Can lightning strike the same spot twice? For Michael Jackson, the G. W. Bush administrations, or <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/scion/index.html">Scion</a>, the answer is an unequivocal no. To check how the Mini Cooper S weathered the automotive-evolution storm, we ordered a second-generation edition and fed it into the Automobile Magazine staff rotation for four seasons of use, abuse, criticism, and candor.
New Minis - both generations one and two - are the cutest cars on the road. It's such a rolling emoticon that parent <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/bmw/index.html">BMW</a> isn't about to curb the Mini's cheek until everyone who wants one is served. Instead of messing with a hit recipe, BMW implemented changes - large and small - where they would least inhibit the Mini's cloying personality.
While the edition born in 2006 is less mini than its immediate predecessor, it's still our favorite tool for invading clogged cities. Contributor Ronald Ahrens raved following a weekend trip to Chicago: "I was able to slip this cherry-red pop tart into parking slots regular-size traffic passed by, yet there was ample room inside for three adults and two suitcases." Senior editor Joe Lorio seconded that motion by calling our Mini "a squat funster that's quick, nimble, easy to see out of, and able to run rings around most other traffic. It shines in the typical urban/suburban sprawl."
Road test editor Marc Noordeloos, who owned two first-generation Cooper Ss, explained why he picked chili red paint for this Four Seasons tester: "It's a great color that hides some of the second-generation car's added length and slight frumpiness." Contrasting white paint for the roof, mirrors, and hood stripes came at no extra cost. To fully enjoy the Mini experience, we enriched our base <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/99/2012/mini/cooper/s_sedan/1265/index.html">Cooper S</a> by ordering nearly $6000 worth of options, hiking the total price to $27,800. While that seems expensive for a pocket car lacking a sunroof, full leather, power seats, automatic climate control, and a navigation system, we reminded ourselves that this is a BMW steeped in heritage and imported from England, not some Asian econobox in a clown suit.
The pity is that the BMW engineers who retuned the chassis earned less than stellar grades. Noordeloos noted, "The quirky spark of the first-generation Mini has been replaced with more mainstream driving dynamics. There's more wheel travel than before, and the sport suspension [intentionally avoided on our test car] is no longer standard on the Cooper S, so the ride quality is somewhat improved."
Michigan's bumpy roads quickly exposed the evil side of the suspension's personality, though. We assigned part of the blame to the short, stiff sidewalls that give the Dunlop tires both their V speed rating and run-flat capability. The tires upset the car over bumps, and the suspension transmitted too much noise into the cabin on imperfect roads.
West Coast editor Jason Cammisa chimed in with additional complaints. "The Mini's suspension slaps into the bump stops when you're crossing potholes that a <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/2012/volkswagen/gti/index.html">Volkswagen GTI</a> swallows whole," he opined. "And the new electrically assisted power steering does a poor job of transmitting road feel."
In contrast to high praise for this car's sharp turn-in agility, no logbook commentator failed to mention the Mini Cooper S's Achilles' heel: torque steer. One editor pulled no punch, noting, "This is some of the worst torque steer I've ever experienced. This chassis can't hold a straight line under heavy acceleration on anything but smooth tarmac."
A chorus of gripes prompted further investigation into the issue. We decided to sample a <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/99/2012/mini/cooper/s_sedan/1265/index.html">Cooper S</a> without the optional limited-slip diff. "Overall, Minis drive better with open differentials," Noordeloos reported. "There was a bit more wheel spin, but the torque steer was significantly less violent."
The positive side of torque steer is torque, something our Cooper S demonstrated in spades. Thanks to its direct fuel injection and twin-scroll turbo, boost was always available for the taking. A trip to the test track revealed that the second-generation Mini not only runs expeditiously but also competitively against its mortal enemy: VW's GTI. Both clocked 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and a 96-mph trap speed in the quarter mile. Although the GTI beat the Cooper S by a tenth in the quarter, by the time the Mini reached 100 mph it had grabbed the lead on its way to a 140-mph top speed (versus the VW's electronically limited 130-mph terminal velocity).
What keeps the GTI-versus-Cooper-S race from being declared a dead heat is the significant difference we noted in gas mileage: 23 mpg for the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/volkswagen/index.html">Volkswagen</a> versus 28 mpg overall for the Mini. While both require premium fuel, the Mini's 20 percent efficiency advantage and its ability to achieve more than 30 mpg on trips (plus nearly 400 miles between refueling stops) are key reasons why hordes of buyers are now beating a path to dealers' doors. A Mini Cooper S may be the best combination of speed and fuel efficiency money can buy.
In addition to the severe torque steer noted above, the Mini had one other notable character flaw: its interior is a funhouse nightmare. The Mini's designers were apparently given free rein to ply their creativity without concern for owners who would live and drive in this cabin years after the initial showroom delight had worn thin. Ergonomically speaking, the Mini is a mess of silly switchgear, hard-to-fathom labels, and misplaced controls. The logbook showed no mercy. Executive editor Joe DeMatio called the center stack "what you'd expect in a car designed for the Ringling Brothers circus."
"Reflections off the transparent cover of the dinner-plate-sized speedometer danced in my peripheral vision, driving me crazy," reported copy editor Rusty Blackwell. "On one long drive, I finally stuck a sheet of paper over the dial." Cammisa added, "I accidentally changed the station frequency for the hundredth time when I reached for a volume adjustment - I wouldn't be surprised if someone sticks a fist through the speedometer in a fit of rage. Thankfully, you can select a digital velocity reading in the tach dial; attempting to use the main speedometer is like scanning a majestic panorama from the front row in an Imax movie theater: nearly impossible."
Dialing in the right sound-system or climate-control setting at the right moment felt like solving a Rubik's Cube. Over the long haul, we grew tired of playing the Mini's PG-13 games and pined for a sport coupe with a full commitment to driving. VW's GTI was frequently cited as the less flamboyant but more enjoyable alternative.
Other Mini irritations included a stick-shift pattern where reverse was too easily confused with first, a ragged edge on the shift lever's chrome bezel, rattles that erupted as the car accumulated miles, a buzzy stereo speaker, and wind leaks at the top rear corners of the frameless door glass. The cantilevered center armrest creaked under an elbow's weight.
On the plus side, this car's reliability was impeccable. Only one stop for service was needed in 22,638 miles, and the cost of that maintenance was covered under warranty. And besides that, the Mini proved that it could be flat-out fun to drive. After an hour's entertainment in a snow-covered parking lot (running on Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires), associate editor Sam Smith exclaimed, "The bootlegger turns, lift-throttle drifts, and ability to spin around with the handbrake in one car length are fantastic."
The Cooper S's seats were comfortable, supportive, and, with the optional seat heaters turned on, hot enough to melt microfiber slacks on a cold winter day. Clearing a path to the rear seats was a snap, but don't plan on cramming two adult passengers back there for long.
One bit of Mini pain was self-inflicted. Halfway through our yearlong stint, we installed a John Cooper Works (JCW) tuning kit consisting of a different air cleaner, a new exhaust system, and a reprogrammed engine control computer. Testing revealed too little improvement in acceleration considering the $2335 cost: 2 additional mph in the quarter mile and 30-to-70-mph passing acceleration quicker by 0.3 second.
The downside was enough exhaust boom between 2500 and 3500 rpm to make your teeth ache. Since this equates to speeds of between 60 and 83 mph in sixth gear, long trips taken after the JCW kit was installed made it feel as if you were driving a car-sized subwoofer.
Assessing the Mini's attributes - delicious power, ample speed, impeccable dependability, and remarkable fuel efficiency - versus its long foibles list, which includes a rocky ride, nasty torque steer, and the despised instrument panel layout, the inescapable conclusion is that the newest Mini is less satisfying than its predecessor. "Some of the charm is gone," concluded production editor Jennifer Misaros. "The previous edition was genuine, while this one just feels contrived."
Hope springs eternal that the third-generation Mini, surely under development, doesn't strive quite so hard to be cool.
3-yr/36,000-mile scheduled maintenance
4-yr/50,000-mile roadside assistance
12-yr rust perforation
22,162 mi: $0
12,645 mi: Top off brake fluid to correct stability-control and braking-system warnings
5887 mi: Purchase and install Bridgestone Blizzak LM-25 winter tires, $782
12,455 mi: Remount stock tires, $90
12,645 mi: Purchase and install JCW kit (ECU, exhaust, and air-filter upgrades), $2335
29/36/32 mpg (26/34/29 mpg under 2008 procedures)
Cost per mile
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.17
($0.46 including depreciation)
PRICES & EQUIPMENT
Price as tested
ABS; traction control; aluminum wheels; run-flat tires; keyless entry; air-conditioning; sport seats; power windows, mirrors, and door locks; front, side, and side curtain air bags
Leather/cloth seats, $1000; cold weather package (heated mirrors, washer jets, and front seats), $300; sport package (seventeen-inch aluminum wheels, stability control, xenon headlights), $1400; limited-slip differential, $500; leather steering wheel, $350; silver interior trim, $200; rear foglight, $100; premium stereo, $550; Bluetooth, $600; Sirius satellite radio (includes lifetime subscription), $950
*Estimate based on info from kbb.com and edmunds.com
The Austin Motor Company wasn't bashful when it called the original 1959 Mini "an entirely new concept in motoring." Engineering genius Sir Alec Issigonis crammed seats for four, luggage space, and a four-cylinder engine into a ten-foot-long box to create Britain's Beetle and a cultural icon. Formula 1 constructor John Cooper waved his wand over the car in 1961, bestowing the Mini Cooper with front disc brakes, an improved suspension, and a 1.0-liter engine producing 55 hp (up from 37 hp). More than 5 million originals, roughly 10,000 of which were initially imported to the United States, including those badged Morris Mini-Minor, were sold in forty-one years.
In 1995, <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/bmw/index.html">BMW</a> and Mini parent Rover began collaborating on what became the new Mini. BMW carried on after the liaison failed, introducing a hit revival in 2001 that combined the look and spirit of the original with extensive chassis and powertrain upgrades. The U.S. Mini Cooper arrived in 2002 powered by normally aspirated and supercharged 1.6-liter engines mated to manual and CVT automatic transmissions.
The second-generation Mini Cooper came for model year 2007 with a face-lifted appearance disguising a modest 2.3-inch increase in length. The clunky iron-block SOHC four-cylinder was replaced by a DOHC aluminum-block design with direct fuel injection.
Displacement remained at 1.6 liters, but base power climbed from 115 hp to 118 hp. In the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/99/2012/mini/cooper/s_sedan/1265/index.html">Cooper S</a>, a twin-scroll turbo replaced the previous supercharger, boosting output to 172 hp.
Variations on the new Mini theme include a convertible introduced in 2005 and the stretched-wheelbase Clubman wagon that arrived this year.
2007 Mini Cooper S
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars