Sometimes, I think I just really need to pick on
someone something my own size.
As someone who has always driven a trusty subcompact sedan, the experience of bigger cars has eluded me save for the occasional test drives. This has only added to my fascination with them, that I rarely spare much smaller vehicles a glance—well, perhaps a glare because a bunch of them have those god-awful “Caution: New Lady Driver” stickers (… why).
The only exception is a MINI Cooper, because how could I look away? The vintage charm of its exteriors is enough to catch my attention, and also no one who owns one would have the right mind to stick those misogynistic signs on them.
At least, I certainly hope not.
Despite never straying too far from the classic looks that have made the MINI such an iconic vehicle, everything is completely modern on the inside, which lends to a very comfortable and enjoyable ride. It’s a great companion for navigating the streets of Cebu, even as a daily driver. I’ve said that before about the MINI Cooper F56, and I can definitely say it again with the all-new MINI Cooper S 3-door.
I’ve had the pleasure of test-driving both vehicles, the former when I was still working for Zee Lifestyle years back. In 2014, MINI had just opened their showroom along A.S. Fortuna Street, and I was tasked to write a couple of advertorials to be published in the ‘zine. While the output wasn’t so much of a personal car review, MINI executives were more than generous to let this girl take the then-latest MINI Cooper F56 out for an afternoon for research purposes.
Seven years later, it’s like deja-vu: The MINI Auto Studio Cebu, a pop-up showroom, recently opened along N. Escario Street. To celebrate that milestone, I was invited to test-drive the 2020 MINI Cooper S, their latest model to date.
It’s hard to compare both cars in detail because so much time has passed in between. However, one lasting impression the 2014 F56 left me is how damn delightful it is to drive, and I was pleased to find out the same holds true with the 2020 unit.
It’s worth noting that I am only 4’11” in height, all legs and high forehead and not much else—maaaaybe an extra inch if you count the volume of my hair. Naturally, it’s so easy for me to say the car is such a great size because I fit so well in it. Even then, looks can be deceiving. Although my initial impression is that the seats do look small, my partner-in-crime Antonio—unceremoniously dragged out to take photos of me—fit comfortably enough in the passenger seat despite being a full foot taller. The back seat technically fits two, and while I don’t doubt the chairs themselves are comfortable, legroom might be an issue for taller passengers (#sorrynotsorry can’t relate, lol).
MINI went ham with the circular design elements. The steering wheel is a given, obviously, but the side mirrors, dashboard displays, air-conditioning vents, door handles, and the entertainment system feature aggressive round styling that’s both ways old-school yet contemporary at the same time. The lighting that brings the entertainment system to life, as well as the LED display on the temperature controls, are decidedly modern.
The notable exception to this design choice is a row of distinctly vintage-looking flick-style switches that make you think you’re a pilot getting ready to take off (not entirely outside the realm of possibility). With these, you can turn your car on and off, toggle between the Sport, Normal, and Green modes; and enable traction control. Similar-looking switches just a little behind the rearview mirror control cabin lights.
Since 2017, MINI Cooper vehicles have featured the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, which makes gear shifting fast and breezy. My test unit in particular was automatic, though it came with shift paddles should I have preferred to control shifting manually (so…. automanual? Manumatic?). I’m not a stranger to shift paddles although I have zero muscle memory in using them, but the gear shift did fascinate me. There’s a dedicated lock you need to manually press to put the car in Park, which is something I haven’t seen in other cars I’ve test-driven.
The Shift Release button was also in a unique position to the left side of the lever. It was a little off-putting when I tried to use it, but I’ll chalk that up to not being used to the car— I did have it for a grand total of 2 hours and 30 minutes only, which was a slight improvement because it could have been only 30 minutes due to a miscommunication. Now, where’s the fun in that?
With the unfortunate time limit, I got a good feel of the car but wasn’t exactly able to put it through its paces as I’m used to doing with other test drives. No going up the highlands to see how it handles driving uphill, and no careening along the Cebu South Coastal Road to test how fast it can go (my route with the F56, I remember). I didn’t even get to fully utilize the Sport mode.
As it is, my MINI test drive—in more ways than one—only brought me to Cebu Business Park, the North Reclamation Area and back to the MINI Auto Studio Cebu showroom. I suppose that sojourn did give me a taste of daily driving with a MINI: being stuck in Cebu traffic. In that aspect, it’s certainly fun to be in a MINI Cooper because you’re equipped with plush comfortable seating that you can customize to your heart’s liking (along with rims, paint job, and hood design), eye-catching lighting, and a decent infotainment system that can play music over Bluetooth or via USB.
The Green (economic) mode also comes in handy for everyday situations as it optimizes the car for fuel efficiency. In this mode, acceleration also takes a bit of effort, not that you’ll need it to go fast when you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic anyway. The difference is clearly noticeable when you switch to Sport mode as the car accelerates a little faster and gives a taste of the power packed in the sweet 2.0 liter 4-cylinder engine. But again, it wasn’t something I was fully able to explore.
The MINI Cooper S’s turning radius is small, which is unsurprising for a car of its size. In my experience, this resulted in a smoother maneuverability, making turns and U-turns easy to execute. It’s likely why MINI Cooper cars were famed and favored for rally races in the 1960s.
A feature that does stand out to me, perhaps personally, is how wide my view from the rear-view mirror is. It feels like I have an almost-full view of the back, which has always been a challenge for vertically-challenged creatures such as myself. This makes parking a total breeze, especially when coupled with a rearview camera which can be engaged when shifting into Reverse.
Of course, it would be remiss to talk about the MINI Cooper and not mention its looks. As mentioned earlier, it doesn’t venture too far from its iconic sporty exteriors, nor does it have a reason to. MINI vehicles are, after all, well-loved around the world for their visual charm. It keeps things minimal with a compound headlight, which integrates the turn signals and daytime running lights with the main headlight. The oval shape adds to its personality, giving the car a quirky and perpetually-surprised look. It’s a safe bet to say you’d be getting a lot of attention taking this out on the road.
Time with the MINI Cooper S was time well-spent, though until now I wish my test drive had gone on longer to unlock just what exactly this baby can do. But then again, who am I kidding—even if I had it for an entire week, I’d still probably think it wasn’t enough. That’s how much of a joy it is to drive a MINI, back then and until now.
MINI Cooper’s new pop-up showroom, the MINI Auto Studio Cebu, is now open located along N. Escario Street. Check out their line-up of the latest models and schedule a test-drive today.
MINI Auto Studio Cebu
All photos by Antonio Java of Rider’s Block