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Mini Cooper S vs Ford Fiesta ST

  1. John Cooper, famous Mini fiddler and F1 designer, may have been somewhat horrified by the car that now wears his name. For if you pop the new Mini Cooper S into Sport mode, you are told by the display screen to expect - and I quote - ‘maximum go-kart feel’. Two cartoon thought bubbles appear by a picture of the car, one filled with a go-kart and the other with a rocket. Should you feel less racy, our German friends (this is a BMW Mini, remember) have programmed a different message: Green mode, for low-consumption driving fun! The whiff of cheese is strong enough to make old John turn in his grave. This is sad. Because his name is legend, as are most cars that wear it. We’ve always liked Coopers, especially the S versions and fizzy Works specials. And going by our recent first encounter, the new-gen Mini - the basic one - is very likeable. Can this new S model keep up the good work and uphold the Cooper reputation, despite the silly drawings?

    Photography: Lee Brimble

    This feature was originally published in the April 2014 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. First it must face the Ford Fiesta ST. Issue 255 of Top Gear magazine was dedicated to supercar killers, and there is no better way to murder a Ferrari down a greasy lane than with the little Ford. It’s our current Car of the Year, and we make no apology for banging on about it. If the Mini is to pull off the same trick, this is the standard it must meet. Which is why we’re lining them up on the Welshest of Welsh roads to see which one kicks the most butt. Both have four-cylinder turbos. Both will do 0-62mph in a smidge under seven seconds. The Mini makes 189bhp; the Ford makes 182bhp. They start life £1,665 apart, but the gap widens further when you work in some options. Where the Fiesta tops out at £17,995, the Mini can romp on to about £23,500, like the car we have here. The question is, do leather seats and cartoon rockets really matter when you’re in the thick of a meaty corner? Let’s see.

  3. It might look familiar, but the new Mini - or new new Mini - is a completely different car to the one it replaces. Not a single body panel is carried over. It has a new range of engines, so the Cooper S’s 1.6-litre is replaced by this 2.0-litre turbo. It has a longer front end and a new face with a couple of tusk-like air intakes under its chin. The sides are more chunkily surfaced, and the rear lights are now the size of horse saddles, in an effort to disguise the inflated proportions of the rest of the car. Inside the changes are greater. The speedo has migrated to the correct position in front of your eyes, while the central circle it vacates now houses a ring of glowing - and slightly naff - lights that frame the info screen. The mushroom stalk that controlled all the infotainment stuff is replaced by BMW’s iDrive wheel.

  4. The windscreen is still upright and located about a mile from your face. So from the moment you sink into the seat, the Mini feels bigger than it is. But with the driver’s seat set to accommodate a normal human, rear passengers will have to be a) abnormal, or b) not human. The car’s newfound length hasn’t made much difference in here, it would seem. However, the seats are lovely and supportive, provided you don’t have overly fleshy sides. Build quality is excellent. There’s lots to look at and more to play with, like the red starter toggle and a new collar that rotates around the base of the gearstick. Use it to set the adaptive dampers (a £375 option plus £135 for the Driving Modes package). Today, I think a touch of Sport is in order. MAXIMUM GO-KART FEEL, HERE WE COME…

  5. And yes, the ride is instantly more bobbly than in Normal mode. Like a go-kart, you might say. The throttle is keener, and the steering takes on more weight. It’s very accurate and makes the car impressively direct. It could do with a touch more feedback, as the added resistance - achieved with the help of an electrically assisted rack - steals a little feel. And it does run slightly wider than the Fiesta in the really tight bends, but it weighs 72kg more than the Ford and the engine is 402cc bigger than the ST’s 1.6-litre, so there’s more mass over the front wheels. But otherwise it’s crisp and pointy, which is just what you want from a car like this on a hectic road with hairpins.

  6. The Cooper’s engine sounds snarly enough and gives a steady spread of power. But despite making similar torque in similar places to the ST, it doesn’t feel as turbo-whooshy. But gaining speed isn’t the issue. The way it loses it, however, is more troublesome. The Mini’s brakes feel stiff and need a firm press before they do their best work. It’s almost as if they’re unassisted. Another inch or so of travel might lend a more progressive feel, which would help to boss the braking zones. Then there’s the Cooper’s rev-match system, which blips the throttle as you downshift. Neat idea, especially if you’re not a heel ‘n’ toe natural. But it doesn’t blip enough. And, worse, there’s an occasional surge as you come off the clutch, which can result in a rather puckered anatomy.

  7. No such gimmicks in the Ford. Just get in and get on with it. The plastics and dash design look dated next to the Mini’s shiny new layout, though they aren’t nasty. Just simple. Besides, you still have digital radio and a smattering of other luxuries. The steering, gearshift and throttle are passive, and better for it. It has rear torsion beam suspension versus the Mini’s multi-link set-up. But guess which one is more likely to cock a wheel on a sharp turn? The Ford is lighter, livelier and stops better. On a road like this, it’s constantly playfighting with little tugs at the wheel and little skips over the road. You can brake deep and late and feel the whole car pivot around you. You can be clumsy and it’ll forgive you (or give you a cheeky, oversteery fright if you come off the throttle too abruptly). In comparison, the Mini is tidier and more grown-up. It’s comfier and more refined - not just when measured against the ST, but also the Mini it replaces.

  8. In the Fiesta, you feel the tyres scrub over the road and transmit their findings back through the steering wheel. It’s like getting your knee down on a motorbike - when you know the texture of the road, it’s easier to assess the grip, or lack of it. The ST has the same width of tyres as the Mini - albeit with slightly smaller wheels - but the Fiesta’s feel skinnier. And I mean that in a good way, because that’s what a hot hatch should be about. The Fiesta ropes you into everything, from the scramble for grip to the stretch for every last rpm. The Mini has become a bit sniffy towards such antics, as if the road - the very thing we’re here to enjoy - is some dirty thought that must be filtered out before reaching your soft, clean hands.

  9. Yes, the Cooper S is a decent little(ish) hatch. But it’s less of a B-road blaster than the ST. On the flipside, it’s a better cruiser, and more comfy when mooching around town. And the cabin is now in a different league to the Ford’s. But, more than ever, the smart Mini also has one eye on the mirror. The ST has just one thing on its mind: going down a road with a smile on its face. It’s posh versus performance. Fashion versus fast. As a driving tool, the Ford dropkicks the Mini off the field. So for the Mini to make sense, to give it a real point of difference over the Ford, it needs a healthy roster of options. And once it’s loaded with those, it could cost you six grand more than the Fiesta. And just think what you could buy with that sort of money.

    Go-kart, anyone?

  10. Specs

    Mini Cooper S

    Price: £18,650
    Engine: 1998cc, 4cyl turbo, 189bhp @ 6000rpm, 206lb ft @ 1250rpm
    Performance: 0-62mph in 6.8secs, 146mph top speed
    Transmission: 6spd manual, FWD
    Economy: 49.6mpg (combined), 133g/km CO2
    Weight: 1235kg

    Ford Fiesta ST

    Price: £16,995
    Engine: 1596cc 4cyl turbo, 182bhp @ 5700rpm, 214lb ft @ 1600rpm
    Performance: 0-62mph in 6.9secs, 139mph top speed
    Transmission: 6spd manual, FWD
    Economy: 47.9mpg (combined), 138g/km CO2
    Weight: 1163kg

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