2002 MINI Cooper S Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Mini is just the name.Think huge.
The eagerly awaited Mini has arrived with the emotional appeal of a puppy, the high-style gloss of a fashion magazine and the technological edge of a Los Alamos lab. It is adorable, roadable and affordable.
BMW has managed to meld the inherent incongruities of the German and British car culture and reached back to the 1960s for the automotive icon of mod London. The popular Mini thus reappears as the Mini, reinvented for the 21st century.
A third larger than the original Issigonis design, this Mini is still the shortest car in American parking spaces and still larger on the inside than on the out. It totes four adults and a fair amount of stuff. Though connected to its popular past, the new Mini is clearly of this century with advanced safety features and impressive engineering innovation.
BMW priced the Mini with an appreciation for real-world pocketbooks (starting at $16,300) yet endowed it with a visual and physical opulence that ratchets up its value quotient. And finally: it's as much fun as patent-leather Mary Janes with taps on the toes.
Two models are available: 115-horsepower Mini Cooper ($16,850) and 163-horsepower Mini Cooper S ($19,850). (Prices include a destination charge of $550.) (The basic 90-horsepower Mini One will not be sold in the U.S.)
Options (some at no cost) are designed to allow buyers great leeway in making their car their own. Color options outnumber those in a bag of jelly beans and can be topped with a roof that's either body-colored, black or white. (White is traditional.) Checkered flags and flags of all nations are in the works, starting with the Union Jack and the Star-Spangled Banner. Wheels can be white or silver.
Anti-lock brakes are standard as are six airbags with special head protection for both front and rear passengers.
Several popular performance and appearance options are grouped into three major packages, Premium, Sport and Cold Weather. The Premium Package ($1250) includes sunroof, automatic air conditioning, on-board computer and cruise control. The Sport Package ($1250) includes Dynamic Stability Control, rear spoiler, fog lamps, sport seats, and larger alloy wheels. The Cold Weather Package ($500) provides heat to the seats, the mirrors, the windshield and the washer jets, along with rain sensor and auto-dimming mirror.
The packaged options can be ordered ala carte as well: Leather seats ($1250), Xenon headlamps ($500), an eight-speaker Harman Kardon sound system ($550), a navigation system ($1600), and a CVT Continuously Variable Transmission ($1250) are among the options.
The first impression of the Mini comes from its broad brow and challenging demeanor tempered by an appealing wonder-eyed look. The distinctive body shape is recognizable even in black paper silhouette. In the old days we dubbed the Mini 'The Flying Toastmaster.' That description would apply to today's Mini as well if that toaster has a bulldog attitude and can cling to the counter as if suctioned in place. Tenacity is built into today's Mini visually by its a slightly splayed stance.
The wheels are set as far out to the four corners as possible thus enhancing stability in turns and reducing hobby-horsing on bumpy straights. The wheelbase at 97.1 inches is longer than some small cars though the Mini's body is shorter at 142.8 inches (less than 12 feet).
The wide-across, short-in-depth hood is the product of unique design and manufacturing techniques. It might well hang on the wall of some corporate offices along with other shaped sculpture and not betray its origin. The round, large doe-eyed headlights (which go up with the hood) are partly responsible for the common reaction of 'Oh-h-h, isn't it CUTE!' Actually, this response was by intent, not chance. Mini designers also threw in what they consider to be some voluptuous feminine curves and some masculine muscular bulges to cover all the visceral reactions. Thus the Mini is neither Guy Wheels nor a Chick Car. It is an engaging automotive device that has a wide appeal stretching across gender, age and economic status.
By the way, that toaster-body shape of the Mini is functional: it gives anyone riding in either back or front seats adult headroom, something that arch-shaped body designs (such as the Beetle) cannot do.
It is said that Alec Issigonis, designer of the original Mini, sat four adults in straight chairs, drew a line around them and thus determined the size of his passenger compartment. The box tacked on at the front housed an engine set in sideways to take less room. This Mini is a third bigger, wider, taller, longer, so a car full of adults need not be tight. Try the Mini on. It may well surprise six-plus footers.
The seats are handsome to look at. When it comes to sitting you might feel as if you are sort of perching on the standard seats. The sport seats are more receptive. If you prefer seats that you sit in rather than on, opt for the sports seats. Be your own judge; seats are personal.
To allow rear passengers into the back of the two-door car, the front seats slide and lift out of the way with a memory that returns them to position. That makes loading to capacity quick and easy.
Any notion that a car celebrating a popular icon of old has to be retro is dispelled forever by the with-it modernity of the Mini's interior. Materials and shapes are as cheery as sunshine and balloons and as now as a new magazine. The prominent circles are as much a design statement as a function, including the tach perched like an add-on immediately before the driver's eyes. Toggle switches reflect the older Mini while looking very today and feeling quite driverly. That large circle in the center of the dash, equally visible to anyone in the car, is the speedometer. The positioning was borrowed from the Mini of old and might seem a tad precious to those who don't smile in recollection.
However the press-briefing explanation that the speedometer is in the center to celebrate the rally tradition of the Mini (so that the co-driver can see it clearly) is balderdash. It was there because that central position made it cheaper to build cars with either right-hand or left-hand drive. The first 850cc Mini with its 10-inch wheelbarrow wheels was a response to a mid-east war and resulting oil crisis (sound familiar?), not anything else. The car's sporting future was not anticipated until John Cooper took a fancy to the tidy little machine, lent his magic and sent the Mini hurtling into history.
I found that driving the Mini for several days (including some time on a race course) was not long enough to find the limits of its cornering ability. It kept saying 'more.' I drove in deeper; I drove harder. The Mini simply went where it was pointed without protest. What is this? Are they paving these writhing Marin County roads in Velcro? Even when rain was sheeting down and the pavement shimmered in rivulets, the Mini felt bonded to the surface. Ah, a squeegee at no extra charge. The old Mini was as much fun as a carnival ride to drive, but much of the fun came from constant flirting with catastrophe (one wheel always lifted off the surface in hard turns). The fun in this Mini, with a body that feels as rigid as a block of maple, is in exploring its astonishing capabilities.
As one might expect from a car associated with BMW, the Mini Cooper's steering is precise and immediate, though not as light as you might expect in a small car.
The brakes (discs all around) are equally impressive, proportionally balanced as they are. Hit them hard at speed and the car feels sucked to the earth and slowed immediately by an invisible hand. None of that tiptoe-light feeling you sometimes get under serious braking. Excellent brakes can mean survival in Germany where running at ultra-high speeds on the Autobahn is interspersed with serious slowing.
The Mini suspension system (McPherson struts in front and multi-link rear) is designed to keep the car snug to the road. This means passengers feel broken surfaces, expansion joints, weathered pavement. The Mini's ride is not a velvety one, but it is a secure one. Somehow even on the roughest road, one that sets passengers popping like corn in a hot skillet, the Mini holds its direction like a gyroscope. Drivers like that. And make no mistake: the Mini is a driver's car.
The Mini Cooper's 1.6-liter four-cylinder overhead cam engine (115 horsepower) never feels deficient even if it doesn't put your head against the backrest at launch Hit the loud pedal, count to one-thousand-nine and the needle in that central circle should be passing 60. (0-62 mph comes in 9.2 seconds and top speed is 124 mph.) Fair action for a Toastmaster.
The gearing favors a quick take off (the way Americans like it). However, the Mini Cooper's five-speed gearbox leaves a longer stretch between second and third gear than expected. I found it a tad annoying, rather like a flight of stairs with one riser a little higher than all the others. Drivers should make appropriate use of the gearbox to keep themselves well positioned on the 115-hp Mini Cooper's torque curve. That's easy. It feels good and shifting is smooth.
The 1.6-liter engine in the Mini Cooper S produces 163 horsepower and 155 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. It's capable of accelerating from 0-62 mph in just 7.4 seconds. (Top speed is 135 mph.) Equipped with a six-speed manual, it did not have the tall second gear feel of the Mini Cooper.
In town, the Mini is well-dressed, well-mannered, smooth to shift, easy to park and can swallow an amazing amount of Nordstrom detritus, particularly if you are alone. But the car will rarely be without company. It draws a beaming crowd wherever it is. (Some in the pack will offer you money on the spot for ownership.).
It's the total package that makes the Mini Cooper the excellent value it is: appealing appearance inside and out, excellent performance, notable engineering, numerous safety devices and the simple delight of being in and around it. With highway gas mileage something over 35-mpg it will not drink up your travel allowance at a great rate either. (And it will make your garage seem enormous.) Final final word: You won't be the only one that wants one so possess thy soul in patience.
Cooper ($16,850); Cooper S ($19,850).
Options As Tested
Sport package ($1250) includes Dynamic Stability Control, sport seats, 16-inch alloy wheels with 195/55R16 run-flat tires, front fog lamps; Premium package ($1250) includes panoramic sunroof, automatic air conditioning with active carbon particle filtration system, multi-function steering wheel with cruise control, on-board computer.
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