With Attitude

Cooper vs Abarth: unlikely duelists in the 1990s. Mark Hughes analyses how much cars have progressed in three decades. And, perhaps, how much they haven’t…

Usually it is sad to witness a once great star trading on glories long past, with nothing of relevance to offer the modern world. Yet the Mini, and particularly its Cooper derivative, has transcended that stage. Largely unchanged since stunning the world on its debut (Mini 1959, Mini Cooper two years later), it’s still in production, still elicits reactions of fondness rather than ridicule. A dwarf of a car which has become a giant by reputation, it’s one of those rare products whose name has passed into the generic.

It’s ironic that the Cooper association was originally conceived to brush the Mini’s image with the glamour of motor racing, yet today, long after most have long forgotten who or what Cooper was, everyone knows that the Mini Cooper is a faster, sporty version of the Mini. Rover Cars has celebrated the longevity of this national treasure by producing the Mini Cooper 35, an anniversary limited edition, 35 years after the original.

Now it isn’t at all difficult to point out the shortfalls of the Cooper design by the standards of today, even though to do so is missing the point slightly. But even so, its concept is now even more relevant than it was 35 years ago; tiny dimensions with strong low-down performance making it the ideally convenient tearabout for our over-congested cities.

A couple of years ago, Fiat combined such a concept with up-to-date hardware in the form of the Cinquecento Sporting. Now it too has added some goodies and a famous motor sporting name from the past to create the Cinquecento Sporting Abarth.

So why suffer the old design when you can have its essence combined with modern technology? A Mini buff might respond with why have the copy when you can have the original? And the Mini is largely original. It still has some lovely period details, like the chrome grille with its thicker bars denoting that it’s a Cooper, something you are told from behind by the wonderful chrome winged Cooper badge on the bootlid. Then there’s the external body seams, the big chrome-rimmed headlights whose shape forms the contours of the upper wings, its bonnet and wing line not flattened off like more modern designs. The Cooper 35 is only available in Almond Green, a pale hue that you will instantly recognise from 60s Minis and Morris Minors. This is combined with a white roof, another nostalgic Cooper touch.

Such visual clues are like flashbacks, instantly linking you with the vital part of this car’s appeal the past. Externally, the package is completed by Cooper-logoed alloy wheels, body-coloured wheelarch extensions with matching wing mirrors and by four chromed spotlights that cover the width of the grill. Wonderfully retro and nothing to do with such modern preoccupations as aerodynamics…

But caress that chromed door handle, depress its centre button, pull open the door and you’re confronted with a sight that jars you from your 1960s reverie. Gone are the old centrally-mounted instruments and spartan furnishings. What you get instead are small dials directly in front of you with cream graphics the sort of thing you expect to see in a 1996 hot-hatch surrounded by a full varnished wood dash. And, worst of all, the 35 anniversary version also gets green leather seats (the Cooper logo embossed into their backs) with matching steering wheel and gearknob.

These are design cliches that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Mini. How much more daring it would have been to go the whole hog by making it minimalist but comfortable not a carbon copy of the original but in the theme of. They could even have come up with a modern version of the sliding windows and sash door pulls, making more efficient use of the space.

But one thing that is the same is the driving position: bus-like, near-horizontal positioning of the steering wheel and pedals which are offset so far to the left you sit positively twisted.

In contrast, the Fiat panders less to the aesthetic senses from the outside but looks after you better inside, and without any corny, inappropriate ‘luxury’ finishings. Looked at from the Mini’s rear view mirror, the Fiat looks squat and aggressive. If only that was how it really did look, for the Mini’s mirror distorts everything in this way in order to give a wider field of vision. In reality, the Fiat looks taller than it is wide, like a canary yellow fridge (it’s also available in red or black).

The Abarth package is fitted by the dealer and you can choose from a variety of add-ons. Go the whole hog and you’ll have front and rear spoiler, skirts, sports exhaust trim and alloys while inside it gets a gorgeous steering wheel, Abarth’s scorpion insignia at its centre. Like the Cooper it gets extra lights, only these are squared off and incorporated into the bodywork. All this will add around £1300 to the Sporting’s tag of £6487, a total some £400 less than Rover asks for the Cooper 35.

The Cinquecento is just seven inches longer than the Mini (these are the two very smallest cars on the market), but much taller. The extra space is put to good use. The Fiat, unlike the Mini, has a boot which will hold more than just a couple of briefcases and also benefits from its hatchback, seat-folding facility. Rear seat space is not quite such a head-lowering squeeze as in the Mini.

Despite being over 30 years apart in conception, both cars carry a similar cheeky, aggressive appeal, their tiny dimensions dissolving any sense of threat. Weaving your way through city traffic you’re more likely to be met with a tolerant smile than hard-nosed obstruction. This quality carries directly through to the driving experience, though in the case of the Cooper it’s rather more raw.

The A-series pushrod engine that has served the Mini throughout its life in this incarnation with 1275cc, single-point injection and 63 bhp feels virtually unchanged from ’60s memory. Combined with the in-sump transmission, it provides plenty of noise and vibration but, as with the appearance of the car, it’s something with pleasant, nostalgic connotations, very much part of the Mini experience. The engine provides good, instant pulling power, which allied to such a low weight, makes the Cooper one of the quickest cars around up to about 15 mph. Which isn’t as pointless a quality as it may sound; in city driving it’s often vital.

It’s not slow beyond such speeds its 0-60mph time of 11.5s is quicker than the Fiat’s, but you need to be prepared to put up with disproportionate harshness in order to access its full potential. Combine noisy engine with four-speed gearbox and it’s clear that a motorway is not its natural environment, even though it’s quite capable of an indicated 100 mph. The gearbox has quite long throws and a wide spacing between planes, is not so quick and doesn’t have particularly sporting ratios save for its low first.

Even comparable Fiat engines of the late 1960s were advanced well beyond the Mini’s A-series, so it’s not in the least surprising that the Cinquecento’s 1100cc overhead-cam motor is of a different class. Although it only ever hints at a sporting character, it’s smooth as well as willing and when, on a motorway, you snick the gearlever into fifth like a switch, it suddenly becomes an acceptably low noise levels.

With a little less power and torque than the Mini and a little more weight, its slightly slower from a standing start, but once on the move neither car feels noticeably quicker than the other, the Fiat helped by its better spread of ratios.

Where the modernity of design really shows is at the fuel pumps. Commonly perceived as a paragon of economy, the Mini is not particularly thrifty for such a tiny machine and its composite fuel figure is six mpg heavier than the Cinquecento’s.

The Fiat’s gearshift is hot-knife-through-butter smooth but there is absolutely no consistency of effort in its controls. The brake pedal, for instance, is truck heavy, as is the steering.

Heavy steering is a characteristic the Fiat shares with the Mini. But in the Cooper this isn’t such a problem once above parking speeds. Its line through corners can be dictated as much by the throttle as the steering and its instant, darty, directional adjustability gives it brilliant manoeuvrability.

Gone in too fast? Lift off and it will scrub the speed off as it gradually begins an oversteer drift. Get back on the power and it’s instant neutrality. Dynamically, the Cooper still lives up to its glittering reputation, a staggering achievement for a design of such age. And one which is put into sharper perspective by how relatively disappointing the Fiat is in this respect. Fine under moderate cornering, the moment you start to push it feels top heavy and understeery. Its around-town alacrity then seems a distant memory.

Yet once your nerves have been jarred by the constant bouncing you’ve received in the Mini, even on apparently smooth roads, you may be happy to accept the Fiat’s less sharp responses in exchange for a very acceptable ride quality.

That such a tiny car can be made to ride so well is surprising. And it’s a car full of surprises, the Fiat, good and not so good. But perhaps the biggest one of all is that, at a push, it could be used as an only car. Fun and handy in the city, it’s also perfectly acceptable on a motorway and decently comfortable on poorly surfaced country roads.

The Cooper makes a tot less sense as an only car. It can be tiringly rough and bouncy, is hopeless on a long journey, is more cramped than the Fiat, not as economical and more expensive. As a package, the Fiat makes mincemeat of it. And yet, it pulls at the nostalgia strings just as surely as it clings to the road and in its primary purpose a fun car it offers more.