Minggu, 08 Juni 2008



By Jonny Lieberman

“It handles like a go-cart.” For the past five-years I’ve taken this description of the BMW’s born-again clown car’s dynamics at face value. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve seen more of these faux-Brits than Carnaby Streeters ever did. And I’ve often wondered if the MINI was small and extraordinarily nimble like its forbearer, or just plain small. Other than sipping cheap wine next to the trio of stunt cars used in the third Austin Powers movie, I’d never had a chance to get up close and personal with a MINI. More importantly, I’d never put the British-built roadster’s handling to the test– until this week, when RF charged me with the task of assessing the “old” new MINI before the “new” new MINI arrives stateside.

Deconstructing a design icon is tricky at best. At the risk of alienating the faithful, I’ll say this much: the new car is nearly twice as large as the original and violates designer Alec Issigonis’s basic tenet (80% of the vehicle is dedicated to passengers, the remaining 20% is for mechanicals and luggage). Other than that, I think the new MINI looks like a toddler’s high top sneaker. Oh, and I love the J Mays’ cribbed headlights and the fact that the rear is wider than the front. So, um, moving on.

Once inside, I felt an overwhelming urge to pop a Prozac. Call me a frumpy, but I could barely cope with the unrelenting designer-ness of the thing. The cabin is awash in chrome, plastic that looks like chrome, plastic that looks like plastic and twinkling glass. Our tester came with the Cockpit Chrono Pack, which is even more ADD-inducing than the default set-up. MINI’s speedometer moves to the top of the wheel (next to the tach) leaving the space for oil, fuel and temperature readouts (where's the boost gauge?). Although the MINI is billed as pint-sized luxury, I reckon the point of luxury (in any amount) is to relax. The Cooper’s innards almost induced seizures. Moving on.

The MINI Cooper S is loaded to the gills with go-faster bits: oxymoronic performance run-flat tires, 17” inch aluminum wheels, McPherson struts (front), a multi-link suspension (rear), equal-length drive shafts and a supercharger. The blower bangs out 168 horses for just 2678 pounds of, um, style. A ludicrously tall first gear (4.455) and the inherent FWD dragster drawbacks means it takes nearly seven seconds for the MINI to get from rest to 60mph. This stat wasn’t all that bad back in 2001. In 2006, the similarly priced Mazda Speed3 does the deed a full second faster. The MINI’s not slow, but it’s not a whole lot of fun to flog the transverse-mounted 1.6-liter four in a straight line.

I’ve never been a big fan of any BMW cog-swapping solution; in the MINI’s manual, the good people of Bavaria don’t disappoint my sense of disappointment. First of all, the MINI’s gearbox is a long-throw shifter. Such a device might have seemed appropriate back when the Sixties were swung, but today it just feels cheap and clumsy. The supercharger’s horsepower-sucking reality means that the second you lift your foot from the gas to shift, the engine loses 1500rpm. So even when you get the gear you think you wanted, it’s not the gear you actually need. Try as I might to whip this little whip, my plans were foiled first by the engine, and then by the gears.

I’ve been driving go-carts quite a bit lately, so I feel qualified to judge the MINI’s similarity to same. After caning the MINI through California hill and dale, I can proclaim here and now that the MINI Cooper S is indeed the world’s fattest go-cart. The initial turn-in is awesome: tight, accurate and eager. Right until the apex of a turn, the MINI lives up to the hype, steering and responding with the kind of rapid fire, laser-guided confidence that makes motorized dinner trays such a kick in the ass. From the turning point on, the go-cart analogy drives straight into the metaphorical tire wall.

Lest we forget, go-carts are rear wheel-driver machines. After you finish the turn, you plant your foot and power your way home. The MINI is front wheel-drive. Assuming you’re lucky enough to find 4000rpm and summon 162 foot-pounds of torque, flooring it out of a corner creates a nightmarish mix of understeer plowing and angry steering. I tried the same trick with the traction control off– and wondered if my insurance premiums were up to date. While cute, the MINI is not a track-day option.

Though not yet on our shores, BMW is embiggening the newish “MINI” and ditching the blower for a turbo. Let’s just hope the company’s chassismeisters have sorted the MINI’s on-the-limit handing. If so, the British go-cart will fully deserve the pistonhead plaudits it already receives.


By Jay Shoemaker

News flash! The 2007 MINI looks like the 2006 MINI. As there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the “old” model, BMW’s decision to leave things well enough alone shows welcome restraint. Well, almost. BMW’s added two extra inches to the new MINI– and we all know how meaningful two extra inches can be for guys (legroom!). But you’d be hard pressed to see any exterior effects– good or bad. So is it still all systems go for MINI’s V2 rocket, or does the new model (codenamed R56) prove that more is less?

Truth to tell, I was feeling a bit blah about my MINI road test. But the moment The Man handed me the key to a 2007 MINI Cooper S, I perked up. The ignition device is now a circular pad with a stubby base; my first inclination was to open a channel to Starfleet and ask Scotty to beam me up. Once inside, I was instructed to stash the pad and press the button. Keyless ignition in a car the size of a 7-Series escape pod? Who’d a thunk it?

And who knew the Bavarians had a sense of humor? More charitably, the MINI’s interior looks like it was created by a grove of unsupervised Apple Computer designers. (It’s only a matter of time before the MINI’s key includes an I-Pod.) The fuel gauge is now a circular ring of digital lights on the speedometer pod, with a “range to empty” display on the information section of the tachometer pod, in script familiar to BMW owners (if not MS Word users).

Drivers are confronted by a wide range of organic looking toggles and indentures, operating all manner of controls. Who cares how it all works? And who cares that not all the materials are above average? Most are, and when you encounter the odd flimsy piece, the clever design more than compensates. Even the casual visitor instantly appreciates that fact that the BMW’s British box is a no-holds-barred style statement, not an Audi.

To that end, buyers can personalize their MINI Cooper S in a trillion ways, right down to checkered flag side mirror caps ($130) and a “Let’s Motor” license plate holder ($35). What’s more, the MINI is the only car you can customize without completely destroying its resale value. My favorite new interior color is the Tuscan beige; I love the look but could live without the pretentious name.

The biggest change from old MINI to new: a Peugeot-sourced, BMW-fettled, 1.6-liter turbo four. The new engine’s a more powerful lump than the old supercharged Brazilian mill (172 horsepower and 177 pound feet of torque vs. 168/162). As a result, the zero to 60 time is slightly quicker (6.7 versus 7.2 seconds) with better fuel economy (29/36).

While the new MINI has a wider (i.e. more useful) power band and will now cruise at triple digits without threatening to rattle itself to pieces, it doesn’t feel quite as eager out of the blocks as the old car. There’s a nasty lag between depressing the go pedal and the onset of acceleration. It feels… dumbed down. Until, that is, you press the Sport button.

In many sports cars, even some of the more expensive models, activating the Sport button creates little more than a psychological effect. In the new MINI, it’s undeniably transformative. In an instant, both the MINI Cooper’s electric steering system and its fly-by-wire throttle tighten up. Like a dull pencil thrust into an electric sharpener, the MINI is suddenly ready to draw the finest of racing lines.

Compared to the corner carving capabilities of the previous version, the new MINI Cooper S in Sport mode feels about 20% more wonderfully, joyously flickable. It still stays flat and level through vicious corners. It still turns in with all the eagerness of a toddler’s mother. But the added layer of maturity and refinement in the drivetrain and the additional feel through the helm build significantly more confidence into the system.

Enough confidence, in fact, to imperil the sporting driver’s license– and embolden him or her to switch off the MINI Cooper S’ DSC stability control. And yet, even without considering the necessity of the optional limited slip differential, there’s something important missing from the re-mix: an aggressive exhaust note.

For reasons most probably related to Europe’s drive-by noise regulations, the MINI Cooper S’ aural burble, zizz and growl are gone. On one hand, the relative silence (and proper autobox option) make the MINI Cooper S a more refined and therefore viable daily driver. On the other, the muted motor removes much of the reason for driving the thing as it wants to be driven. It's a major miscalculation mandating post-purchase mechanical surgery.

Otherwise, the MINI Cooper S is good to go. Literally.


By Justin Berkowitz

George Clooney is box office catnip AND the critics’ darling. And no wonder: he looks great and he acts better than he looks. But what if you’re a movie producer who can’t afford Clooney’s vig? You get Thomas Haden Church. You know: the guy in Sideways, the movie about chit-chatting wine guzzlers. Sideway's producer knew Church wasn’t nearly as high profile as Clooney, but he was a lot less expensive. See where I’m going with this? If the MINI Cooper S is beyond your reach, should you lower your grasp? Big savings yes, but do you still get something of substance? Well, Church is an Oscar nominee. As for the Cooper…

It’s a relief to see an automobile that wasn’t designed in anger. Unlike Japanese and German sporting machines’ menacing headlights and blood-drawing creases, the Cooper remains a four-wheeled cheeky chappie. Although the MINI was maximized for ’07, only OCD brand fans can make the call. In case you meet a MINI enthusiast, just remember that the front indicators now sit like laconic “floaters” inside the MINI’s eyes, and the rear window line rises 0.7” higher up at the B-pillar than previously.

Thanks to the Mother of All Option Lists, the Cooper’s cabin is as plain or ornate as you desire, covered in funky cloth or leather or mother of pearl or space shuttle tiles. Most of the first gen’s retro touches (e.g. chromed toggle switches and unrelenting ovality) remain in situ. While these design-lead differentiators may continue to lure buyers who are comfortable deploying the term “post-modern irony” in polite conversation, the Cooper’s cabin is beginning to look increasingly whacked-out.

Equally disappointing, there’s no British-ness to the MINI Cooper. Cocked eyebrow whimsy has been replaced with weird for the sake of weird. The big central speedo of MINI Mk1 has morphed into a dinner plate-sized gauge that could easily double as the weigh-in scale for The Biggest Loser. Still, the ergonomics are bloodied but unbowed, and the fit and finish overall is impressive; part and parcel of Mini’s premium-puny philosophy.

So you stick the fob in the dash, press the “START/STOP” affectation, and fire up the engine. Hang on; can you “fire up” an engine with less displacement than a bottle of Diet Coke? In fact, it’s amazing to us buy-by-the-pound Americans that BMW would dare offer the 118 horse Cooper for sale on this side of the pond. That’s less poke underfoot than offered by a lowly a Kia Spectra. But unlike the original MINI's base (in the precise sense of the word) engine, which was made from rusted toaster ovens in a Brazilian Chrysler factory, the new 1.6 liter four-pot is a peach.

This PSA Peugeot-Citroen sourced mill doesn’t rev like one of Honda’s methamphetamine motors, but there’s plenty of space between zero revs and the 6500 rpm redline. The manual shifter is as slick as Clooney’s hair in O, Brother Where Art Thou? Whatever oomph there is is there for the taking. Metrosexuals and their mates will be delighted to discover that MINI has finally replaced the Continuously Vile Transmission with a proper six-speed autobox. Punch the pedal or row your boat; the best case is still naught to 60 in 8.5 seconds. Not too long ago you would have been impressed.

In day to day driving, the Cooper has plenty of zip. No, it’s not a Cooper S, but it’s still a car that could get you arrested… eventually. That’s because the suspension rewards any and all efforts to build the big Mo. Once you get a lick of speed and get into the game, the MINI’s handling becomes seriously addictive. Snap into a corner. More! Push into an S-curve. Is that really all you’ve got? Surge around a highway on-ramp at 73 mph. Down shift because damn it Scotty, we need more power! I dare you to drive the Cooper a few miles without cackling like a cocaine-crazed craps player.

Come to think of it, the Cooper is a smug little bastard of a car. I don’t have to brake for that turn. I can carve through traffic. I can fit into that parking space. I get 40 mpg highway. Unlike that psychotic dust-buster Civic, I've got completely customizable character. And I have to pay for home delivery because I can’t haul a damn thing. Err, never mind that last one.

No pistonhead worth his TTAC Tic Tacs would pass up a chance to buy a MINI Cooper S instead of a Cooper. Used S instead of new Cooper. Sorted. But let’s face it: there are plenty of people for whom $18k is already a stretch. And no other box fresh sub-$20k car has half the MINI Cooper’s flair and panache. Clooney’s cool, but sometimes you gotta go to Church.