Sometimes it’s just nice to be back where you feel most comfortable. Those were my thoughts as I slipped begin the wheel of a lightly spec’d 2012 MINI Cooper S hatch. No this isn’t some chopped coupe or puffed up crossover. This is the car (or at least the shape) that owes more to the original Mini than any other. So much so that BMW simply refers to it as “the MINI” internally.

Our tester came smartly equipped with:

– the Cold Weather pack
– black Conical spoke 17” wheels
– Dual Pane sunroof, black stripes
– black headlight housing
– auto dimming rear view mirror with compass
– armrest, rain sensing wipers
– auto headlights
– Xenons
– Bluetooth
– USB adapter and white turn signals.

Then there’s the MINI Yours items; off-white steering wheel, interior trim, Soda mirror caps and side scuttles. But most crucially our tester came equipped with the sport suspension. The result of all of this was that we had a $29.550 that both felt loaded and like a bit of a stripper given the seat material and lack of Navigation or MINI Connected. Sure going a la carte made for less value for the money but we couldn’t complain with a few of the sport oriented options.

At first glance the interior felt lightly spec’d until I realized the amount of MINI Yours included. The interior prominently featured MINI Yours mirrors, dash and steering wheel. If any of it was worth the money, it would be the wheel. Trimmed in black and white leather that closely resembles the feeling and texture of butter, this was softest most enjoyable wheel I can remember touching in a MINI. As we’ve said in the past, if there’s one place to spend money inside, it might as well be on the primary contact item in the cabin.

Buttery leather aside this is the best a Cooper S has ever felt to me. Revised electronics have fully eliminated the torque steer and the updated engine with Valvetronic makes this car feel as rapid as the original 197 hp JCW kit. You can thank the mountain of torque available low in the rev range, and rapid throttle delivery for that. In all, it makes the car less of a wind up experience (as in the R53) and more of a point and shoot.

Handling of course hasn’t changed. While it lacks that last 10% of feel the R53 had, the 2012 Cooper S makes up for it with a firmer weight and feel in the rest of the control points. The shifter, clutch and accelerator better correspond with the actions of driving the car and feel more in tune with the character of the engine and suspension.

Underneath it all our test car had the optional “sports” suspension which is a must have addition to any MINI as far as we’re concerned. While the ride is slightly more firm, it gives the car better control and less body roll. It’s also particularly helpful under acceleration, as it helps to reduce the backwards rock that reduces front grip when you go hard on the throttle.

This Cooper S wasn’t perfect though. Inside our test car, the leatherette felt oddly out of place given the expensive steering wheel. Then there’s the manual climate control that still, after last year’s revision, still looks dreadfully cheap in a $30,000 car. But elsewhere the 2011 refresh that all MINI’s recieved has done a lot to bring the look up market.

Despite those missed details, our test car reminded us why the R56 hatch is the heart and soul of the MINI. It has utility, performance and a price-point that is the most attractive of any model in the line-up. No surprise then that it’s the best selling MINI model month after month.

Most of all, our 2012 MINI Cooper S test car reminded us why we do what we do, why we love MINIs and why we love seeing more on the road every day. Small, efficient, athletic and endlessly fun, they are still best way to bring a smile to one’s face.