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by Paul Williams
Road-testing a car for review usually involves driving it for a week, and commenting on the vehicle’s performance and features. The idea, in my case, anyway, is to simulate activities that owners would typically experience if they were to buy the subject vehicle. We don’t usually get into high-speed, performance manoeuvers, or competition activities on a road test.
But when you’re given a car and told to run it in a 2,200 km road rally, as I was in September with a 2003 Mini Cooper S in the Targa Newfoundland, well, that’s something else entirely.
I’d already driven the Mini Cooper S, and written a short “First Drive”. I really enjoyed the car’s handling, and had a lot of fun behind the wheel. Room for passengers was tight, I said, and some of the controls were fiddly. But overall, driving the car put a smile on my face.
Let’s put it this way: I underestimated the car.
The fact is that the handling of the Mini Cooper S is brilliant. On the rally, my co-driver, Brian Harper of the National Post, and I drove and navigated it through some of the tightest road courses you’ll ever experience in anything on four wheels. The stage we drove in suburban Gander, for instance, contained 44 left and right turns, with 29 turns at junctions over a mere seven kilometres. Imagine hurling a car through your neighbourhood at 100 km/h, ignoring the road signs, with continuous and sudden stops and starts, rapid changes of direction, and the pedal to the metal coming out of every turn. That’s what we were doing.
Similarly in Greenspond, a picturesque village on the ocean, I absolutely flew through the tiny lanes and back alleys. Up and down steep hills, nailing the brakes for a 90-degree turn to prevent launching the car into the water, scrambling around broken roads, threading the car between houses and out-buildings, avoiding posts, poles and potholes.
Brian and I agreed that as novice rally drivers, we were hugely fortunate to be in the Mini. A fellow competitor rolled his Subaru WRX at Greenspond. Another crashed a beautifully restored BMW 2002 tii in a subsequent stage, and many other cars and drivers had trouble staying on the course.
Although the other Mini in our factory-sponsored team was a John Cooper Works version (a 200 horsepower $6,800 kit, plus competition seats, wheels, tires), our stock Mini Cooper S was fully up to the challenge of an internationally sanctioned rally. That says a lot for the car.
Point it in the desired direction, and that’s where it went. Hit the brakes and it stopped. Come over a crest sideways at speed, hit the road, and the tires would squeal as the ASC (automatic stability control) breathed magic on the car and kept you upright. The Mini can be ordered with Dynamic Stability Control, which is even more sophisticated, but our car didn’t have that. (Autos’s Grant Yoxon has written about BMW’s ASC and DSC in an article covering the BMW driver training courses – we’re both huge fans of this technology).
The MINI Cooper S is packed with a range of electronic aids that helped us come 5th in class. The steering is electric assist system, and razor sharp (turn the steering wheel and you can hear the characteristic whine of the electro-mechanical system). The throttle is also electronic. The ASC I’ve mentioned, but it’s supplemented by traction control, CBC (cornering brake control), EBD (electronic brake force distribution) and, of course, ABS.
We ran 16″ wheels with Dunlop DSST run-flats, 205-45 series tires, and found them perfect for our needs. They were rugged but gave good traction.
The only negative thing about the car’s performance was the lack of low-end torque. You really had to rev the 1.6-litre, 163 horsepower, supercharged engine to get it off the line quickly. It’s not like a bigger displacement engine where you can smoke the tires from a standstill, and it would be handy to have some low-end punch on some of the acute turns into steep hills we experienced on the rally. But you get used it, compensate, and the handling more than makes up for it.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Once underway, the car is very quick, revving to its redline in every gear without fuss.
Inside, the car was comfortable and, for the most part, functional. The important things, like the position and support of the seats, and the adjustability of the steering wheel, were fine. Brian is 6’2″, and I’m 5’7″ and we both had no problem with the seating, steering and position of the gearshift. Visibility was also excellent.
There’s room for criticism with some of the small things, mainly because they bow more to style than functionality. The row of toggle switches, for instance, is very cool, but I’d prefer the door lock switch on the door, and the power window switch by the windows. While they’re at it, they could put the power mirror switch up by the mirrors, too. I prefer switches next to things they operate.
While I’m complaining, the sun visors require inserts that extend them when they’re pivoted to the side, the cup holders are poorly positioned (but where else would you put them?) and too small, and the power windows seem slow to raise and lower. Oh, and speaking of windows, don’t use the windshield washers with the windows down, unless you want a shower.
The big, centre-mounted speedometer turned out to be surprisingly useful for a rally application. We should have expected this, I suppose, as both driver and co-driver could easily see the speed, and that was very helpful.
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Unlike many competitors in old and new cars, we experienced no mechanical problems, although the front-wheel alignment was slightly off by the end of the event. Given the punishment taken by the front-end, this would be expected.
As far as interior space goes, there were just the two of us and we folded the rear seats down. This gave plenty of room for two large kit bags, racing suits, helmets, safety equipment and numerous odds and ends we carried with us throughout the rally.
We reluctantly gave the Mini back at the conclusion of the event. I was becoming used to zooming around in a car that responded so quickly and well to my inputs. In the rally, it changed direction as quickly as I changed my mind. On city streets, in normal driving conditions, the confidence you get in a competent car like the Mini Cooper S makes for a safe, satisfying driving experience.
And I was right the first time. It sure is a lot of fun.