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The first Cooper was born on the race track. John Cooper’s eponymous Cooper Car Company started out tuning up cars for private playboy racers after the Second World War and, by the end of the Forties, had begun building single-seater high-powered machines for Formula One. In their 19-year F1 history, from 1950-1969, the team bagged two constructors’ championships, won several races and had champions like Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham piloting their machines.
Midway through Cooper’s F1 sojourn, the company decided to try its hand at rally racing. It needed a two-seater car, so it collaborated with British Motor Corporation’s lightweight Mini. The deliciously rev-happy Mini Cooper was born in 1961 as a rally car – with a road-legal variant, too.
Needless to say, I had no trouble finding, and pinning, the throttle on my 2015 Mini Cooper D. This hot hatch has stubbornly remained a three-door, built for two (a cramped backseat existed, but it was best to throw your backpack there rather than punish a third passenger) for over four decades, until now. This edition has five doors, with space for four people.
Which makes sense, when you consider that its owner, BMW, has created something of an urban ride with this machine. I find features here that I never thought I would in a bonafide track rat: sat-nav on an oversized round display in the dash, colourful ambient lighting and a back that’s stretched to accommodate two more doors with acres of legroom for the rear passengers. Plus, a voluminous 288-litre boot.
The good thing, though, is that in spite of these mods, this car still looks and rides like its predecessors. It has a stubby body and bulbous bug-eyed headlights that attract even more attention with their daytime-running LEDs. And despite the additional 30kg in weight – thanks to those two extra doors and that stretched chassis – this new car has a 0-100kph timing that comes up quicker, and a higher top speed, than the three door variant. Mr John Cooper rests in peace.
There’s a loud throaty rumble that filters through to the cabin even with the windows up, and it all adds to a tactile sensory experience that works perfectly well for this go-kart-esque ride. I’m gripping a tiny steering wheel, sitting snug and low in my bucket seat, keeping an eye on my speed on a heads-up display that pops out of the dash – this is a racy city slicker that hasn’t been domesticated.
The one thing I sorely miss in this pocket rocket, though, is a manual gearshift. And the six-speed automatic doesn’t come with a set of paddles behind the wheel, either.
That’s collateral, though, that many city-dwelling folks, BMW’s target buyers for this urban hatch hatch, are willing to trade for the convenience of nipping through traffic.
The hyper-responsive handling of the car means that in the city I can outpace bikers and, if I see a narrow opening in the next lane, take it. It’s a free-spirited, rambunctious little scamp, this one, and there’s always a sense of urgency in the way it drives. It’s when I take it outside the city and on the highway that I can fully enjoy its “Sport” mode. Instantly, the throttle sharpens, the chassis stiffens and the handling becomes knife-edge sharp. On a sweeping curve, I don’t need to take my foot off the accelerator. It corners squat.
For BMW, the five-door Mini Cooper was a gamble. Clearly, it’s played a winning hand by showing that you can cede ground to the practical and carpool friendly brigade and still come up with a ride that appeals to the most ardent Mini fan. To which we say, borrowing a leaf from The Great Gatsby: “Mini Cooper, you always had our curiosity, but now you have our attention.”
Did you know?
The Mini, conceived by engineer and designer Alec Issigonis in 1959, was a mash-up between two legendary cars: the Morris Minor and the Austin Seven. The Minor had such a reliable engine that even four decades after its production ceased, you’d have little trouble coming across one in impeccable condition in the secondhand market.
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