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Monday 27th November 2006


MINI COOPER S V RENAULTSPORT CLIO 197

James Mills compares the fastest new Mini against a hot hatch stalwart

Mini Cooper S
Mini Cooper S

Welcome to the second instalment of the ever-popular Mini adventure. The first right hand drive car has arrived in the UK and we've managed to get our hands on it before anyone else.

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Mini Cooper S above, Renault Clio Renaultsport 197 below
Mini Cooper S above, Renault Clio Renaultsport 197 below
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But itís not just the all-new Mini which weíre interested in. We also wanted to bring along one of PistonHeads' all-time favourite hot hatches to date, the RenaultSport Clio 197.

Admittedly, the latest in a long line of go-fast Clios has come in for more than its fair share of flak, mostly because someoneís been feeding it all the pies. But expanding waistband issues aside, the 197 sets the benchmark by which other hot hatches fall short.

Small change

For now, UK car enthusiasts, hot hatch lovers and Mini-addicts alike can get their fix from the Cooper and Cooper S models. The pair features a new BMW-designed, PSA-built advanced 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine that makes the old 1.6-litre look uncomfortably like something knocked out for a GCSE project.

The more wallet-friendly £11,595 One and diesel-powered versions will follow next spring. The only marginally less wallet-friendly, best selling Cooper is yours for a fair £12,995. But the one everyoneís talking about, and the one you know you want to test drive, is the new turbo-charged Cooper S, a £15,995 investment. But is it a wise one?

Well, at first glance, itís hard to tell. The Cooper S is matched penny for penny by RenaultSportís Clio 197, with nothing to separate them on price. Delve a little deeper into the specification, however, and the Mini adventure starts to seem like a Mini money-making activity. Much as we applaud the fact that Mini has taken personalisation to new levels, so much so that no two Minis are the same, the Cooper Sís equipment levels are meagre. Notable absences over the 197 include air conditioning, cruise control, anti-submarining airbags and remote stereo control. Not great, especially considering the wrap-around glass area on Minis which means A/C is an absolute must.

In the hot seat

Mind you, the irony is that when you first open the doors to these two and settle into the cabins for a poke around, itís actually the Clio 197 that feels like the skin-flint. Its sea of grey and black plastics and fabrics may well inject the French hatchbackís mood with a feel more akin to a German product, but after the Cooper S itís positively shy and retiring. Of course, you could view that as a good thing. After all, not everyone wants to own a car that looks as if it was created by a trinket bracelet designer.

Then again, without wanting to come across all square, the Miniís feel is fun and funky, and utterly unique. Nothing else on sale today comes close to the sense of occasion this hot hatch bestows on its occupants. Especially the driver.

Parked up, the Cooper S pulls off that neat trick of feeling fast at a standstill. You sit super low, right down on the floor. Get your legs stretched out to the classic floor-hinged throttle, pull the steering wheel back towards you and take in your surroundings. The comedy-sized speedo in the centre of the dash now houses the audio, communications and satnav equipment (when ordered) but itís well away from your sight-line. Mini acknowledges as much, once again equipping the digital trip computer with a speed readout, which sits beneath the rev counter. With the glass area wrapping around you through 360 degrees, and that low-set stance, it really does feel ready to rock.

After the Cooper S, the Clio 197 feels just a little, well, mundane. Donít get me wrong. RenaultSport has ticked all the usual boxes for a hot hatch environment, with a fair helping of its logos and plenty of silver brightwork dotted about the place, and our car even featured the optional and most excellent, lightweight Recaro bucket seats, but the simple fact is that nothing in this class can compare with the Miniís feelgood factor.

Smooth to the touch

Fire it up and despite what you may have read about the one-time cheeky rascalís newfound manners, the familiar exhaust burble is still present. Sure enough, the engine idles with a smoothness and civility which may lull some into worrying about its credentials as a grin-inducing, riotous hot hatch.

The moment you get underway, all the familiar Mini traits are there: immediacy, intimacy and invigoration. The throttle responds crisply, the gear change slices smoothly across the gate and the controls are tuned for one simple purpose, to spread a bloody great grin right across your face.

Thereís a tactility to the Cooper S which means even when youíre just pottering, you can appreciate the depth of engineering thatís gone on behind the scenes. The revised multi-link rear suspension uses more aluminium in its construction, while the spring and damper tuning finally accounts for the effects of hideous run-flat tyres. And the end result is pliancy and level of mid-bend absorption which will come as a revelation to any Cooper S drivers.

It doesnít come at the expense of thrills though. It simply makes the Cooper S faster and more able, and capable of showing some very serious machinery indeed a clean pair of heals across country.

Turbo technology

Lean on the throttle, and the twin-scroll turbocharger leaps to life in a flash, pulling earnestly from just 1,500rpm and flying along by 2,000rpm. With an overboost facility, it can summon up 192lb-ft of torque at 1,700rpm Ė compared with 157lb-ft at 5,550rpm for the hyperactive Renault. The all-alloy, direct-injection 1.6-litre Valvetronic unit even features a composite camshaft to reduce inertia, and boy do all the little tricks work. It loves to rev. Much more so than the old supercharged unit, and has a sweet, crisp rasp right through the rev range.

But itís the performance that really bowls you over. Youíd swear this little 1.6 was packing around 200bhp, not the quoted 175bhp. It really is that feisty.

With the Sport mode engaged, the steering and throttle firm up nicely and the Cooper S dispatches even the most demanding roads with a casual shrug. It slices its way cleanly through each apex. Loads up all four wheels evenly. Breaks grip with a delightfully natural progression. Dishes up a whiff of oversteer when you play with the throttle. And serves up a tiny helping of torque steer just to add an extra fizz of excitement to the process.

Uncompromising

Youíll have no worries about wheelspin or torque steer in the Clio 197. It feels like a little racing car Ė flat, tight and scalpel sharp. And, in the usual race car fashion, disappointing until you wring its neck.

Itís clearly been built with little, if any, compromise. The 2.0-litre 16-valve FR4 RS lump hits the magic 100hp per litre marker, but extracting the full, true 194bhp takes some doing. As was always so in the 172 and 182 models, this engine is sensitive to the way itís run in, and to mileage and build tolerances. Some feel great, others less so. This is the second 197 Iíve tested and, like the first, it felt a little strangled and reluctant to rev.

But rev it you must. Right around the clock. Not much happens until 5,000rpm. So you have to work away at the six-speed gearbox. Which isnít that pleasant an experience. First, third and fifth are always reluctant to disengage, so you have to yank the nicely positioned lever back in an unnatural fashion that saps your concentration.

There is great reward to be had when you work at it though. The engine screams away and sounds superb on heel-and-toe downshifts, and performance at this end of the spectrum is decent enough. But heaven forbid you drop out of the power band.

Our test figures bear it out. At the track, the 1,205kg Cooper S hit 60mph in 6.6 seconds and sprinted on to 100mph in 16.2 seconds. The Clio 197 managed 6.9 and 18.7 respectively. But thatís not all. In-gear flexibility is more significant than traffic light titillation. And here, the Cooper S turboís torque comes into its own. It muscles its way from 30-50mph in third in 2.9 secs and 50-70mph in fifth in 5.1 secs, against 4.3 and 7.3 respectively for the 1,240kg French charger. Oh dear.

This is hardcore

In the dry, the wide-track chassis set-up is simply astonishing. The 197ís levels of grip defy belief, and allow you to maintain momentum so youíre not constantly cursing the engine as you drop back out of the power band.

Thereís no body roll to speak of, turn-in is immediate and the nose bites hard, refusing to relinquish its hold on the tarmac. Unsticking RenaultSportís creation takes some doing.

Except when the heavens open. The stiffly set up torsion beam rear suspension is anything but forgiving. Even with the ESP switched on, and half a throttle opening to steady the chassisí balance, the back can step out of line. Under hard braking itís worse still, and lifting-off the throttle mid-bend is something you wonít repeat after your first trouser-troubling moment.

Again, itís like a race car, and feels as if it needs the anti-roll bar to be disconnected -- I canít imagine many Clio 197 buyers will have a personal race team in tow to set the car up for every journey.

Verdict

On many levels, the Clio 197 comes closest to capturing the spirit of something like Hondaís last Integra Type-R. On the right road, on the right day, in the right weather, in the right mood, you can have the drive of your life. But how often does everything click into place like that?

The fact of the matter is any decent turbo diesel would leave the 197 driver flailing at the gears. It feels like itís got ADHD and should be on Ritalin. For every great drive you have in it, there will be another five trips where you canít shake off that nagging doubt that you should have bought something else.

Not so the Cooper S. Every journey, no matter what the speed or how long the distance, will have you thinking youíve made the right decision. The punchy Mini is fun on every level. Its spirit is infectious. Its enthusiasm never wanes. And nor will yours.

Buy it, discover what the fuss is all about and you'll embark on a Mini adventure of your very own.