“It handles like a go-cart.” For the past five-years I’ve taken this description of the BMW’s born-again clown car’s dynamics at face value. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve seen more of these faux-Brits than Carnaby Streeters ever did. And I’ve often wondered if the MINI was small and extraordinarily nimble like its forbearer, or just plain small. Other than sipping cheap wine next to the trio of stunt cars used in the third Austin Powers movie, I’d never had a chance to get up close and personal with a MINI. More importantly, I’d never put the British-built roadster’s handling to the test– until this week, when RF charged me with the task of assessing the “old” new MINI before the “new” new MINI arrives stateside.
Deconstructing a design icon is tricky at best. At the risk of alienating the faithful, I’ll say this much: the new car is nearly twice as large as the original and violates designer Alec Issigonis’s basic tenet (80% of the vehicle is dedicated to passengers, the remaining 20% is for mechanicals and luggage). Other than that, I think the new MINI looks like a toddler’s high top sneaker. Oh, and I love the J Mays’ cribbed headlights and the fact that the rear is wider than the front. So, um, moving on.
Once inside, I felt an overwhelming urge to pop a Prozac. Call me a frumpy, but I could barely cope with the unrelenting designer-ness of the thing. The cabin is awash in chrome, plastic that looks like chrome, plastic that looks like plastic and twinkling glass. Our tester came with the Cockpit Chrono Pack, which is even more ADD-inducing than the default set-up. MINI’s speedometer moves to the top of the wheel (next to the tach) leaving the space for oil, fuel and temperature readouts (where's the boost gauge?). Although the MINI is billed as pint-sized luxury, I reckon the point of luxury (in any amount) is to relax. The Cooper’s innards almost induced seizures. Moving on.
The MINI Cooper S is loaded to the gills with go-faster bits: oxymoronic performance run-flat tires, 17” inch aluminum wheels, McPherson struts (front), a multi-link suspension (rear), equal-length drive shafts and a supercharger. The blower bangs out 168 horses for just 2678 pounds of, um, style. A ludicrously tall first gear (4.455) and the inherent FWD dragster drawbacks means it takes nearly seven seconds for the MINI to get from rest to 60mph. This stat wasn’t all that bad back in 2001. In 2006, the similarly priced Mazda Speed3 does the deed a full second faster. The MINI’s not slow, but it’s not a whole lot of fun to flog the transverse-mounted 1.6-liter four in a straight line.
I’ve never been a big fan of any BMW cog-swapping solution; in the MINI’s manual, the good people of Bavaria don’t disappoint my sense of disappointment. First of all, the MINI’s gearbox is a long-throw shifter. Such a device might have seemed appropriate back when the Sixties were swung, but today it just feels cheap and clumsy. The supercharger’s horsepower-sucking reality means that the second you lift your foot from the gas to shift, the engine loses 1500rpm. So even when you get the gear you think you wanted, it’s not the gear you actually need. Try as I might to whip this little whip, my plans were foiled first by the engine, and then by the gears.
I’ve been driving go-carts quite a bit lately, so I feel qualified to judge the MINI’s similarity to same. After caning the MINI through California hill and dale, I can proclaim here and now that the MINI Cooper S is indeed the world’s fattest go-cart. The initial turn-in is awesome: tight, accurate and eager. Right until the apex of a turn, the MINI lives up to the hype, steering and responding with the kind of rapid fire, laser-guided confidence that makes motorized dinner trays such a kick in the ass. From the turning point on, the go-cart analogy drives straight into the metaphorical tire wall.
Lest we forget, go-carts are rear wheel-driver machines. After you finish the turn, you plant your foot and power your way home. The MINI is front wheel-drive. Assuming you’re lucky enough to find 4000rpm and summon 162 foot-pounds of torque, flooring it out of a corner creates a nightmarish mix of understeer plowing and angry steering. I tried the same trick with the traction control off– and wondered if my insurance premiums were up to date. While cute, the MINI is not a track-day option.
Though not yet on our shores, BMW is embiggening the newish “MINI” and ditching the blower for a turbo. Let’s just hope the company’s chassismeisters have sorted the MINI’s on-the-limit handing. If so, the British go-cart will fully deserve the pistonhead plaudits it already receives.