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

March 9th, 2007 | permalink

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:

Powertrains
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.

Chassis
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.

Ergonomics
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…)


new MINI suffers the effects of cost cutting

February 13th, 2007 | permalink

I’ve ranted before on my concerns with the new MINI based on what I’d seen in pictures and what I’d read regarding the engineering used.

Now that I’ve seen it in the flesh I’m even more concerned…

I must admit that it looks less awkward in person than in photos. But simply walking around and sitting in the car I noticed some serious flaws, especially when compared to the last version. All stem from BMW’s directive to make the next Cooper more profitable than the last one.

The last Cooper felt more like an old 911 than the current 911 – the feel of the switchgear, the door latches, even the fuel filler cap were tactile delights that hinted that the components were meant for looooong service lives.

Walking around the new Cooper you immediately notice a huge gap between the hood and the front wheel arch. Oops.

Unlatching that hood from the inside you appreciate the fact that the latch is relocated to the correct side but the feel of the pull convinces you you’ve broken something. Gritty is too kind a word. Lifting that hood you notice that the panel’s not just lighter, it’s downright frail in feel – if you don’t lift from the middle you can see the panel distort under its own weight. Imagine picking up a Dell laptop by the corner vis a vis an Apple Powerbook – such is the magnitude of the disparity. (A 91 Civic felt more robust!)

The fuel filler looks serious but when you touch it its lightweight plastic roots are too evident. People trading their old MINI for new will miss the way their old car was built at every fill-up.

The trunk latch, like the new X5’s, lacks the old models precise electric latch and soft touch button. Again the sound and feel is shamed by far cheaper cars. The Suzuki SX4 - a car that’s built far better than it need be – comes to mind.

Sitting inside the visibility isn’t what it was – the dash slightly higher and deeper. The speedometer’s larger size you’ll get used to but the way the climate controls move through their range of motion and the overstyled nature of the controls you won’t. Splitting the radio into two areas didn’t make sense in the 7 series and it doesn’t here either. Gimmicks like the downlighting that changes hues (but only matches the dash lighting on one setting) and toggle switches mounted overhead, aircraft style probably seemed like a good idea around the water cooler but should have been left in the trash can right next to it.

I’d have started the engine and taken it for a drive but didn’t want my disappointment with the above to cloud my judgement of the purportedly more refined – some might say aloof – feel.

More to come…


why MINI’s puffed up new Cooper leaves me deflated

October 15th, 2006 | permalink

The old Cooper struck a shockingly artful balance between the rawness of the original and the refinement of a BMW - even the supercharger’s whine mimicked the gear whine of the original.

In remaking the new Cooper, MINI had to do something and the new car will no doubt be an advance in many areas (particularly in having a lighter, aluminum blocked engine). But from a design and intent standpoint, certain things make it more pre to trend than its rather timeless predecessor. They are: continued »


a little rough around the edges

October 5th, 2006 | permalink

UPDATE: Click here to download a short clip taken during the my drive…

Original post [08.28.06]: Acura recently decided to drop the RSX from their U.S. lineup, feeling it was too unrefined and raucous to be sold next to cars like the RL and MDX. So it surprised me today that I was relieved to return the keys to the RDX because it felt – well – unrefined.

Let me back up by saying this was a car I expected to love. On paper it has one of the world’s most advanced all wheel drive systems, a suspension based on the new Civic’s (a good thing) and loads of torque without resorting to a heavy V6. It has the industry’s best nav system with real time traffic data. It was benchmarked against BMW’s X3. I was sure I’d love it.

But I didn’t, and neither did the potential buyer I accompanied. And here’s why… continued »


Acura’s A-Spec package for the TL - don’t drive home without it

January 24th, 2006 | permalink
The A-SPEC’s performance enhancers involve more aggressive suspension tuning, as designed by Makoto Tamamura, the famed chassis engineer behind Acura’s NSX sports car…. the stock TL torque-steers upon corner exit and understeers severely when pushed hard into a corner. In A-SPEC form, both torque steer and understeer are dramatically reduced—we even experienced an occasional hint of oversteer on aggressive corner turn-in. Braking performance from the factory-installed Brembo four-piston disc brakes improves, too, thanks to reduced nosedive during hard stops and the stickier rubber. source: Motor Trend

(The package improves slalom times by nearly 4 miles per hour and increases lateral grip by .06g. We continue to suggest those in the market for a TL or TSX insist the A-spec suspension be installed before delivery).


a crucial TSX option unknown to salespeople

December 29th, 2005 | permalink

Contrary to what others might tell you the TSX’s suspension and tires are its Achilles heel, but you don’t have to resort to the Radio Flyer ride of an aftermarket kit or cough up $4330 for the A-spec package to get rid of some of the body roll and torque steer.

The best way to improve the TSX is to install the A-spec suspension, which – conrary to what your salesperson might believe – is sold separately (part number 08W60-SEC-200B). If the folks at your local dealership are anything like those at ours, you may need to show them this. Don’t be intimidated by the retail price; you’ll find it for around $600 if you’re willing to mail order…

But the noisy, slippery, twitchy Original Equipment tires should be first to go; I suggest the Michelin Pilot Exalto A/S, $146 plus shipping and installation through this vendor.


Has ‘hybrid’ lost all meaning?

October 8th, 2005 | permalink

Like ‘SUV’, the term ‘hybrid’ has become a media buzzword that’s now being slapped on an increasing number of vehicles. While many deride SUVs as unsafe and inefficient, I can name cars that don’t handle as well and drink more fuel than – say – a Subaru Forester or BMW X3.

I recently drove the Lexus RX400h in the type of urban driving that the hybrid is supposed to be best at and averaged 18 miles per gallon, while Motor Trend’s Long Term test of a 2004 Chevy Silverado Hybrid resulted in an overall average of 14.8mpg.

Has ‘hybrid’ simply come to mean ‘less inefficient than it might have been’?


driven: MINI Cooper S JCW

September 16th, 2005 | permalink

Our first drive of the Mini Cooper S the day it hit dealer stock left us cold. The exhaust was boomy, the gearing too long, the powerband asthmatic and the suspension overdamped and skittish on 16s, underdamped and bouncy on 17s. The car would snap from power-on understeer to trailing-throttle oversteer in a heartbeat. Since then, we’ve actually preferred the normally aspirated Cooper’s low speed response, rising rate powerband, and more BMW-like suspension (it better evinces two adages that MINIs should embody: “it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow” and “speak softly and carry a big stick”)

Revision to the ‘05 MCS solved all but the motor’s feeling a bit winded before reaching 6,000 rpm and the exhaust boom – if anything the note has grown more prominient with time; changes were instututed for more pops and burbles on the overrun. Revised gearbox ratios and shock damping make for a car that claws its way forward and keys to the surface like the ‘04 and earlier Cooper never did. (The recently added limited slip differential should only improve matters).

We recently had the opportunity to put an ‘05 Cooper S with the JCW engine kit and 18” wheels through its paces, and it wasn’t at all what we expected.

Walking up to the car you eye the exhaust and the 18’s and think “this is going to hurt.” But once underway you find that the exhaust is less prominent and boomy at small throttle openings yet more melliflous at high revs. Even more of a shock, the combination of lightweight wheels and 18” Dunlops are less leaden than the stock 17s. You’d expect the 18s to throw impact absorbtion out the window, but they unsettle the car less than than the 17” wheels and Pireli eufori@ run-flats or Dunlop 9000 DSSTs. Only the sharpest square edged ridges elicit a metallic whack from the suspension. As an added bonus steering gain is less abrubt than with the eufori@s and more linear than with the 9000s. Back to back drives with the 115hp Cooper on sport (rather than sport plus) suspension showed the ostensibly smoother car to be the rougher riding of the two. In the MCS on 18s it feels as though the kid in the seat behind you is misbehaving, in the Cooper it feels as though the tires are are as round as medicine balls. Go figure.

There’s no question the engine kit does what’s claimed. The car now pulls strongly right into the rev limiter, something that’s more easily enjoyed with the ‘05 and later car’s revised ratios. The flexibility is such that you can pull cleanly in the upper ratios with less than 2,000 rpm on the tach (the standard car deosn’t wake up til nearly 3,000). In the standard model 6th is for cruising only – in the JCW it can be used for passing as well. The added urge gives the S motor what it should have had all along – zeal. As evo pointed out in Dec. of 2004, “immediately the throttle response is cleaner and more decisive, while the supercharger’s whine has less drone and more zing.”

If we have one criticism of the 2006 model, it’s that the engine kit is bundled with a limited slip differential and the JCW brake kit. While this saves you money should you want all the ‘upgrades’, we preferred the flexibility of ordering a la carte.

The LSD and suspension kit we’ll take, but those bigger front brakes add unsprung weight and rotational inertia while requiring 17s which add more of the same. The unsprung weight forces you to slow down over lumy pavement while the rotational inertia menas the car is steered less with the palms than the forearms – you have to wrestle the car into the turn that much more. The inertia also dulls some of the JCW engine kit’s extra shove – you notice the reshaped power curve more than you feel your neck snap back as you crack the throttle. Plus the 18s miss the point of the MINI somewhat; the car trades some of its stealth quotient, its indifference to surface conditions, and its playful eagerness to wag its tail for a fair amount of texture dependent tire rumble, which quashes more of that BMW level refinement. For the track-day junkie the brakes will be a Godsend but for a (U.S.) street-driven Cooper they opening something of a Pandora’s Box.

Many armchair reviewers say you can get more bang for the buck via aftermarket modifications, but before you talk yourself out of the added cost of the JCW equipment, find a way to try a JCW equipped Cooper S for yourself. It’s an experience you simply can’t put a price on or express in numbers. The effect of the upgrades is greater than the sum of its parts and would make the late John Cooper beam with pride.

UPDATE: We recently sampled an 03 MCS with the JCW engine kit. Like the all of the pre-05 MCSs, the gearing is just too damn long (to reduce wheelspin in tighter corners?) but the JCW kit does make the engine pull more cleanly – esp. from a stop – and ensure that you don’t get blown off by the bog standard Cooper sitting next to you at a light. (Well not unless he’s on smaller, lighter wheels…)

The moral: if you don’t think you can afford an ‘05 or later S, save more pennies. (If the JCW engine kit can’t overcome the gearing and make the car feel as alert as something bearing the Cooper name should be, nothing will…)

UPDATE 2: Today we had the opportunity to compare a Cooper S (on 17” S-lites and Goodyear RS-As) to an ‘06 JCW kit equipped car (on 17” Web Spokes and Dunlop 9000s).

Once again the JCW exhaust proved less tiring and more mellifluous, speaking up only under larger throttle openings and singing with a less raspy voice. The increased in gear flexibility and broader powerband improve drivability and give the engine the same big motor feel at freeway speeds that 3 series car with 3.0L sixes enjoy.

The 17” web spokes and Dunlop 9000s had a similarly large effect, the reduced unsprung mass leading to a less disjointed feel over bumps while the 9000’s softer steering response caused the car to bend into corners rather than dart into them – the tradeoff being less zig-zag motion when trying to go straight. Compared to the 18” wheels we had sampled previously this combo wasn’t as sharp in the steering but the tire noise was significantly lower. The flinty metallic report you get from the 18s over larger bumps wasn’t apparent either.

Finally the limited slip device works exactly as advertised: feed in more throttle in a corner and the car first feints that it’s going to run wide – ignore this and squeeze further and you’ll feel the nose sniff towards the inside shoulder. Coopers have always been at their best near the apex – LSD only improves matters.