the new MINI - not better or worse, just different than I’d like

March 9th, 2007

As you can see from the entries below I’ve been skeptical about some of the changes made to the Cooper and was hoping – make that praying – that my concern was unfounded.

Here’s what I found:

From the moment I set off it was obvious that this combo of base motor and auto was going to satisfy. Shifts were smooth, the 1.6L seemed torquey and the paddle shifters on the wheel could be used at any time, even in your standard Drive mode (the system reverts to automatic mode after a few moments of activity a la Subaru’s 5 speed auto). The auto in drive mode upshifts quickly, the engine doesn’t seem to mind but riding the torque seems odd in a MINI. Knocking the auto lever to the left lets the engine up to where it does better work but in this mode 6 gear is locked out and downshifts as you decelerate become more apparent. One point to mention is that the torque converter locks as much as possible – the car doesn’t have the slip you’d associate with a ‘slushbox’ as used in the last S or the rubber band feel of the old base car’s CVT.

What was immediately missing was any sign of an exhaust note – much of the last car’s tone came from behind you even without the optional JCW sound kit (unless you were turning, in which case the power steering pump spoke up). The new motor’s dominant tone is an RPM dependent whine in some ways reminiscent of the gearbox whine on classic Coopers or the s’charger whine on the last S. The engine gets a bit boomy when hanging at high revs but it pulls hard all the way – even with 4 aboard the car felt faster than a car that says 118 horses on the label should. Either BMW is underrating this motor or the ratios in the tranny are exceptionally well judged. Or both.

You’ve likely heard of the sport button – pressing it makes the steering heavier (but no more feelsome) sharpens throttle tip-in and sends the auto tranny into DTM full attack mode – revving the engine comically high and not necessarily getting you up to speed any faster. (In 250 miles and 40 hours it seemed a nice thought but poorly judged – Drive was ‘too cold’, Sport mode ‘too hot’ for more than the occasional set of curves and sport Drive mode a bit too warm to be just right and not practical unless you’re off the freeway. Hopefully DINAN is already working on refining the button to be more usable as he did with the first BMW to sport this button – the E39 M5.)

The S was devastatingly fast from point to point but a real letdown for me. Firstly there is little in the way of engine note inside the car. Second, while the torque plateau makes for a fast car , it doesn’t make for a thrilling one – think Audi 1.8T or 2.0T (actually the later has a nicer tone). The last issue was with the way the turbo burps into action – it’s not a long enough delay to call lag any longer but there’s still difficulty in rolling on the amount of power you want – I was always overshooting the road speed I’d meant to achieve and if anything the Sport mode’s sharper throttle makes it worse. The broad spread of torque felt almost turbodiesel like – there was rarely need to venture beyond 4k. At moments I was reminded of the 5 series but more a 530d not a 530i.

Let me put it this way – when given the choice between cars to use for the weekend I took the base Cooper – auto and all. It was simply the more satisfying given that it made more sporting sounds, and was more predictible in its responses. And with the paddle shifters and lack of torque converter slop I didn’t feel like I was missing much in the way of connectedness with the machine.

Both cars were equipped with the base suspension (now standard on the S as well) and 16” wheels with Goodyear’s latest run flats. Ride quality was not as smooth as the last car on 15s but certainly less agitated than that car on 16s – the tradeoff being a slightly detached feel through the seat and wheel. It’s not a lack of body control – the car corners flat and can grip higher than before subjectively – but you can’t pay with the balance with the throttle as you could in the last one. (And speaking of playing at the limit it’s a shame there’s no option for a higher threshold traction control a la BMW’s Dynamic Traction Control mode). The sense that you knew what was going on at each tire’s contact patch was lost and I for one thought the last car felt better damped – there are moments behind the wheel when you feel like you’re in the new Civic. The electric steering felt light but had a better feel than the Z4 or the new 3 series coupe manages and there was a variable ratio effect around turns, the more you turned the more the car wanted to turn – very similar to my 95 M3 in that regard.

The seats are a revelation – some of the best I’ve tried in any car. The start button remains a needlessly complicated two step process unless you pay $500 extra for the “Comfort Access” feature. (Is BMW not aware that it’s available on less expensive Nissans and Suzukis?) The greatest annoyance was the car’s radio controls which are split into two locations a la 7 or 5 series. The issue here is that there are two knobs, one up top to change the radio station or CD track, and another nestled low for volume. Problem is your passenger never knows that and even after my nearly two days with the car I didn’t see the benefit . The climate controls are not as easy to operate as before either and there’s a cheaper feel to the silver plastic switches – a la Chrysler Crossfire. There’s a sense that like too many recent BMWs form trumped function and there are more gimmicks than conveniences – take for example the way you can toggle the downlighting and B pillar SRS logo (?) between colors but only one matches the dash lighting. The only move in the right direction that I can see is that there are more toggles and they are split into interior lighting and sunroof overhead and exterior lighting and window controls ahead of the shifter. Smart. Not so smart was the newer, cheaper trunk latch – almost impossible to release on the first try. I also missed the last car’s airier, more glassy cabin. This one was just as comfortable if not more so but it didn’t have the classic car feel the last Mini shared with old Volvos and Benzes…

Refinement & Build
Noise levels are appreciably lower likely in part to details like little dimples molded near the wipers an ridges aft of the read windows but what you hear has less character. If you rode blindfolded you might be more likely to mistake the MINI for another car. Again it reminded me of at many times of the new 5 or the 99-00 3 series.

The cars were certainly put together better than the preproduction ones I wrote about first, and its hard to imagine how MINI can offer so much quality in a car starting at under 20k. If the last car didn’t have nicer details here and there I’d be hailing this one as the best inexpensive car ever.

Old vs. New
Comparing the old Cooper to the new I am sure more people are going to be enticed by the Cooper than ever before. But its less distinct than before and its character seems synthesized rather than organic. I kept imagining how great the last car would have been with an aluminum block, the VALVETRONIC and the new seats. The new Cooper is faster, more efficient and more comfortable – its just that the last car properly equipped was a car I’d but even if money were not object and this one leaves me strangely unmoved. There’s a sense that the money was spent where most people will notice – on power, seat comfort, etc. But I tire of power quickly and look at little things that mean more when driving daily: steering feel, switchgear, communication, engine note. A few years ago a Mini made me think the 3 series was too rubbery and dull but now its the 3 series that feels more connected.

(Bear in mind that I have not yet tried the larger diameter wheels or the firmer suspension. Maybe they’ll bring back some of the communication that I’m missing…)

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