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Car Corner
Mini Cooper S, A Quick Look

August 1, 2004
By Scott Lewis

I did the unthinkable, I took a test drive in a Mini Cooper S. As you may recall, I have narrowed the new cars I am thinking about to the all new Mustang due out in the fall and the Mini Cooper S. When I mentioned this to a Mustang enthusiast at work she cringed at the thought. Well, she has owned five or six Mustangs over the years, so her reaction didn't surprising me. In fact, I am probably one of the few people out there that are going to be cross-shopping the Mini Cooper with the Mustang.

The reason for the test drive was to see if I am barking up the wrong tree with the Mini Cooper S. Should I stop thinking about it? I have read a lot about the Mini and I think I would like it a lot. But a few points worry me. 1) Rough ride. Many of the articles I have read say the Mini's ride is pretty firm or even harsh. If I get a new car it has to be more comfortable to drive than my 93 Camaro Z28. 2) Quiet. I have grown tired of the amount of road noise that enters the cabin of my Z28 on the long drives to work. I want a more quiet interior with a better stereo to enjoy the time. 3) Performance. Can a 163 hp supercharged 4 cylinder engine really provide as much fun in the power department as the 275 hp V-8 in my Z28? Only a test drive will tell.

The Test

We only have one BMW/Mini dealer here is San Antonio. I happen to be off work one day and coming home from downtown, so I stopped by. I told the salesman that I was concerned with the ride with the run flat tires and would probably try to get a Mini Cooper S without the sport suspension that comes with 17" wheels. He told me that both the 16 and 17 inch wheels come with stiff run flat tires and it won't make a difference. He also thought that the people writing the reviews of the cars must be coming from a top of the line Mercedes before testing the Mini. He didn't think the ride was bad, but he is the salesman. The only S model they had available to drive had 17" wheels and the sport suspension. We took it for a spin.

Performance

The salesman drove it out of the showroom. Yes, the showroom. All the cars on the lot were sold. We drove out the doors of the showroom and out of the lot. When he hit the street he hammered it pretty well. I was put back in my seat with a pleasant surprise as he power shifted it into second gear. Clearly there is some decent power here. But I couldn't find it myself. I did notice that he spun the motor up quite a bit, and you could clearly hear the supercharger whine. When I was driving I found the car to be rather soft. I was a little paranoid to beat on the car the way the salesman did. I have not driven a manual equipped car on a regular basis for over 10 years, so I am a little rusty at clutch dropping and power shifting.

Overall I was impressed more by the salesman's driving than my own. That's bad. However, it reveals something. For me torque is my best friend. My Z28 has over 300 ft/lbs of torque. The Mini has only 155 ft/lbs. of torque. Torque is what accelerates a car. I love the instant throttle response I get by just flooring my Z and taking off like a rocket. The Mini does not do this. I was able to start generating more serious thrust, but only after the tach was a fair amount over 4000 RPMs. Wow, I rarely see 4000 RPMs in my Camaro.

I should be able to get a lot more performance out of the Mini with some more time behind the wheel, especially if that time is alone where I don't feel like I am being watched or have to worry about abusing a dealer's car. I use to drive my 89 CRX Si the same way the salesman drove the Mini. I am far less worried about performance, but I would prefer more low RPM power from the car. This may mean more when I eventually test drive the new Mustang in 2005.

I left with the impression that I would need to rev this car out a lot to get decent performance. I also thought that it might make for a decent dual personality car. If I kept the revs low I could enjoy driving like regular people. When I want to have fun I could wring the little motor to the redline. I am sure I will miss the low end torque I have now, so I will definitely consider keeping my Z28 if I buy the Mini.

Ride

Let's move on to the ride harshness. Like the salesman said, I didn't notice it. The Mini was clearly smoother than my Z28. Granted the roads around the dealership were not that bad, but it was obvious that I would be getting an improvement is ride comfort. At least I don't have to worry about it. I will want to take a longer road test when I compare this car to the Mustang in the fall, but at this time I am no longer concerned with the ride harshness I have read about. This car is comfortable enough for me. However, I will still plan on replacing the run flat tires with regular tires when the tread wears out... assuming I get this car.

Interior

When the engine is not whining its supercharger the cabin was definitely quieter than my Camaro. How much of this is due to the car being newer is hard to tell. It seemed like a tighter built interior. The standard stereo was much better than the Delco/Bose system that came in my car. I did not hear a car equipped with the Harmon Cardon premium stereo, so I can't comment on it. If the Harmon/Cardon system included an in-dash CD changer I would jump on it. Since it does not I would have to think very carefully before getting the premium sound system over buying something from the aftermarket. I would really like an in-dash CD changer. I have a trunk mount changer in my Camaro and I have grown to hate it. However, the Mini has a factory option to have an auxiliary input for the stereo. This would be used to plug in my MP3 player, which holds around 500 songs. I will definitely need the auxiliary input on "my" Mini.

While I was checking out the interior I needed to know how much back seat room the car had. I needed this information for two reasons. First, My sons will be riding back there. I hate adjusting my seat to accommodate back seat passengers. I must do this when I drive my wife's 911 while one of my sons is sitting behind me. Also, I have looked in the back seat of some Minis when they were parked and their back seats look large, but with little to no legroom.

When I got in and pulled on the lever to adjust the seat it slid so far back I could not reach the floor. Wow! Even my best friend (you know who you are) at 6'3" should be able to fit in the front of the Mini without difficulty. Once I set the seat for myself (I am 5'10", 215 lbs.) I climbed in the back seat. Sure enough I fit comfortably. Granted I would not put 6 footers back there for the long haul, but it will be perfect for shorter adults and my kids as they grow into teenagers.

The second reason for checking the back seat was in case I should ever consider the convertible version of the Mini Cooper. Even though we have the Porsche 911 Cabriolet, it is NOT a daily driver. I get a lot of rock chips on my drive to work, and only take the Porsche once in a while. Besides, it is my wife's car. I still like the idea of a daily driver convertible. Could the Mini fit that bill? If the back seat is as roomy in the convertible as it is in the car I tested I think I would be very happy with the leg room front and back.

I got comfortable inside the Mini very quickly. The shifter worked well, but seemed a little stiff. Granted, I have only driven one other car with a 6 speed manual (RSX Type-S), so I may have to get use to it. I am not saying it wasn't good, but maybe it needs a little breaking in. The manual climate controls were just fine, so automatic climate control is really a luxury. I like the funky switches, but the door handles take some getting used to. I am disappointed that this car only had one touch down power windows. Even the New Beetle has one touch down and up windows. We'll have to see what Ford does with the Mustang in this department.

I did like the auto-sealing door windows. When you open the door the window drops about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. When you close the door the window goes back up. This takes a LOT of the wear off the window seal/weather stripping. My wife's 911 has this. So does the G35 Coupe I looked at (but did not drive). Nice touch.

I was a little disappointed in the instrumentation, and not for the reasons you might think. The Mini has its speedometer mounted in the center of the dash. This is kind of funky. I don't mind this, but some people might. My problem was with the gas level and temperature gauges that were in the lower portion of the speedometer. I almost missed them. I hope there is a warning light for the gas level or I could see getting caught off guard. The tachometer is front and center, which is good. But the top of the speedometer is blocked by the top of the steering wheel. I like big tachs, but this one could be an inch or two smaller in diameter... and it would still be huge. Finally, there is no boost gauge. What is the deal with that. For a sporty car with a supercharger you need a boost gauge. The Mini accessory catalog lists a gauge package that puts a voltmeter and oil pressure gauge in the console below the toggle switches. The look is O.K., but really doesn't quite match the rest of the Mini's interior. I would prefer a boost gauge for the supercharger with an oil pressure gauge that surrounded the tachometer and matched its appearance. How hard would this be to add to an accessory catalog?

Overall, I really like the interior of the Mini. I don't know if I need the leather interior, or want to save $1300 and get cloth. I use to say I wanted leather in my next car. But I started thinking, cloth really is more comfortable. Plus, I am starting to think cloth seats in a convertible is the way to go. Remember, the Mini Cooper is coming out with a convertible in 2005. I know I can do without the plastic cow supplied leatherette interior (read: vinyl).

Ideas

As you can tell from above I am still a little concerned with performance. I started thinking about it. I read one article on the John Cooper Works package for the Mini Cooper S. This replaces the stock supercharger with a larger unit. It also includes some other things. The article said it did a lot for the performance of the Mini, but at what cost. The dealer wants $6200 for the Works package installed. That's a lot of money to spend for 37 additional horsepower. I saw a TV show where they put a Mini Cooper S on a chassis dyno. It had a free flow intake, pulley change for the stock supercharger to get more boost, and a computer reprogramming. It showed 175 horsepower to the wheels. That should equate to close to the 200 horsepower at the flywheel of the Works package. I can't see those simple changes costing more that a grand or so. Granted, the John Cooper Works package has a few advantages. For one, it not only does not void your warrantee, but it is covered by it when installed at a Mini dealer. Two, using a larger supercharger is probably a better way to increase the airflow into the engine then spinning the crap out of the stock blower. Regardless, the engine is clearly up to the task of handling more boost.

I cannot see spending over six grand for 37 additional horsepower. Heck, my Z28 is worth less than that and it has 275 horsepower and a complete car around it. Before I would buy a John Cooper Works package I would just keep my Z28 and buy a Vortec supercharger for it. I priced one at $4K and it's good for 409 horsepower. Now we're talking power.

I could see getting a nitrous oxide kit for the Mini to give it 30 - 50 more horsepower. The Mini can be pretty relaxed when the engine is below 4000 RPM. I would use this to have a dual personality car. Keep the revs low for relaxed driving, and rev it out for fun. When you need that extra torque just push a button and get a little nitrous. In fact, what would be ideal is a nitrous system that uses LESS nitrous as boost increases. For example, let's say we added 50 horsepower at under 3 pounds of boost, then added only 25 horsepower from 3 to 6 pounds of boost, and finally turned the nitrous off above 6 pounds of boost. This could make the engine feel like a larger engine. The nitrous would only be used for low RPM, low boost conditions. This could extend the life of the bottle of nitrous as well. If you were only using a little nitrous here and there it might actually be useful for spirited driving rather than racing. What do you think? How hard would it be to program a nitrous kit to use less nitrous as boost increased.

Now, if you have to think about adding horsepower to a car before you even buy it should you think about something else. Maybe, maybe not. I am an enthusiast and modifying cars is part of the fun. Maybe I should just keep in mind the cost of a few simple upgrades as part of buying the car. It does scare me a bit adding power to a brand new car still under factory warrantee. Almost anything could void that warrantee and leave you with an expensive repair that may or may not be the results of some performance modifications. I think it would be hard to remove all traces of a nitrous kit before taking the car to the dealer, especially if it is not running and time is of the essence. Swapping pulleys for more boost might be easy enough to return to stock, but make sure it doesn't look like you just switched it back.

$37,000 for a Mini?

Yes! You are reading that correctly. When I went to the dealer they had two Mini Coopers in the showroom. One was the S model that I test drove. The other was an S model that had just about every high dollar dealer installed option you could get. It had a sticker (MSRP) price in the $24K range. They added the John Cooper Works package ($6,200), the aero kit ($3,000) and a few smaller items that included a custom steering wheel and carbon fiber interior pieces. The total for the car was $37,000. Ouch! I can't imagine anyone paying that much for a car that sells in the low to mid 20K range. How do you justify the price to your insurance company or the bank for the loan. Besides, for $37K you open the door to some serious sport coupes like the Audi TT, Infiniti G35, and even the BMW 330Ci and Z4. Oh well, I guess someone will be crazy enough to buy it.

One thing did stand out for me with the overpriced Mini... it was black, and looked really good. This has thrown me for a loop. When I traded in my black CRX for my Z28 I swore off black cars in south central Texas. But the Mini Cooper in all black, with the painted black aero kit, has a decidedly sinister look. Well, as sinister looking as a "cute" car can be. I liked it, so much so that I will consider a black Mini if I ever get one.

Buying a Mini

I found this very interesting. The Mini dealer told me that the Mini is a custom ordered car. I knew that was possible, but had no idea that it worked that way for all the cars. All the cars on the lot were sold. There was a four month wait for a Cooper S ordered from the factory. That means that I would be ordering a 2005 model in May of 2004 (when I took my test drive). The kicker was they didn't even have 2005 prices yet, which they expect to increase by about one thousand dollars. Maybe I should stick with the Mustang.

Conclusion

Is the Mini Cooper S still in the running for a possible new car. Yes. I am slightly worried about performance, but think I should be able to adapt my driving style to the car. I did it with my CRX many years ago. However, the lack of low end torque will be a strike against this car when I test drive the new Mustang GT with over 300 ft/lbs of torque. Will a small high revving engine be as much fun to drive as a V-8 torque motor. I may have to plan some performance upgrades into the price of the Mini Cooper S when I compare it head to head with the Mustang. I will definitely take a longer, more in-depth road test of the Mini Cooper after I get a chance to drive the new Mustang.

Until the fall...

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