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GAINING MATURITY: MINI Cooper S grows in size, sheds some its earlier rambunctiousness

The MINI Cooper is growing up.

The first happy-puppy, retro-inspired reincarnation of the 1960s-era iconic subcompact has evolved into today’s bigger, better-finished 2014 version.

It’s still plenty fun to drive, especially in the S version like this week’s tester, but it delivers that entertainment in a more mature fashion. This dog still likes to hunt, but in a less frenetic way.

Start with the propulsion. The base engine in the non-S version is a turbocharged three-cylinder, essentially half of MINI owner BMW’s much-respected 3.0-liter inline six.

Opt for an S model, and step up to a 2.0-liter, turbo four cranking out a gutsy 189 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. The engine surges right up the rev range with a vibration-free, well-oiled hum.

Paired with the (optional, $1,500) six-speed automatic transmission, the S scampers eagerly, particularly when the tranny is placed in “S” mode. Or you can manually control the shifts with either steering wheel-mounted paddles or the gear lever.

Renowned for its go-kart handling characteristics, the current model moderates the earlier version’s somewhat twitchy personality. Now, the little coupe simply goes where its responsive steering points it, with a confident solidity and balance. It still handles superbly – just with a generous ladle of much-appreciated poise.

Inside the cabin, gone is the earlier subcompact claustrophobia. There’s more room in all dimensions, most noticeably shoulder room up front. Rear legroom is still tight, but it’s no longer a penalty box for adults.

At long last, the speedometer has departed the large, plate-size circular space in the center of the dash. It’s now paired with a tachometer just above the steering wheel. Its previous home now holds audio/nav/settings displays.

P90139218-highResThe interior materials are now of a class worthy of the car’s upmarket pretensions – and price. Lots of soft-touch surfaces and chrome trim render a classier aura. And the switchgear has acquired a premium-level heft.

But go easy on the options: Our S Hardtop ballooned from $23,600 base price to a jaw-dropping $37,395 with a lengthy list of convenience, comfort and appearance items.

While the MINI S still enjoys a good romp, it’s settling nicely into adulthood.