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CASTROL CHINTHE AWARD FOR AUTOMOTIVE WRITING

Entry Number 2: 2003 MINI - or not?

(Originally appeared in The Toronto Star Wheels section)

 

The Driverís Seat

by Jim Kenzie

Mini Cooper S

 

LISBON Portugal - High school reunions can be scary.

That sweet little thing three rows over and two seats down, the one you had a crush on, might now be fat, ugly, and dress funny.

It can be like that with cars too. You may have lusted after an "Alfonzo de Credenza" as a teenager, maybe even owned one.

Get into one today, and itís, "What was I THINKING?"

That's what BMW must have felt when they started development of the new Mini.

Everyone claims to love the old one. But have you driven one recently?

I did, a few years ago.

Pretty awful, actually. Cramped. Hard-riding. Slow. Noisy. Not even especially fuel-efficient.

And donít even think about a frontal collision.

Brilliant in 1959. No hope today.

So the new Mini is a bigger car - a MUCH bigger car, more Golf than Mini. It is not intended to be a bare-bones car at all, but a thoroughly modern, fully-equipped, "lifestyle accessory".

It captures the look of the old car, especially from the windshield rearward - the bulbous front is necessary for modern crush space.

But, can it capture the spirit?

I was less than bowled over by the "Cooper" model, which is the entry-level model in Canada (other markets get an even simpler base car).

Add 48 more horsepower (a total of 163) courtesy of an intercooled supercharger, a six-speed gearbox and firmer suspension, and youíve got my attention.

Of course, a Cooper S has to be red with a white roof (rally fans, look up "Paddy Hopkirk" on the Internet). You probably should opt for the hood stripes too - if youíre going to mimic the original, might as well go crazy, although my tester did without.

The interior is full of reminiscences - single round gauge cluster in the middle of the dash; tachometer bolted onto the steering column.

I find some of this disturbing - those things were there for a reason in the original (the former to make it cheaper to build right- and left-hand drive versions; the latter because there was nowhere else to put it). Theyíre mere affectations in the new car.

That sounds suspiciously like old-fartism; the point is, young kids who have never even heard of the original Mini think this car is as cool as having Matchbox 20 play at their high school prom.

Thereís decent room in the front of the new Min; not much in the back, but who cares? You can fold the rear seatback for added luggage space, easily accessible through the hatch lid. (Recall that the original Mini was NOT a hatchback, although Ringo Starr did have one custom-built. Moms and Dads, tell those Matchbox 20 fans who Ringo Starr is...).

The original Cooper S was the scourge of race tracks and rally circuits the world over, primarily because of its power-to-weight ratio. It never really was a great-handling car - those tiny tires severely limited ultimate grip, although it was great fun to chuck about.

The new one is significantly quicker than the old; 0 - 100 km/h comes up in 7.4 seconds, and youíre still in second gear, which suggests fairly tall overall ratios. Sixth is an ultra-tall overdrive for freeway cruising.

A supercharger produces its boost at lower revs than a turbo, although in this case the torque peak is at a relatively high 4,000 r.p.m. Still, through-the-gears mid-range acceleration is excellent.

Thereís a bit of supercharger whine - not so much as to be objectionable, but enough to be part of the fun.

The one performance drawback to the engine is that until the supercharger starts to work (around 1,500 r.p.m.) youíve got a 1.6 litre low-compression ratio (8.3:1) engine with too-tall a first gear going for you. Itís fairly easy to stall the car if youíre not hard on it from the get-go - not something thatís taken lightly by impatient Portuguese taxi drivers, and is there any other kind?

The round shift knob feels suitably meaty in the hand, and the shift linkage is OK as long as you donít get lost - in a six-speed, there are five wrong ratios for every right one.

Clutch take-up, of which BMW has long been a master, is perfect. Once used to the feel of the transmission, youíll be shifting like a Schumacher.

The suspension is all BMW-derived. The company talks about a "go-kart-like" sensation, as if that were something to be desired.

Fortunately, the engineers are well ahead of the copy writers.

The spring and damper settings are firmer than in the base car. My tester also had the optional 17-inch spoked wheels with ultra-low profile 205/45 tires, which added their own bit of crispness to the proceedings.

(A note about those famous wheels: they are commonly referred to as "Minilites"; in fact, they were designed by John Cooperís racing mechanic for his Formula One cars in the late 1950s. The British wheel company plagiarized the design, applied its own name, and neither Cooper nor his mechanic ever earned a dime on this iconic design.)

I didnít much like the steering in the regular Cooper; turns out it may have been a tire issue, because on the sportier rubber, the car feels very nimble, with a lot less understeer that the lower-echelon car.

An extra drive shaft bearing means the drive shafts are of equal length; hence the dreaded torque steer is nowhere to be found.

It is totally unlike the original Mini in all respects - this is a very mature car, extremely proficient, and capable of very high cornering speeds. Itís not the chuckable, hooligan-friendly toy that the original was.

That said, the new Cooper S is a joy to drive.

If you do overcook it, the Cooper S comes with traction control and, optionally, Directional Stability Control too.

Brakes are four-wheel discs with ABS, electronic brake force distribution and BMWís cornering brake control, which automatically adjusts wheel brake pressure side-to-side if you slap on the binders in a corner.

Donít we old Cooper S racers wish we had all that in the bad old days...

There is some pitching on undulating road surfaces - this is still a pretty small car - and the ride is definitely on the firm side.

But I think Iíd be perfectly happy on a long journey in this car. Certainly moreso than in an original Mini, if for no other reason than youíd have all the comforts of home, and then some. Air conditioning. Power windows, mirrors and locks. High-end stereo system. Even optional satellite navigation.

The Cooper S starts at $29,600, and thatís for a highly-entertaining, nicely-equipped car. You might want to add the $1,500 sport package to get the Cooper-like wheels, run-flat tires, and directional stability control (you can always shoot out the fog lights with an over-under 12-gauge shotgun).

The rest of the option list can be disregarded - rain-sensing wipers  - on a MINI?

Hah. We were lucky to have wipers at all...

 

Highs:

 

1. Strong performance.

2. Excellent dynamics.

3. Kids of all ages wave at you when you drive past.

 

Lows:

 

1. Trying too hard to be something itís not - and shouldnít be.

2. Gearing could be lower for even better performance.

3. All this ďlifestyleíĎ crap is, as the Brits would say, awfully "twee".

 

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