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2014 MINI COOPER S: Taking fun to the next level

Third-generation Mini advances smartly while staying true to its roots

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BMW made it new Mini 114 millimetres longer, 44 mm wider and seven mm higher than its predecessor.

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DORADO, Puerto Rico -- The reincarnation of the Mini by BMW in 2001 retained the core elements of the British Motor Corporation Mini's philosophy as designed by its creator, Alec Issigonis, more than 40 years earlier.

It had a transversely mounted engine, front-wheel drive, wheels set at all four corners and an advanced undercarriage that not only delivered surprising cabin space but outstanding driving agility.

What BMW did was enhance these elements, introducing a premium-priced subcompact that was larger and more practical than the 1959 original -- and an absolute blast to drive.

Thirteen years later, the third-generation Mini takes another run at Issigonis' concept.

Here's the question: Does this quasi-retro three-door hatchback retain the personality of its two predecessors (generation two came out in 2006), or is it starting to lose its charm?

Here, in the warmth and sunshine of Puerto Rico, el Mini es tan divertido de conducir como siempre -- it's as much fun to drive as it ever was. But, under its fresh yet oh-so-familiar sheet metal, there are rather significant changes, the first -- at least for those of us who are of larger-than-average dimensions -- being that it's upsized. Length is increased by a rather substantial 114 millimetres. It's also 44 mm wider and seven mm higher than its predecessor.

This translates into extra room for those occupying any of its four seats (it's still an impossibly tight squeeze for adults of normal dimensions to fit into the back) as well as a larger luggage area, which sees its volume inflated by 50 litres to a total of 211 L (1,076 L with the rear seats folded).

As important as that is, it's what's under the hood that really counts. Does Mini-3 have the goods to satisfy los demonios de la velocidad -- the speed demons?

Si! Even the new 134-horsepower 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine, which replaces the 121-hp 1.6L four-cylinder from Gen 2, has impressive scoot. Credit the extra torque: a robust 162 pound-feet at a low 1,250 rpm.

Around the drive route in the morning, which wound along the coastline before turning inland into trickier, hillier countryside, you would be hard-pressed to notice the engine is firing only three cylinders. It accelerates smoothly, with just a hint of roughness occurring near redline.

On longer inclines or when trying to accelerate at low rpm, it might be necessary to shift down a gear to keep the momentum going, but otherwise it's a gem of an engine that is likely to prove very fuel-efficient (official fuel-economy figures are not yet available).

BMW claims the base Cooper will hit 100 kilometres an hour in 7.9 seconds with the six-speed manual -- and a tenth of a second faster than that when fitted with the available six-speed autobox. (But to consider the manumatic when the manual is so good should be an offence punishable by six months in a Prius. More on this later.)

While the Mini cognoscenti might notice a minuscule loss of precision because of the new car's increased length, newbies and those with less finely tuned butts will still proclaim the hatchback a go-kart. Certainly the revisions to the lighter-weight suspension -- single-joint spring strut front axle along with a multi-link rear axle -- have paid off in spades.

The car, which at 1,182 kilograms for the manual Cooper and 1,252 for the Cooper S weighs slightly less than its predecessor, is easy to toss around, yet sticks to the tarmac like few, if any, front-drive cars can. And yes, the ride is firm enough that hitting a pothole at any speed will cause you to wince.

The afternoon's drive featured more of the same roads, only this time in the Cooper S.

With eight more horsepower (189 in total) than the 1.6L turbo four in last year's model, the 2.0-litre turbo four in the 2014 Cooper S is made for vehicular hooliganism -- even with the six-speed manumatic transmission with which all the test models were fitted.

At least the manumatic came with paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel. And, to be fair, the shifts are knocked off with laser precision. But there's a loss of driver/car interaction that can't be replaced.

The new Minis now come with variable driving modes that can accentuate fuel economy or performance, depending on the selection. A rotary switch at the base of the shifter is used to activate the standard Mid mode or the Sport or Green modes.

In addition to altering accelerator and steering feel as well as engine acoustics, the driving modes also influence the ambient lighting and the shift characteristics of the available automatic transmission and Dynamic Damper Control system.

In Green mode, the energy used by electrically powered comfort functions such as air conditioning and exterior mirror heating is reduced. In automatic-equipped cars, a coasting function has the ability to decouple the drivetrain at speeds of between 50 and 160 km/h as soon as the driver's foot is taken off the accelerator pedal.

Left in Sport mode, the Cooper S absolutely pillaged a set of twisties. Despite the speeds reached, my driving partner, a Targa Newfoundland veteran in previous-generation Mini Coopers, couldn't upset the car's balance, activate the electronic stability control or fade the brakes -- no matter how hard he tried.

Acceleration is impressive -- zero to 100 in 6.7 seconds for the manumatic -- but sports-car handling is the S model's raison d' tre.

Inside, the Mini's dash layout has been reworked, with the speedometer, tach and fuel level displayed on vertically arranged circular instruments. And the range of optional driver assistance systems has been significantly expanded, including an extendable head-up display above the steering column.

Social media and other apps for both the Apple iPhone and for smartphones using the Android operating system can now be integrated into the in-car infotainment program.

More features, including a driving assistant system, which includes camera-based active cruise control, collision and pedestrian warning, a high-beam assistant and speed-limit information, as well as a parking assistant and a rear-view camera, will be available later in the car's production run.

There's much more to the new Mini Cooper than just the changes noted, with countless little details to be explored when more time allows. The upshot, however, is the new car is as fun as its predecessors while being better in just about every way. In short, it's muy caliente (very hot).

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

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