I WASN'T EXPECTING a whole new world with the limited-edition Checkmate version of the Mini Cooper S, save that all the models sold in Hong Kong would be automatic. As an old-school driver, I'd prefer the three-pedalled car to its slushbox-equipped counterpart any time, but I'm surprised the Checkmate costs the same as the standard automatic Mini Cooper S, at $296,800. I've always thought special editions came with more tangible advantages, such as free insurance or more fittings at the expense of having rather in-your-face decals screaming: Classic, Mayfair or even Le Car. The Checkmate looks as impressive as it is exclusive - only 100 have been built, and their availability through dealer BMW Concessionaires (HK) highlights the importance of our urban hip to the marque. The dealer's website ( www.minihk.com ) shows that you get lots of kit for your money, including the EWS III anti-theft-warning device, with electronic immobiliser, a first-aid kit and halogen front fog lights. The Checkmate's a looker, too. Apart from its handsome dark blue body, smart silver bonnet stripe and cutesy chequered decals on the front wing, the Flame spoke rims inside the Pirelli run-flat 205/45 R17s resemble our Hong Kong flag too closely for me. Slamming the rock-solid door shut behind me, the Mini Cooper S idles smoothly with a throaty afternote. With 240km on the clock, this exclusive Mini's 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, 16-valve engine has loosened considerably, thanks to the hammering of other journalists' testing. Eager to rev up from idle up to the redline, the car's supercharger whistles as it spins. Well-known for its smooth, normally aspirated powerplants, BMW has created another masterpiece in forced induction after the 2002 turbo of the early 1970s. A recent engine upgrade from 163 brake horsepower to 170bhp has also brought extra flexibility, with a torque hike (to 220Nm at 4,000rpm) and a flatter powerband. The Mini just wants to rev and rev, and it would be a sin not to. So I squeeze the S-engraved trigger on the gearlever and pull it back to Drive. This is the first time I've driven a Mini with an automatic box and, predictably, the shifter's laid out like the BMW system, with a Sports mode that's activated by knocking the lever sideways. Pushing and pulling the lever allows a manual override of the cog-swapping. I could have changed gear with the paddles behind the three-spoked, sports-leather steering wheel, downshifting with my thumb and moving up the box by tugging the paddles towards the wheel. But it's not as intuitive as other systems, with '+' on one paddle and '-' on the other, so I leave it alone at first. There are other buttons on the steering wheel that control the cruise control and the audio system, but I'm more intent on threading the car through a particularly sticky traffic jam in Central. Luckily, the Mini can dart in and out of lanes - not because of its size (it's nowhere near as miniscule as its forefathers), but its non-existent overhangs and near-panoramic visibility allow me to seize every millimetre of no man's land between cars in Queen's Road. In urban traffic, the Checkmate is an urgent, punchy drive. The suspension is firm, but with the larger wheels, it hits potholes with a slight thunk, although it stays firmly on course, so you're still pointing in the same direction, even if your CD's skipped a beat. As we head out of town, it's a relief to see three figures on the digital speedometer on the lower edge of the single revcounter. Then, with the windows rolled down on a cool, grey autumn day, we head out to Kennedy Town to start a leisurely lap around Hong Kong Island. The Checkmate is happy to cruise in top gear at 50km/h, and very willing to self-shift down the six-speed auto box for a quick blast past slower traffic. Each downshift is accompanied by a clockwise flick of the rev needle and a small supercharged detonation from the double-barrelled tailpipes. I'd never complain about the Checkmate's eagerness to charge forward, and the excellent programming in the transmission allows both hands on the wheel for safe, determined progress. As we twist and turn towards Repulse Bay, memories of learning the coastal route flash back. The Mini is as willing and capable as ever - a real hooligan at heart. But your top speed in the straights of the Southside matters less than your handling - how little you have to scrub off to come out of the bends in one piece. The Checkmate's body control is top notch, with the Cooper S typically turning in sharper than any front-wheel-drive. And, with the correct footwork, I notice an addictive balance. The car's lift-off oversteer is benevolently gradual, giving you enough leeway to practise serious left-foot braking. The brakes are stock items, with the same rather vague initial pedal travel, but - strangely enough - felt far more positive before the anti-lock braking system cut in. Corner exits are equally snappy, the Mini recovering from low revs with minimal bogging down and torque steer. I'm told the Checkmate's suspension geometry and gear ratios are Mini Cooper S standard, so I suppose credit's due to those alloy wheels. I suspect they weigh less than the regular rims. The reduced unsprung weight would explain the urgent acceleration and robust braking. The Checkmate makes most sense as an aesthetic upgrade to the Mini. The little car has lots of options for customising, and the marque's designers have lifted the ambience of the cabin without resorting to awful materials and colour combinations. The Checkmate is chic, with body-matching blue leather and panelling covering most surfaces. Light grey leather and cloth highlight the seats. Passengers also get a lockable glovebox, and extra reading lights in the cabin as standard, but I'd have put a sunroof into mine. The Checkmate isn't gloomy inside, but the Mini's full-length sunroof option lets in so much natural light, that it's like driving a convertible without getting wet or covered in pollution. I've never been keen on the new Minis' automatic transmissions and so-called Limited Editions, but the marque has made a winning move with this little pawn.