News flash! The 2007 MINI looks like the 2006 MINI. As there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the “old” model, BMW’s decision to leave things well enough alone shows welcome restraint. Well, almost. BMW’s added two extra inches to the new MINI– and we all know how meaningful two extra inches can be for guys (legroom!). But you’d be hard pressed to see any exterior effects– good or bad. So is it still all systems go for MINI’s V2 rocket, or does the new model (codenamed R56) prove that more is less?
Truth to tell, I was feeling a bit blah about my MINI road test. But the moment The Man handed me the key to a 2007 MINI Cooper S, I perked up. The ignition device is now a circular pad with a stubby base; my first inclination was to open a channel to Starfleet and ask Scotty to beam me up. Once inside, I was instructed to stash the pad and press the button. Keyless ignition in a car the size of a 7-Series escape pod? Who’d a thunk it?
And who knew the Bavarians had a sense of humor? More charitably, the MINI’s interior looks like it was created by a grove of unsupervised Apple Computer designers. (It’s only a matter of time before the MINI’s key includes an I-Pod.) The fuel gauge is now a circular ring of digital lights on the speedometer pod, with a “range to empty” display on the information section of the tachometer pod, in script familiar to BMW owners (if not MS Word users).
Drivers are confronted by a wide range of organic looking toggles and indentures, operating all manner of controls. Who cares how it all works? And who cares that not all the materials are above average? Most are, and when you encounter the odd flimsy piece, the clever design more than compensates. Even the casual visitor instantly appreciates that fact that the BMW’s British box is a no-holds-barred style statement, not an Audi.
To that end, buyers can personalize their MINI Cooper S in a trillion ways, right down to checkered flag side mirror caps ($130) and a “Let’s Motor” license plate holder ($35). What’s more, the MINI is the only car you can customize without completely destroying its resale value. My favorite new interior color is the Tuscan beige; I love the look but could live without the pretentious name.
The biggest change from old MINI to new: a Peugeot-sourced, BMW-fettled, 1.6-liter turbo four. The new engine’s a more powerful lump than the old supercharged Brazilian mill (172 horsepower and 177 pound feet of torque vs. 168/162). As a result, the zero to 60 time is slightly quicker (6.7 versus 7.2 seconds) with better fuel economy (29/36).
While the new MINI has a wider (i.e. more useful) power band and will now cruise at triple digits without threatening to rattle itself to pieces, it doesn’t feel quite as eager out of the blocks as the old car. There’s a nasty lag between depressing the go pedal and the onset of acceleration. It feels… dumbed down. Until, that is, you press the Sport button.
In many sports cars, even some of the more expensive models, activating the Sport button creates little more than a psychological effect. In the new MINI, it’s undeniably transformative. In an instant, both the MINI Cooper’s electric steering system and its fly-by-wire throttle tighten up. Like a dull pencil thrust into an electric sharpener, the MINI is suddenly ready to draw the finest of racing lines.
Compared to the corner carving capabilities of the previous version, the new MINI Cooper S in Sport mode feels about 20% more wonderfully, joyously flickable. It still stays flat and level through vicious corners. It still turns in with all the eagerness of a toddler’s mother. But the added layer of maturity and refinement in the drivetrain and the additional feel through the helm build significantly more confidence into the system.
Enough confidence, in fact, to imperil the sporting driver’s license– and embolden him or her to switch off the MINI Cooper S’ DSC stability control. And yet, even without considering the necessity of the optional limited slip differential, there’s something important missing from the re-mix: an aggressive exhaust note.
For reasons most probably related to Europe’s drive-by noise regulations, the MINI Cooper S’ aural burble, zizz and growl are gone. On one hand, the relative silence (and proper autobox option) make the MINI Cooper S a more refined and therefore viable daily driver. On the other, the muted motor removes much of the reason for driving the thing as it wants to be driven. It's a major miscalculation mandating post-purchase mechanical surgery.
Otherwise, the MINI Cooper S is good to go. Literally.