CASTROL CHINTHE AWARD FOR AUTOMOTIVE WRITING
Entry Number 2: 2003 MINI - or not?
(Originally appeared in The Toronto Star Wheels section)
Portugal - High school reunions can be scary.
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.
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?"
what BMW must have felt when they started development of the new Mini.
claims to love the old one. But have you driven one recently?
did, a few years ago.
awful, actually. Cramped. Hard-riding. Slow. Noisy. Not even especially
donít even think about a frontal collision.
in 1959. No hope today.
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,
captures the look of the old car, especially from the windshield rearward - the
bulbous front is necessary for modern crush space.
can it capture the spirit?
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).
48 more horsepower (a total of 163) courtesy of an intercooled supercharger, a
six-speed gearbox and firmer suspension, and youíve got my attention.
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.
interior is full of reminiscences - single round gauge cluster in the middle of
the dash; tachometer bolted onto the steering column.
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.
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.
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...).
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.
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.
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.
a bit of supercharger whine - not so much as to be objectionable, but enough to
be part of the fun.
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
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.
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.
suspension is all BMW-derived. The company talks about a "go-kart-like"
sensation, as if that were something to be desired.
the engineers are well ahead of the copy writers.
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.
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.)
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.
extra drive shaft bearing means the drive shafts are of equal length; hence the
dreaded torque steer is nowhere to be found.
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.
said, the new Cooper S is a joy to drive.
you do overcook it, the Cooper S comes with traction control and, optionally,
Directional Stability Control too.
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.
we old Cooper S racers wish we had all that in the bad old days...
is some pitching on undulating road surfaces - this is still a pretty small car
- and the ride is definitely on the firm side.
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.
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).
rest of the option list can be disregarded - rain-sensing wipers
- on a MINI?
We were lucky to have wipers at all...
Kids of all ages wave at you when you drive past.
Trying too hard to be something itís not - and shouldnít be.
Gearing could be lower for even better performance.
All this ďlifestyleíĎ crap is, as the Brits would say, awfully "twee".
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