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Car Corner
Mini Cooper S Convertible - The New Car

September 1, 2006
By Scott Lewis

A couple of months ago I hinted at a surprise. Well... surprise... I have a new car. My wife got me a 2006 Mini Cooper S Convertible as a Father's Day present. Of course there is a story to go with that, which I will try to keep short, and then I will have to tell you all about the car. Grab a cup of coffee (or whatever you drink, Chip) and let's go for a ride.

Camaro RIP

O.K. Maybe RIP is a little harsh. But my 93 Camaro Z28 is currently not running. Here's the story. I was driving to work one day, minding my own business, when all of a sudden a spaceship came out of the sky... What?!? Sorry, wrong story.

I was driving to work one day and the car began to stumbled. I assumed I was running out of gas (I have done that a few times before). I managed to coast it off the highway and call a friend to pick me up. I was about 4 miles from work and over 30 from home. While waiting I turned the car on and there was gas, but the temperature gauge was in the red. Damn! I looked at the radiator and sure enough there was a big piece of paper stuck there. Clearly this overheated the car. I tried to start the car when it cooled but with no luck.

I had the car towed to a dealer (about 3/4 mile up the road). They told me when it overheated the water pump dump on the distributor cap (it is a pancake shaped design between the water pump and the block). They wanted $1600 to replace the cap, rotor and water pump. I had the car towed home for $100. It cost be $400 for the parts to do it myself. I spent two weekends taking the car apart and putting it back together. 

sunrise_over_light.jpg (182522 bytes)It started just fine on a Sunday afternoon. I ran the car until it was fully warmed up, shut it down to cool and topped off the fluid. I repeated this about 4 times until it would not take anymore fluid. It ran just fine.

Monday morning I was about 10 miles from my house and the car just stalled... right on the highway. I coasted to the side and called my wife to come get me. I had to have the car towed back home. My wife said, "why don't we go look at your Mini Coopers?" We called the credit union, jockeyed some money around and paid off the Acura MDX a little early. We headed over to the BMW/Mini Center of San Antonio and I found the car you will see below and drove it home that day.

The Camaro is still sitting. I would like to keep it, but we could use the money elsewhere. I still think it would be worth keeping to get us started on the kids driving. But my kids think the Camaro is "yuckie." I have almost $600 in towing and parts so far. I suspect the distributor cap or rotor are bad. I will have to take it completely apart to find out. If so the parts are under warrantee, so I should be able to get it running for no more money. But would I want to put the same no name brand parts in it. Back in November 2004 I put AC/Delco parts in it, but the store doesn't carry them anymore and I had to go with an aftermarket brand. I was told those "cheaper" brands can sometimes be the problem. Do I fork over the dough to get genuine GM parts? If I can get my money back for the aftermarket parts I will try that.

I'll keep you posted.

Ordering vs. The Lot

They had a total of 5 Mini Cooper convertibles on the lot the day we were looking... and serious to buy. Two were the standard model, while 3 were the S model. Of the 3 Cooper S Convertibles one was white (actually kind of off white, they call it Pepper White) with a blue top (Yuck!), one was red with white bonnet stripes and one was charcoal gray with funky checker patterned stripes in black. The red car was very close to the shade of red of my 93 Camaro. It also had a red interior (dash, door trim, etc.). I hate red on the interior.

That left the gray car. Actually Dark Silver Metallic. My first choice would have been Mini's Hyper Blue. It looks real cool in person, and blue is my favorite color. They didn't have any in stock. Now... the difference between getting the color they had and a color I wanted was 6-8 weeks. Ouch! The Mini I bought had the sport package and did not have the convenience or cold weather packages (from last month's article). Bummer. The cold weather package includes sunrise_mirror.jpg (133907 bytes) heated seats. Not exactly a necessity in South Central Texas, but in a convertible the heated seats would be welcome when driving with the top down in January. I'll live with the switch in packages, though I am bummed about the lack of an integrated garage door opener in my new car. I keep the Sears remote in the console (more below). At least it is out of site.

My wife gave me the car as a Father's Day present. Way cool! My wife says the checkered stripes remind here of the "bowling" shirts Charlie Sheen wears on Two and a Half Men. We told the salesman we were going to take them off (they are just decals). He told us he had to charge for them because they were already on the car. However, when he did the paperwork he took the $200 off the price after all. Cool. I left them on for a little over a month, then I peeled them off. I am considering putting something else on. The salesman owns a Mini himself, and he said he changes the graphics every few months. I hope so, because his black Mini had gaudy red flames on the sides and hood the day we were there. Those need to be changed real quick. I would like to see some kind of ghost flames myself. I will be looking into it in the future.

The Review

BMW's Mini Cooper S Convertible is far more than just another cute car. It really is a four passenger sports car. If the Miata is a sports car then the Cooper S Convertible is one as well. Just because it has a back seat don't dismiss this car as just another cute retro vehicle. It can run with any sports car in its power class. Its go-cart like handling and luxury touches makes it a fairly unique vehicle. And if you get into them you will see that all Minis are unique within their own brand. I have read that over 95% of all Mini Cooper S cars are custom ordered. Wow! Since I got one "off the lot" does that make me more unique than all those people that ordered there cars to the Nth degree on options. I can tell you this... I have not seen another Mini with the chrome mirrors yet... and I really like them.

Drive train

I don't want to rehash all you can find on Mini's web site, or read in every other magazine, but I would like to touch a bit on the engine. It is a 168 horsepower supercharged 1.6 liter engine. This eclipses the magic 100hp/liter mark. Think of the number of sports or performance cars that can't match that. Let's see: 

Porsche 911 - 3.6 liter - 325 hp = 90hp/l
Corvette - 6.0 liter - 400 hp = 67hp/l
Viper - 8.0 liter - 505 hp = 63hp/l
Miata - 2.0 liter - 170 hp = 85hp/l
Solstice - 2.4 liter - 177 hp = 74hp/l
Mustang GT - 4.6 liter - 300 hp = 65hp/l
Chrysler 300 - 5.7 liter - 340 hp = 60hp/l

No, I am not saying that horsepower per liter is the be all - end all of performance. It is not. Horsepower to weight is were it is at, and the Mini Cooper S Convertible is the heaviest of the Coopers at a little over 2800 pounds. But it is interesting that the Coopster has such an an efficient engine.

p1003996.jpg (111908 bytes)My MCSC is equipped with the Getrag 6 speed manual transmission. My wife does not "drive stick," so this was a bit of an issue. I tried the automatic in a Cooper S and I hated it. It shifted by itself from second to third and from third to fourth on a quick test drive... in manual mode! Plus I was not impressed with how slowly it up and down shifted using its paddles. Do not get the automatic!

If I had ordered this car I would have gotten the limited slip differential. Alas this car is not so equipped. But I don't think I will ever notice it in normal driving. I have heard that limited slip in a front wheel drive car can tame torque steer. I don't think that will matter with the Cooper S in stock form. It does exhibit torque steer, but the tires aren't even clawing for traction, so how would limited slip help. Speaking of torque steer, the Cooper is mild in that department, which I found pleasantly surprising. It is better than an Acura RSX with an automatic. I only feel torque steer in 1st gear. What is kind of cool is if you launch the car softly and then rev it out in 1st the steering wheel will pull to the left as the tach swings by 4000 RPM... which just so happens to be where the torque peaks. Sweet!

The engine's peak horsepower comes in at 6000 RPMs. The transmission ratios are very close. The 1 - 2 sees a drop from 6000 RPM down to about 4500. Not bad. Easily you can keep the engine in the fat part of its power band. But as the gears go up the gap narrows. There is only a difference of about 1000 RPM from fifth to sixth at the upper end of the gauge. Personally, considering the torque peak I would have spread the ratios out just a tad so when you hit sixth on the highway the revs would be a bit lower for better mileage.

With such tight gearing and broad power band you don't have to worry about wringing the engine out to its 6750 RPM redline. In fact, much above 6250 RPMs is a waist of time. I find this refreshing is a small engined car. No, it is not V-8 torquey, but it does satisfy my lust for speed enough that I am not saying, "Wow, I could have had a V-8." That is something I did say after I bought my 1989 Honda CRX Si. I really like short shifting the Coopster at about 5500 RPMs from first to second and getting a nice tire chirp as I hit second right at the torque peak.

Mini claims the Cooper S Convertible with go 0 - 60 in 7.0 seconds with a top speed of 134 mph. I have no reason to doubt those numbers. I am sure someone has road tested the Cooper S convertible and maybe got that number down by one or two tenths of a second. BMW tends to be ever so slightly conservative on their published results.

Brakes

I have driven a lot of cars over the years. I remember doing a brake job on my 93 Camaro quite a while ago. I believe it was the first time I changed the brake pads on all four corners at the same time. The brakes felt great. Better than anything I had ever driven. In fact, they were so good you just wanted to delay braking to feel how good they were. They inspired you to brake harder all the time.

P1003985_1.jpg (245992 bytes)I mention the Camaro's braking situation because it never was the same after any of the other brake jobs I did on the car. Not even the last brake job I did where I replaced all the rotors and pads together. The Mini Cooper's brakes are just about as good as the Camaro's were during that brief time in history. The Coopster's brakes are the best of any car I have driven recently. I was especially impressed how much better they are than my wife's Porsche 911's. I have yet to feel the ABS kick in on the Mini Cooper. This is not a matter of not driving hard enough, but rather a testimony to how well the Cooper handles and how much grip the tires ultimately must have. I have braked hard enough in the Mini to match what would have kicked in the ABS on the Porsche. I can't explain it, just know that I love these brakes.

Ride

The ride is very smooth over roads with minor imperfections. Which is to say that it is smooth over the vast majority of the roads I drive on. The ride is better than my 93 Camaro (which was a requirement when test driving this car) and my wife's Porsche 911 Cabriolet. This car really does feel like a miniature BMW. However, when the road gets really bad the car is very choppy. I have had a hard time finding roads this car feels choppy over. There are a couple in some constructions zones, but I really don't have an issue with the ride. I plan to replace the tires with NON run flat tires when the time comes. A can of fix-a-flat will have to do (there is no spare, but there is a jack).

If I were still living in New York I would not drive this car. I might consider a Mini Cooper without the Sport suspension and with the 16" wheels instead of 17s. Since I did not order the car I got the sport suspension with its 17" wheels and tires. If you live where they put salt on the roads think hard before buying this car. Make sure you test drive it over roads that will let you see its harsh side.

An extension of the ride quality is cowl shake. This is the shaking noise and feel that comes from the windshield area on convertibles. This car has no cowl shake that I can notice. Maybe I have to wait a couple of year to start feeling it. I can tell you that this is the tightest feeling convertible I have ever driven. To put this in perspective I should tell you what convertibles I have driven. 1967 Chevrolet Camaro, 1991 & 2000 Mazda Miata, 1990 & 1999 Porsche 911, 1992 Ford Mustang GT, 2001 BMW 325Ci, 2005 Ford Mustang.

I only mentioned the 67 Camaro for old cars. I have had brief drives in a number of mid 60s to early 70s convertibles over time, but they all suck in the cowl shake department by today's standards. I listed the Camaro because I put over 3,000 miles on mine. I have also ridden in a 2003 Saab 9-3 convertible. I don't really remember its cowl shake, but the owner told me it had a lot.

p1004003.jpg (137232 bytes)Handling

This firm ride is definitely what leads to the best part of the Cooper S... its go-cart like handling. Body lean is minimal, and the car just goes where it is pointed. It has the least amount of understeer of any front wheel drive vehicle I have driven. What really impresses me is how little it feels like a front wheel drive car. Yes, when you launch it you feel like your are being pulled, and there is some torque steer in first gear, but other than that it is remarkable balanced. I have pushed it harder and harder through sweeping on-ramps when traffic permits it. I have not been able to upset it. I tried invoking some trailing throttle oversteer (when you suddenly back off on the gas and the rear comes out to play). Nothing. This could be because of the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) that is supposed to prevent you from making mistakes. If the DSC is kicking in it is doing it so subtly that I can't tell it is working, which is exactly what you want. This means the that car is so perfectly balanced or the DSC makes you think it is. Either way it is a huge plus. I have not reached the ultimate grip of the car, and I would have a hard time doing do so on public roads.

One thing that truly impressed me was to learn the Mini Cooper S has electric power steering. I didn't know this until after I bought it. I certainly can't tell from driving it. It feels very mechanical from behind the steering wheel, and feedback is great. I don't know what other manufacturers are doing in this department but they should definitely take a look at this system.

Slicing through traffic is amazingly easy with this car, though you really have to pay attention to that right rear blind spot. You can cut through traffic faster than you can say, "Driver's license and proof of insurance, please!"

Mileage

We all know that the EPA mileage ratings on cars is a joke. And we are learning why as we hear they are getting ready to revamp it. Let's have a quick history lesson. The EPA does not care about gas mileage. They care about emissions. When they test a car it is a very repeatable procedure that will tell them how much emissions a car is spewing into the air we breath. The government figured it would be easy to just have them measure the gas used during that test and slap a number on the window sticker of the car. Simple, right? Wrong!

sunrise_chrome.jpg (107090 bytes)The problem with the EPA testing is that it is not realistic to driving. They never exceed 55 mph (remember, that was the speed limit back when they started doing this kind of testing) and they don't even turn on the A/C while they run their tests. During the next few years they are supposed to role in new testing procedures closer to real world driving with speeds up to 70 mph and A/C in use during some of the testing. Expect mileage ratings to drop. 

The Mini Cooper S Convertible with the manual transmission is rated at 25/32 mpg city/highway. My first day to work (which includes mostly highway driving) was 28.3 mpg based on the on-board computer. I hit 29.0 on the next day. Then I decided to do like the EPA and turned off my A/C. That got me to 30.1 mpg. This was pretty good because I didn't do much to help it. When I tried to milk the mileage for all it was worth I got a best of 33.0 mpg on a trip to work, but could not maintain that on the way home... it is too hot in Texas to drive in the middle of the day in the hot sun without A/C. Once I finished playing around with the trip computer I reset the average mileage and it settled in at 28.0 mpg. I an still going back and forth between 27.6 and 28.0. After taking my kids to school it reads 27.6, but halfway to work it is back to 28.0 This 28.0 has been an average over about the last 3,000 miles. Not bad. I could probably get the average closer to 29 mpg if the car wasn't so much fun to drive. Lead footing it has its pitfalls.

A Luxury Car

One of the big reasons I like the Mini Cooper is that it really is a luxury car. After all, it is a premium small car. To prove that point let's take a look at some of the luxury car features and options this car has:

Leather Interior
Automatic Climate Control with Carbon Filtration
Self Leveling Xenon Headlights with Retractable Power Washers
Fully Automatic Convertible Top with Sunroof Feature
Rear Park Distance Control
On Board Computer
Free Full Service for 3 years/36,000 miles (with built-in reminder)
Premium Harman/Kardon Stereo with 8 speakers
Lights in the bottom of the doors to light your path out of the car
One Touch Down windows (though this seriously needs one touch up as well)
Auto Sealing Door Windows (this lowers the window about 1/4" when they are opened and closes them after the door is closed. It increases the life of the weather seals... particularly with a convertible)
Cruise Control
Audio and Cruise function on the steering wheel (the steering wheel even has Bluetooth phone control buttons, though I did not get that option)
Glass rear window with defroster (the 911 has a plastic window... Yikes!)
Speed Sensitive Intermittent Wipers
Flat Tire Monitor
12 volt power outlet in trunk (for MINI tailgate parties)
Speed Compensating Volume (I still don't know how to do this)
Chrome Accented Interior
Air Conditioned Glove Compartment
Front and rear Fog Lights

What's missing? Well besides the lack of one touch up windows I would like the built-in garage door opener, automatic dimming rear view mirror, and power seats. Power seats are not even an option. Granted the seats are extremely comfortable and do adjust well, but at $30K power adjustments for the seats should have been included.

So far you have not heard many bad remarks about the Cooper, except for the stiff ride on rough roads and a few missing creature comforts. Is there anything not to like about the Mini Cooper? Yes. For those of you that have read my columns you know I have no trouble telling you every tiny thing I find wrong with a car, and the Mini Cooper is no exception. However, everything I am about to mention is really nit-picky stuff. Overall I love this car. No car can be perfect. And to prove it here are my little nit-picks.

  • castle.jpg (213887 bytes)Power windows do not have one-touch up. This also applies to the button for all four windows. There is no excuse for this in a $30,000 car. My brother-in-law's 2005 Mustang has this... for $23K, and the rest of BMW's lineup have one touch up.
  • The LED display of the on-board computer, clock/trip odometer, stereo and climate control wash out when wearing polarized sunglasses. Oops! It is at it's worst when the top is down.
  • The on-board computer only displays one function at a time. Yes it is small, but I would prefer to see the constant and average fuel mileage at the same time.
  • The "top" to the console slides back to open. This happens way too easily during regular driving. I am concerned that it will eventually not stay in place when closed. (Oh, and I keep the remote for the garage door opener in here, so I use it a lot already. I expect it to where out.)
  • When the CD player is on random pressing the next button goes to the next song... not a new random song. The only way to get another random song is to turn off the random function and turn it back on. Also, when you turn the stereo on it default to having the random function off, regardless of whether is was on when you turned the stereo off.
  • Rear visibility with the top up is horrible. It is especially bad looking to your right-rear blind spot. It is the worst car for this that I have ever driven. With the top down it is much better, but still not good. The top folds up high enough to prevent seeing low objects behind you. Which is probably why this car is equipped with rear parking sensors. However, I don't care. I wouldn't change a thing. This is a note for those of you that do care about such things. I find it part of the personality of the car.
  • The standard cup holders are too small. I don't mind that. I understand this is a small car and Germans don't drink like we do. After all it does have two cup holders. However, they are the exact size to hold a 12 oz can and nothing else. Even tall, thin bottles hit the controls above the cup holders. The optional cup holder is a joke. It is screwed to the console supports and sits to the right of the console. It gets in everyone's way when they sit in the passenger seat. I unbolted it the day I brought the car home. However, if I go on a long trip by myself I will reinstall it in a heartbeat.

Like I said, those are pretty nit-picky complaints about a car. But they may be more important to some people which is why I mention them. 

Stereo

The stereo in the Mini is wonderful, though it is not loud enough. Granted I have the optional Harman/Kardon stereo and it sounds great. It is about as good as I am capable of doing myself. (I installed a nice dual amp/crossover setup with sub woofers in my CRX Si back in the early 90s. I also installed a similar setup in a friend's pickup.) The gain is set just right that you don't get distortion at full volume. It's just that when the top is down at 70+ mph I sometimes have to try to listen to news or other announcements. This is not a problem with the top up. If I had done it myself I would increase the amplification about 50% to get some more volume without introducing any distortion.

The Harman/Kardon system has five "EQ" settings. EQ may not be the right term, but you can set the system to one of five modes. Three of the five modes also support a "Driver" feature. This is supposed to optimize the sound for the driver. That's the marketing way of saying that in Driver Mode the rear speakers go from being two way speakers to sub woofers. It makes a nice difference and I use it all the time. The stereo is supposed to have a speed sensitive volume, however when I tried to follow the instructions there is no such setting to be found. Maybe I should complain.

I can't image I would ever replace this stereo. For starters it really does sound fantastic. Next is the Harman/Kardon system. The equalizer and amplification are in a separate module. You would have to ditch both. You can't just replace the head unit and expect to use the H/K features. If you just add more power you would also have to replace the H/K stuff. It would be a mess. I will live with a great system that just needs an 11 or a 12 on its volume knob.

Paint

I would not normally mention paint on a new car except that the paint on the Mini is really nice. I noticed that it has less orange peel that any new car I have seen in recent memory, even other BMWs on the lot. I always find it interesting to see how much orange peel is in new cars. For those of you that don't know, orange peel is the slight imperfections in the smoothness of the paint. You have to be looking for it to see it, but once you know what to look for it become obvious. Try to look at the reflection of a straight line in the paint of your car. It works best if you can look at the refection of a long florescent light in your paint. You will see very tiny waves in the paint that make the lines slightly jagged. This is orange peel. The Mini has very, very little orange peel. The only car I have seen with a factory paint job with this little orange peel is my brother-in-law's 1990 Porsche 911. People say that the shine on it is amazing. They say it is like looking in a mirror. I know why. Not to put anything against my brother-in-law's skills at detailing (he is very good at it), but the super shine would not be possible with a lot of orange peel. He is working from a great paint job.

I have seen shows and read in magazines about color sanding a car. Color sanding is a process of using ultra fine "wet" sandpaper to sand the paint smooth. Basically you are sanding the high spots of the orange peel down so that the paint is completely uniform with no orange peel. We are talking about 2000 grit (sometimes finer) sandpaper. And it is wet... as in soaking wet. You follow the color/wet sanding with buffing with a true buffing wheel (not the cheesy polishers from Sears). Eventually you get the paint to look so smooth that all the orange peel is eliminated and it really looks smooth as glass. This process removes some of the paint. Hopefully this process only removes some of the clear coat. Done right it can make the paint look amazing. But I have read conflicting opinions on color sanding a new car. Some say you can do it on cars with clear coat paints (almost all cars get it now) and others say that the factories are spraying paint on as thin as possible to get the results they want/need that there is not enough paint on a new car to get away with sanding some of it off to smooth it out.

The Mini has such a low amount of orange peel I am tempted to skip the sanding process and just buff the paint with a good compound and buffing wheel. This is still a tricky operation as you can easily "burn" though the clear coat or the color coat. If you burn through the clear the color will have a different appearance than paint that has the clear still on it. 

I don't know if I would wet sand or buff out the paint on the Mini, but I will think about it in a few years to freshen it up.

The Interior

The Interior of the Mini is just big enough to hold my wife, my two boys and myself. I do have to move the seat up for someone to sit behind me. I tested this out with a Mini Cooper Coupe a couple of years back with better results. I have to assume the rear seats on the convertible are smaller than the coupe. Overall there is plenty of room for the two front seat passengers. However, this is a narrow car and you sit closer to your passenger than you do in other cars. This can make the car seem cramped, particularly when shifting to 5th and 6th as your hand rubs against the passengers left leg.

I find the room to be adequate. We have gone out to dinner in it, and even run errands in the Cooper. It does make a decent family car. And since it gets more than 10 mpg better than my wife's SUV we use it frequently.

I will have to wait until my best friend come down from New York to see how well it holds a 6' 3" person.

Sun Visors

Sun visors? Why would I talk about sun visors. Well, because I can tell a story. Back in the mid eighties I was driving a 1973 Road Runner. My best friend was driver a late 70's Volare (or maybe I will get a call telling me it was a Aspen). Anyway, we we driving around in the Road Runner and my friend said something like, "I wish my visors were 1/4 the size of these." I replied, "You sun visors are one 1/4 this size, which is why you wish you had these." Well, friend, the 1/4 size sun visors are back, and they are in the Mini Cooper. I can understand why. The car is norrow, and the visors reasonably cover the width of the area between the A pillar and the overhead console housing the interior and map lights. The gaps aren't too bad, but they are generally small visors. The real joke comes when you swing them to the side. They are so "narrow" that they don't reach back to the drivers position.

Regrets

Those of you that have been reading my stuff for a while know I have been contemplating my next car for a very long time. When it came time to go shopping I had to make up my mind very fast. Do I have any regrets? Yes.

I kind of wish I could have taking more time and test drove some other cars. My list from last month was pretty long. I really would have liked to test drive a Chrysler 300 with the Hemi and a Mustang GT and even the Acura TL. But the biggest regret I have is that the Volkswagen Eos was not in dealers at the time I was ready to buy a car. I really would like to see how quiet the Eos would be with its retractable hardtop, as well as how much room was in its back seat. On paper it should run right along with the Mini, just not as cute doing it. When I see the road tests of the Eos I may get a little jealous. We'll see.

Conclusion

Overall I love this car. It is a joy to drive to work every day. You read my nit picky issues above. That really does cover it. The car is just so much fun to drive. But it is not for everyone. If you live in an area with bad roads the choppy ride will take its toll on you. If you need even a tiny bit more space than the Mini offers you will have to get a larger car. For hauling myself to work every day the car is perfect.

This purchase effects my Classic Car Watch column. Now that I have a daily driver convertible with a manual transmission those things are no longer necessary in a classic. In fact, neither is a car that gets respectable gas mileage. I will be running through a few months of ideas that are already too far along, but expect a change in the direction of the cars displayed in my Classic Car Watch because of my new found joy.

One last note... now that I have a car payment again, I can probably trade in a car as long as I maintain the same payment. Since buying the Coopster Chrysler announced it will build the Challenger in 2008 and Chevrolet confirm it will bring the Camaro back in 2009. It is too early to tell, but I could see trading in this car on a bad-ass Pony car a possibility. Fortunately, I don't have to think about that for three years.

Later.

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