Friday, 11 April 2008

Test Drive - Mini Cooper S

The addition or alteration of a single letter can often lead to an absolute shift in perspective. An innocent note from your doctor referring you to an analyst could ever so easily be misread as ‘anal cyst’, and then you’re in a whole world of unexpected trouble. The citizens of the historic Merseyside enclave of Lunt grow weary of the obvious graffiti that’s constantly applied to their roadsigns by local miscreants and are campaigning to be renamed ‘Launt’. The Porsche Boxster and Boxster S are entirely different animals to the tune of 0.7 litres and 50bhp. And so it goes on.

The Mini Cooper S has basically hijacked the Boxster S effect. The bog-standard see-one-on-every-corner Mini Cooper (no-one buys the Mini One unless they’re really dull) is a competent and entertaining little hatchback, but the addition of the letter S turns ‘competent’ into ‘staggering’. It enjoys forced induction, you see.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves… forgetting performance for the moment, is the Mini actually any good? Well, yes. Yes it is. The main problem that it suffers from is saturation; aside from the army of Foxtons arseholes that cock around London in them smearing a greasy tide of smarm and witlessness, they seem also to be the default choice for middle-class housewife type A and, as such, pop up as every third car in the city sporting furry dice and a ‘babe on board’ sticker. Let this not diminish the strength of the Mini. It is mighty.

For one thing, it’s glued together as solidly as you’d expect a BMW to be. There’s a genuine feeling of quality and solidity that indirectly inspires confidence in the car’s ability as a whole. The slightly choppy ride of the first-generation new Mini has been tinkered with and rethought to leave a pleasingly firm yet forgiving balance which doesn’t give you the feeling that it’s trying to rattle itself to pieces, so the interior is rather a pleasant place to be. The styling cues gleaned from the original Mini that seemed so radical and exciting at launch have aged well and just feel, well, normal – even the ridiculously colossal central speedo quickly loses its overwhelming Flavor Flav–ness. It’s cheery. It’s a good place to be. The switchgear provides a pleasingly meaty series of clicks and snicks (aside from the indicator stalk – why is every manufacturer leaping on the touch-sensitive bandwagon? It’s shite), and the steering-wheel, rev counter cheekily peeking out from under the rim, is thick and sturdy. It’s reassuring, it’s inviting, it’s bubbling over with potential for mischief.

In terms of practicality, it’s hit and miss. The front seats are superb – high, rigid bolsters and maximum adjustability – and the rears can accommodate grown-ups without too much embarrassment. Don’t expect to get anything in the boot though – it’s just about big enough for your coat if it’s a nice summer day and you’re rocking the thin cotton, but you can forget the wintery Puffa jacket. Sorry, you look a little confused… don’t worry, SuckSqueezeBangBlow still doesn’t give a fuck about practicality. This is merely background fluff. Moving on…

There’s a bucketful of quickness, and that’s what we really care about. Proper quickness. The old Brazilian-built Chrysler unit of the previous-generation Mini, accomplished though it was, has been junked in favour of a legitimate BMW-built engine (admittedly in conjunction with Peugeot but hey, they know a thing or two about hot hatches too). Still following the 1600cc 16v route, this results in 118bhp for the standard Cooper and, with the addition of a turbocharger – as opposed to the supercharger fitted to its predecessor - a gusset-moistening 172bhp for the Cooper S. The best way to feel the full force of the turbo – and you can take my word for this – is to borrow a Cooper S whose ‘S’ badge has fallen off the back. ‘Hmm,’ you’ll think, ‘it’s just a boggo Cooper. There’s S-spec centre-exit exhausts, interesting, must be an optional extra for the minnow model’, and then you’ll plant your right boot to the bulkhead very firmly, expecting to have a bit of work to do. The surroundings will go all wibbly and you’ll find that you’ve got a face full of horizon. 172bhp in a high-shouldered and narrow-windowed supermini feels gratifyingly epic.

More good news manifests itself in the form of the all-new six-speed gearbox, which is just lovely. There’s a sensation familiar to all petrolheads when you find yourself gelling with a piece of machinery so organically that you wonder what specific thing this particular manufacturer has done that’s different to everybody else, and why on earth everyone doesn’t do the same. I won’t fudge its gloriousness with fawning or hyperbole – let’s just say that this is a fabulously well-judged gearbox. A piece of superior engineering such as this is even enough to push from your mind the crushing disappointment of the steering, which BMW have comprehensively buggered with their new all-electric system. Fear not – it’s still much better than most of its rivals… but it is the one thing you miss in comparison to the old new Mini. Sod it. Doesn’t matter. Everything else is just peachy.

On the whole, the Cooper S is a playful little chappie. Looking like it does, it kind of has to be. Don’t allow image-overfamiliarity to muddy the waters though, this genuinely is a superb driver’s car; it’s obvious from every action and reaction that the designers were passionate pistonhearted enthusiasts rather than cynical beancounters and, most importantly, it has the Jekyll & Hyde split personality that is the hot hatch holy grail – it can happily act as a well-behaved shopping car… but it can also monster your face off. Once you’ve disengaged the ASC and stamped extra-hard on the throttle to see just how potent the turbo’s overboost facility is, you’ll find it very hard to wipe the massive grin off your face. That’s what hot hatches are for – juvenility. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Volkswagen Scirocco

There’s a fine line between following trends and flagrantly copying people. If you see someone on the tube in ripped stonewashed 501s you can think to yourself ‘mmm, the eighties are obviously back… I’ll get myself a lime green shellsuit jacket’. That’s ok. If you take a photo of them and spend a week scouring vintage clothing stores to find an identical pair, you will just be making a fool of yourself. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but try telling that to an examination board when you’ve ripped all but the name from a neighbour’s paper.

Mimicry, tribute, homage, call it what you will – this kind of idea-sharing goes on a lot in the automotive world. The front indicators on a Rover SD1 look just like those on a Ferrari Daytona, for example. Why do you think that could be? It certainly isn’t coincidence. Similarly, the nose of the new Nissan GTR is phenomenally and breathtakingly beautiful (this goes without saying), but that meshed orifice seems rather familiar, doesn’t it? If you’ve had as keen an eye as I on the motoring press, you will have noticed it bolted onto Volkswagen’s Iroc concept a little while ago…

Ah, the Iroc. A sensational idea with a very stupid name (Iroc, of course, being a name that any red-blooded petrolhead associates with eighties Camaros rather than with saucy Euro coupes), but forget semantics – this is a new Scirocco. And that’s a very good thing. The original Scirocco was released in 1974 to replace the sumptuous Karmann Ghia and was effectively a Golf with a coupe body, being succeeded by the Scirocco II in 1982 with production continuing until ’89. Iconic and sought after, the mainstream underpinnings meant that elements of the cooking Golfs could be easily wrangled in to create a pretty silhouette with potent powerplants, keen handling and typically Teutonic build quality. Like all true classics, the notion of a renaissance was always going to be met with mixed feelings; would it be a successful evolution like the Mini, Mustang and 500 or a total pisser like the Mini Clubman, Thunderbird or the somewhat unnerving new Capri idea?

Brilliantly, Volkswagen are putting the Scirocco into production and even more brilliantly, it’s pretty darn similar to the Iroc concept. Don’t you just love it when manufacturers actually do that? It happens so rarely; look at the media fanfare when the new Vauxhall Astra came out. It was so much like the concept people didn’t fully believe it was real. VW do have form with building some pretty unlikely machinery of course (Golf W12-650, anyone?), but it’s refreshing to see the transition from showstand to showroom pan out so smoothly. One concession to originality though… they’ve lost the GTR-aping grill. They’re not copycats.

So what will the Scirocco bring to the coupe market? Well, the two engine choices are both rather enticing in their own ways; the twin-charged 168bhp unit from the Golf GT and the much-celebrated 200bhp 2.0 turbocharged FSI engine will respectively offer frugal tractability and spicy (if not epic) performance for the discerning speed freak, but the fact that it comes wrapped in such a gorgeous body helps to create a holistic package of loveliness. The retro market is fraught with traps – too kitsch, too cute, too basic, too chintzy – but when it’s done right, as in this case, you can almost hear the pitter-patter of saliva drops cascading upon countless carpets of boardrooms and schoolboy’s bedrooms alike.

Don’t be fooled though, the new Scirocco isn’t merely an average car aspiring to greatness through a classic name. Rover tried that with the MG branded- Z series and that sort of behaviour doesn’t work. The Scirocco is a genuinely exciting prospect; the market can never have too many low-slung muscular coupes with progressive styling and stratospheric desirability, so the fact that the name has heritage should be counted as a bonus. You would be guaranteed a certain degree of exclusivity as well – sensible people will plump for the Golf GTI. But who the hell wants to be sensible?