It felt like déjà vu. Tearing down the narrow Puerto Rican backroads with all the furor I could muster, I sought to see if the 2014 Mini Cooper S was a clear separation of the men from the boys, figuratively speaking. Earlier in the day, I had driven the 134-horsepower 2014 Mini Cooper and come away with the impression that the little three-cylinder engine found under its hood was all the might anyone could ever need in a hot hatch.
As I pushed the engine near its redline in the 2014 Cooper S, a 189-horsepower terror of a car, dodging oncoming vintage Suzukis and Toyotas driving towards me on the road that wouldn't be wide enough for one lane in the U.S., my co-driver asked, "Is this the scariest press drive you've ever been on?"
No. That, friends, was the drive last year for the 2013 Mini Cooper S JCW GP that was also in Puerto Rico. Despite having much more car than the stripped-out, pared-down GP to drive this time, the experience was only a tad less thrilling, which is certainly encouraging for what is a vastly more refined package.
Model and PriceThe 2014 Mini Cooper S starts at the low, low price of $24,395, including $795 for destination and handling. Okay, so maybe that's a bit more than the punchier $22,225 Ford Fiesta ST and right on the money with the $24,450 Ford Focus ST, which comes with 252 horses under its hood. But think about it like this: Those cars are Fords. What you're looking at here is a Mini, which pretty much means it has the cachet of a BMW at a bargain price, right?
Ask Mini's product planners and the top two competing vehicles that come up for cross-shopping include the Toyota Prius and BMW 3 Series, so we're inclined to follow that skewed logic. In any case, the 2014 Mini Cooper S only starts at $4,000 more than a standard Mini Cooper, but it's oh so much more of a car than its lesser sibling, which we found amply surprising.
Safety and Key FeaturesAs we've already mentioned in our review of the 2014 Mini Cooper, the new schnoz is the most noticeable difference between the 2014 and 2013 models, even though they're two completely different cars. Mini added about three inches to the front end to cope with pedestrian safety standards overseas and the IIHS's narrow offset crash test, which is especially tough on small cars. The North American market also has two more airbags than the rest of the world.
But enough with the stuff you're expecting of a premium-priced compact car. Under the hood of our tester was a new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, pumping out just eight more horsepower than the engine it replaces at 189. But torque is way up to 206 pound-feet versus last year's 177. With an overboost function, that number jumps up to 221 pound-feet for a limited time. What does that mean to you? There's much more grunt to this engine than there would appear on the surface, and the engine lets you know it.
Family Friendliness and UtilityIn the 2014 Mini Cooper S, 1.1 inch of wheelbase has been added, which doesn't sound like much. And, honestly, it's not. But it makes what was a wholly unusable rear seat in the 2013 model somewhat bearable in the new car.
Also an inch wider, the 2014 Mini Cooper S is more accommodating in its more spacious, airy interior for front passengers and in the back for cargo. Now, all Mini Cooper hardtops feature 8.7 cubic feet of cargo space, which isn't that much. But compared to the outgoing car, that's three additional cubes, which come in handy for a weekend's worth of suitcases. It also keeps the Mini in the chase with the 9.5 cubic feet of carrying space in the rival Fiat 500.
Comfort and QualityWe didn't have too much time to jump in the back seat of the 2014 Mini Cooper S, so all we can tell you is that it's a place best left for luggage and Oompa Loompas. Instead, we found ourselves behind the wheel of the car, gripping its hefty John Cooper Works leather-wrapped steering wheel—a well-worth-it $250 option—and sitting in its cloth/leather sport seats.
What we found was a vastly higher-quality interior than the model it replaces. Sure, some things are more conventional—the speedometer is right in front of you instead of in the middle of the dashboard, the cupholders are much better, and the material quality invokes feeling of specialness that the old car didn't have. On top of all of that, the 2014 Mini Cooper S is much quieter over the road, which is just icing on the cake to us.
How it DrivesMany might dismiss this car because of its front-drive layout when similarly sporty cars in its price range like the Subaru BRZ push power through the back wheels for supposedly more balanced driving. But the 2014 Mini Cooper S has to be driven to be believed. Mini has always touted go kart-like handling, and the new car delivers as much as anything that weights just under 2,800 pounds can. Power comes on with a surge, and it seemingly never relents.
While available with a six-speed manual transmission, our Cooper S was optioned with the $1,250 six-speed automatic transmission that also had paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel. We found it geared to allow plenty of access to the engine's punch, with tight, controlled steering allowing us to conquer the Puerto Rican countryside. All we could really ask for is a bit more steering feel, which was, at times, lacking in the corners, especially when compared to cars like the Ford Focus ST.
SummaryIn the grand scheme of sporty compact cars, the 2014 Mini Cooper looks like an update on-paper instead of an overhaul. But there's much more to this car than manufacturer-issued numbers in an information packet can convey. With more torque and only 60 more pounds to carry than the outgoing model, the 2014 Mini Cooper S scoots through the tight tropical roads of Puerto Rico like how I remember the outgoing GP model doing it: With precision and power in a compact size that makes it possible to exploit its performance without the need for long straights and miles of racetrack. The only difference is that with better sound deadening and in a vastly updated package, it does so with less visceral punch, at least from a driver's perspective. For 2014, the Mini Cooper S has grown up. While still feisty, its refinement has dulled some of the excitement of its predecessor, if only just so. But it's that much greater level of luxury and refinement that really sets it apart from other cars in its price range. The fact that it can so easily rip across tarmac at speed with such poise only makes us want it more.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $31,645
EPA City: 23 mpg
EPA Highway: 37 mpg
EPA Combined: 28 mpg
Cargo Space: 8.7 cubic feet