- posted 13 years ago
Wall Street Journal - April 27, 2006
The...Mini was an instant hit when it made its debut in the U.S. in 2002, a favorite of fashionable hipsters and driving enthusiasts alike. Given that corporate parent BMW has seen strong Mini sales every year since it launched the car, a good case could have been made for letting the Mini continue to motor. After all, the original Mini zipped on mostly unchanged from 1959 through 2000 before BMW completely reinvented the diminutive British car and the brand.
Alas, government regulations meant the new Mini wouldn't be allowed to
stay in production for 42 more years. Since at least part of the car
needed to be reworked to meet impending European pedestrian-crash
standards, the Germans thoroughly attacked the rest as well. The result
is an impressive upgrade of nearly every aspect of the vehicle, without
harming its substantial charisma.
Consider: The top-of-the-line Mini Cooper S isn't only faster and more
powerful than the car it replaces, but also weighs less and gets better
gas mileage. (If only other car makers would follow the last half of
that formula for improvement.)
This is all made possible largely thanks to a new four-cylinder engine.
Its 1.6 liters of displacement are now abetted by a turbocharger
(rather than the old model's supercharger) that helps turn out 172
horsepower, and much more importantly, 177 pound-feet of torque. Under
full-throttle acceleration the turbo will even boost torque output to
192 lb.-ft. for a few seconds. That's enough to pull the front-wheel-
drive Cooper S to 60 miles per hour in 6.2 seconds, transforming the
Mini from a sporty little car into a little sports car.
Strangely enough, there's reason to bemoan this upgrade, as the new
car's surfeit of power actually makes it less fun to drive in some
circumstances. Where the old Cooper S allowed for plenty of exuberance
behind the wheel while remaining reasonably within the boundaries of
what's prudent (not to mention legal), the new car so effortlessly
blows past those limits that you wind up caught in the supercar
conundrum of being all revved up with no place to go. Still, with a
starting price of $21,850, the Cooper S rates as a performance bargain.
Sports cars must do more than accelerate quickly -- they also must
brake, turn and handle, all of which the Cooper S still does well
enough. Testing by Road & Track shows the new model stops from 60 mph
in 122 feet, one foot longer than the old Cooper S did when the
magazine tested it in 2002. The old model also did better in carving
through a slalom course, achieving a speed of 69.5 mph against 68.6 mph
for the 2007 version.
One reason for the lower slalom performance: The suspension on the
Cooper S is no longer race-car stiff. Seat-of-the-pants evaluation says
the combination of a more comfortable ride and a 2.3-inch increase in
the vehicle's length mean its handling isn't quite as sharp when pushed
to the limits. But honestly, unless you're strapped into a five-point
harness and wearing a helmet, you'll not miss the little bit of
handling edge that was left on the table to make the new Cooper S less
brutal for everyday use.
You will, however, grieve for the wonderful noise of the supercharged
Mini's muffler. Yes, that raspy burble of the fuel-rich fumes
detonating after you abruptly let off the gas is gone, replaced by an
exhaust note twice smothered and the efficient hum of the turbocharger.
The difference is like switching from AC-DC to Enya.
Literally doing that is now even more difficult in the Mini, thanks to
a stereo system that's both dumb and dumber. First, someone at BMW
thought it would be neat to integrate the audio controls into the
Mini's speedometer, which sits atop the center console. Bad idea. Then
someone dreamed up an illogical arrangement of buttons to resemble the
winged Mini logo. Even worse. If there was one area of the old Mini in
which BMW had room for improvement, it was this center console. If
there is one area in which BMW has made the new Mini worse, this is it.
At least now the car has legitimate cupholders. Just as critically, it
still looks like the Mini we've all grown so fond of over the past five
years. If BMW didn't succeed in making the car perfect this time around
it has unquestionably made it better.
Is there any other point to a redesign?