Funky clutch engagement has dogged the Countryman since we've had it. We discussed this issue in our December update, but in recent weeks it has arisen again.
At first, some of us speculated that an aggressive hill-holder function somehow might be to blame. Others have postulated that the clutch might not be large enough, or the pressure plate might not be heavy enough, for the 3208-pound Countryman. There were also staffers who thought that things were fine, but more who formulated theories as to how to best achieve a smooth take-off: engage the Sport button, move quickly through the pedal travel, et cetera.
Then one of our readers -- Bill Fink, a professor at the University of Michigan -- contacted us and offered to let us drive his Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 with a manual transmission to compare clutch feel. Senior editor Eric Tingwall took him up on the offer.
Tingwall reports: "When I arrived at his house, Fink told me that they consider their cars to be not merely transportation but also entertainment. That explained the Lotus Elise in his garage and the 2000 BMW Z3 he uses as a winter car. In December he picked up a Countryman -- ordered to spec for his wife -- to replace a 2009 Mini Cooper. So far, they've been happy with their purchase. 'We're thrilled to death. We love it,' he said of his Countryman. 'There's a lot of BMW in them [Minis],' he added. 'They're just so solid going down the road.' His only complaint: 'If you put four people in it, you don't have room for all of their luggage.'
"I put Bill in the driver's seat of our Four Seasons Mini. Before we were even out of the driveway, he noticed exactly what we've been writing about for the past couple months. 'Oh my, this does feel different,' he said. After a few first-gear starts, he elaborated: 'I can feel a kind of a grinding as I lift the clutch.' From the passenger seat, I could feel the car shudder and shake as the clutch passes through the friction zone. 'This is not right,' he concluded.
"With 2506 miles on his Countryman's odometer, his clutch felt completely different than our car's. Engagement is smooth and refined, but that's really giving it more credit than necessary. It feels normal. From a stop, you barely need the throttle to get the car rolling. Attempt that same thing in our Four Seasons car and the cabin rumbles violently as if the car is about to stall.
"All this didn't seem to concern Fink very much. Of his first Mini, he says, 'We knew we weren't buying a Japanese car. We knew there would be problems.'"
Convinced, finally, that our car was not right, we headed to our local Mini dealer. Then the fun began.
The dealership wanted to charge us $875 to take out the transmission and inspect the clutch. If they agreed that it needed replacing, that would be an additional $2000 for the new clutch and flywheel.
A worn clutch disc would be covered under warranty, but not if that wear were the result of abuse. So we might be stuck with a $2875 bill, or we might not.
After a reasoned discussion with the service manager, we agreed that a slipping clutch needs replacing, so why bother with an inspection? And since proving abuse is really difficult (and our car has not been raced, tracked, or even instrument-tested), and since the mileage is so low, the dealership agreed that the replacement should be covered as well.
The car is now freshly returned from service, and it is driving MUCH better. Will this be the end of it? Senior editor Jason Cammisa, for one, is not optimistic.
"I have driven 870 press cars since I moved to San Francisco," writes the only slightly OCD Cammisa, who keeps a spreadsheet of such things. "And only ONE of them couldn't get going from a stop sign on the very steep hill on Divisadero Street in the city. That was a Mini Countryman ALL4 with a stick [not our long-term car]. The thing would not move, plain and simple. I had to put my flashers on, put my tail between my legs, and allow traffic to go around me, so I could then back down the hill and get going on a less steep part (and then run the stop sign). The problem? Turbo lag and a weak clutch."
With no San Francisco-steep hills in Ann Arbor, we're hoping the new clutch will keep our Mini moving. But whatever happens, we'll keep you posted.