know what the stranger thing is? The Cooper S pumps out 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque from its boosted 1.6-litre in-line four, but it feels considerably faster than the Beetle GSR. Volkswagen is running an updated version of its 2.0L turbo-four under the striped schwarzer hood of our gleb renner, now producing 210 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque.

Part of this has to do with the fact the Mini is much smaller and lighter than the VW. The Cooper S weighs 1,210 kilograms, some 143 less than the Beetle GSR, making it much more agile and eager to be tossed into a set of sweeping apexes. The other part is the noise piped through the Mini's twin exhaust tips. Push the magic Sport button and the "get the f--k outta the way" side awakens, sharpening the throttle and making the exhaust note much throatier. The best part comes whenever you time the clutch-and-throttle dance just right as you palm the shifter into a lower gear, where the Cooper S snaps, crackles and pops as loud as a bowl of Rice Krispies.

JL: That snap-crackle-pop is part of why the Mini has more of an emotional connection to the driver -- the Mini wants you to be a hooligan and you feel obliged to entertain the scoundrel. It's lower to the ground and the suspension is much tighter, ensuring you feel everything and don't forget your main goal is to shirk driving responsibly because that's booooring, ol' chap. The meaty steering wheel is psychic and gives you great feedback from those tiny tires, while the clutch and shifter are easy to moderate and speak to the car's ruffian intentions.

The Beetle, on the other hand, looks like a hooligan with its bold racing stripes and a deck-lid spoiler big enough to eat breakfast on, but my main issue is it doesn't act the part. It's quiet, supremely stable and more comfortable, but that doesn't encourage you to break any laws. Um, not that I did or anything.

NT: The Beetle GSR is the car to get if you're a sensible hooligan -- if such a thing exists. Its six-speed dual-clutch automatic makes it a suitable daily driver, but it delivers smooth and very quick shifts. Its suspension isn't as tight and planted as the Mini's, but it's so much more forgiving over bumps and rough pavement. Let's not forget about long-term reliability: We both know Volkswagen and Mini don't have a reputation as stellar as Honda or Toyota, but I'd bet the Beetle GSR would fare much, much better than the Cooper S in the long run.

In this instance, the Mini reigns supreme, thanks to how its small packaging leads to such a bewilderingly fun drive. But the only thing stopping the Mini Cooper S from fully winning over my heart was its price.

Sure, it was loaded with goodies such as a panoramic sunroof, GPS navigation and various performance bits from the John Cooper Works package, but it topped out at $37,305. That's $8,300 more than what the base Cooper S costs and $3,600 more than the Beetle GSR. That's not exactly cheap, considering you could get a whole host of other hot hatches for far less.

JL: The best part of our test, though, was the two older chaps who stopped to talk to us when we were shooting the little buggers. The two gentlemen were really taken by our two retro rides, and couldn't help but reminisce about the good old days when they were checking our cars out. That made me love these two cars even more.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

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