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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh
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As if postwar shortages weren’t bad enough, in 1956, British drivers were hit with the effects of the Suez Crisis on petroleum imports. Faced with gasoline rationing, drivers sought the most fuel-efficient cars they could find. Many of them settled on little runabouts known as micro- or bubble cars, most notably the German-built Messerschmitt, made by the aircraft company, and the BMW Isetta.
Both ran on fumes, but that was about all they had going for them; they only carried two people, they were extremely cramped, woefully underpowered, too hot or too cold, and had no cargo space. Morris Minor designer Alec Issigonis hated them with a passion, and set out to make them obsolete. And that’s exactly what he did: his new four-seater, front-wheel-drive Mini was directly responsible for the demise of the bubble car. His design lasted to 2000 and 5,387,862 copies; six months later, the first BMW version rolled off the assembly line in Oxford, England.
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The problem with a retro car, as any Beetle designer can tell you, is that you can only mess with the envelope so much before it’s not retro anymore. And so for 2006, Mini’s major changes are in the addition of some option packages, including my tester’s Checkmate edition.
Available only on the fixed-roof Cooper S, and in combination with Space Blue, Astro Black or Royal Grey exterior colours, the Checkmate package adds dynamic stability control, 17-inch “flame spoke” alloy wheels, front and rear fog lamps, silver roof and mirror caps, silver bonnet stripes, Checkmate cloth and leather upholstery, anthracite-coloured headliner and Checkmate-specific logos and interior trim, including a checkerboard panel behind the front wheels. It also adds $2,350 to the price.
Both the Cooper and Cooper S use a 1.6-litre inline four-cylinder, but the S adds an Eaton supercharger and intercooler, along with beefier crankshaft, pistons, valves and radiator to handle the extra heat and pressure. The result is an increase from the Cooper’s 115 hp and 110 lb-ft of torque to the 168 hp and 162 lb-ft of the Cooper S. The S also uses a six-speed manual to the Cooper’s five-speed; a six-speed automatic with Steptronic manual mode is available for an additional $1,290.
Unlike a turbocharger, the supercharger runs off a toothed belt, so there’s no lag; press the pedal and it responds, with a great underhood sound and a throaty burble from the twin tailpipes in the middle of the bumper. BMW claims that eighty per cent of the torque is available between 2500 and 6500 rpm, and this beefy curve makes the Mini fun to drive at just about any speed, especially since the car’s diminutive size and low-slung chassis make its zippiness that much more prominent.
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As with the original Mini, the modern version has its wheels pushed out to the corners for considerable stability; McPherson front struts and multi-link rear suspension are tightened up with reinforced anti-roll bars, firmer springs and sport-tuning on the S. Anti-lock brakes, cornering brake control, and stability and traction control are standard equipment. Steering is electro-hydraulic, with only 2.5 turns lock-to-lock, and with equal-length drive shafts to reduce torque steer. The most common description is “go-kart”, and it’s very apt account of the car’s razor-sharp steering and glued-to-the-ground feel. There’s a dead pedal, but it could be higher and more prominent for shorter-driver support. The stick is stiff, with well-defined gates, and huge chrome ball that, until it warms up on frosty mornings, feels like you’re shifting a Sno-Cone.
The Cooper S’s standard 16-inch wheels increase an inch with the Checkmate package, and while the “flame-spoke” styling is pretty snazzy, they look exaggerated; to my eye, the wheels are a bit too big for this little body.
The cool styling, great handling and snappy little engine score major points, but truth be told, the Mini is an uncomfortable car. The seats are rock-hard, the ergonomics aren’t all that good, and cargo capacity isn’t the greatest.
It starts on the outside, with door handles that must be squeezed to open them; it’s difficult if you don’t have strong fingers, especially for right-handers who tend to open the door with the left hand. A couple of times, in really cold weather, I had to use both hands.
It’s understandable that there will be compromises with a car this size, but the cupholders in the centre console are essentially inaccessible, and the one that is easy to use is an ugly contraption stuck onto the side of the centre stack. Functions such as power windows, locks and fog lamps are activated by a row of toggle switches that look great, but are set low in the stack and require you to take your eyes off the road for too long. My tester came with the optional Cockpit Chrono Package, which puts the speedometer in front of the driver, where it belongs; without it, the speedo migrates to the centre of the dash, where it’s historically correct, and ergonomically wrong.
Standard features on the Cooper S include Xenon headlights with high-pressure washers, heated mirrors, heated washer jets, tire pressure monitoring system, side and curtain airbags, self-charging keyless remote, rear roof spoiler, three-spoke multifunction wheel, manual air conditioning, manually-adjustable seats, stainless steel pedals, power windows, CD/MP3 player and driver’s-side dual sun visor.
Should you opt for rain-sensing wipers – they were part of the $1,990 Premium Package on my car – that function replaces the standard “intermittent” feature, for better or worse; they got a bit too exuberant on a couple of occasions and I had to turn them off as they swiped wildly on dry glass. They work well in rain, but light snow tends to confuse them. The rear wiper swipes three times before settling down into fixed intermittent mode; it’s a standard feature and a necessary one, since the car’s flat rear end picks up any speck of road grime it can find.
Along with heated front seats and auto-dimming mirror, the Premium Package also includes a panoramic glass sunroof, which precludes painting the Union Jack on top, but which gives the little car an airy feel and helps to alleviate claustrophobia, especially for rear-seat passengers. There’s no solid cover for it, but a mesh screen can be pulled across it to cut down on heat and glare.
The 50/50 rear seats fold, and although they don’t turn into a flat cargo floor – there’s a 20 cm rise when they’re down – they expand the 41-cm-long storage space to 100 cm. A pickup truck it ain’t, but you should be able to get your groceries home in it.
It’s probably a moot point anyway; the Mini isn’t intended as a family hauler. It’s a fun-and-sporty little machine, great for singles or couples, perfectly sized for the downtown core, and as close to the definition of a “lifestyle purchase” as anything on four wheels can be. It’s not cheap, it’s not comfortable, and it’s not practical – but who says a car always has to be? If you’re in the target audience, and you’ll take cool over comfy, then this is your ride.
Technical Data: 2006 Mini Cooper S Checkmate Edition
|Options||$6,525 (Checkmate Package $2,350; Premium Package $1,990; Cockpit Chrono Package $450; Chrome Line Exterior $290; Limited-Slip Differential $650; Harman Kardon Sound System $795)|
|Price as tested||$38,575 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||2-door, 4-passenger compact hatchback|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||1.6-litre inline 4, SOHC, 16 valves, supercharged|
|Horsepower||168 hp @ 6000 rpm|
|Torque||162 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm|
|Tires||205/45R17 performance run-flat|
|Curb weight||1215 kg (2678 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2467 mm (97.1 in.)|
|Length||3655 mm (143.8 in.)|
|Width||1688 mm (66.4 in.)|
|Height||1416 mm (55.7 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||150 litres (5.3 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 9.5 L/100 km (30 mpg Imp)|
|Hwy: 6.7 L/100 km (42 mpg Imp)|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|
|Powertrain Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|