MINI Cooper
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by Greg Wilson

Tofino, British Columbia — Yes, they’re cute as hell, and they come with many happy memories courtesy of the Alec Issigonis-designed Austin Mini, but is there any substance to these new retro-styled MINI’s? Or are they just another retro flash in the pan?

Well, if buyer demand is any indication, the MINI Cooper and Cooper S are starting out well. Before they even went on sale on March 22nd, MINI Canada already had orders for 900 including a special Launch Edition model which could be ordered through the internet.

MINI Canada is so worried that profit-hungry buyers will purchase MINIs simply to resell them at a profit that they are requiring all new MINI purchasers to sign a contract giving the local MINI dealer the right of first refusal if the car is sold within a year.

It’s not surprising there was so much pent-up demand for the MINI: the car went on sale in Europe last year, and since then we’ve been bombarded with newspaper articles, magazine articles, TV news, internet promotions and general MINI mania.

MINI Coopers
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In Canada, the MINI is offered in Cooper and Cooper S models – unfortunately, we don’t get the cheaper, base MINI One model which is offered in Europe. Here, the Cooper starts at $24,950 and the Cooper S at $29,600, and there are plenty of options which can boost the price by $5,000 or more. Still, the MINI’s come well-equipped with just about everything you need including standard air conditioning, CD player, traction control, tire pressure monitoring system, and six airbags.

The Cooper is powered by a new 115 horsepower 1.6 litre SOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine and comes with a standard 5-speed manual transmission. The Cooper S gets a 163 horsepower supercharged version of the 1.6 litre motor and a standard 6 speed manual transmission. Those who need an automatic transmission will have to wait until October when a continuously variable transmission is scheduled to arrive.

MINI Cooper S
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You can identify the Cooper S by its hood scoop, body-coloured grille bars, lack of chrome bumper tips, higher roof spoiler, chrome-look fuel cap, dual tailpipes, faux air vents in the rear bumper, and its larger standard 16 inch run-flat tires and alloy wheels (there is no spare). Also, the Cooper S’ battery is in the trunk for better weight distribution.

Mechanically, the Cooper S offers not only a supercharger with a Roots-type blower and a standard six-speed manual transmission, but its engine also has different pistons, crankshaft, camshafts and cooling system. As well, the Cooper S has a significantly stronger body structure to withstand the increased engine power.

The Cooper S also has a standard leather wrapped steering wheel, chrome trim on the shift knob, premium cloth upholstery and 6-way front sport seats.

MINI Canada introduced the Cooper and Cooper S to the Canadian media in Vancouver — after heading across Georgia Strait on a ferry, we drove from Nanaimo to Port Alberni, and then over the winding, twisty, two-lane blacktop road which winds from Port Alberni to Tofino on the west coast.

Perfect MINI country

MINI Cooper
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I drove the Cooper first, and was hugely impressed with its 1.6 litre engine and superb handling. The BMW-designed 115 horsepower 1.6 litre twin cam 16 valve four cylinder engine performs as well or better than some 2.0 litre engines I can think of. It revs freely up to 7000 rpm and has a racy exhaust note that adds appreciably to the experience of driving it. Due to its small displacement, you need to keep the revs up in order to maintain torque coming out of the corners. That’s not a problem for this engine which challenges you to rev it as fast as it will go. I drove it steadily in the four to six thousand rev range, and the engine didn’t strain a bit.

Admittedly, the Cooper isn’t a pocket rocket – MINI Canada quotes a 0 to 100 km/h time of 9.2 seconds, while the more powerful supercharged Cooper S has a 0 to 100 km/h time of 7.4 seconds. Still, I was quite impressed with willingness and flexibility (and sound) of the Cooper’s engine.

The other really great thing about the Cooper is its handling and high-speed stability. This is a car that is almost impossible to break loose, even on wet roads. It exhibits phenomenal stability during cornering and under braking, and offers a level of grip that is unmatched in this class. Part of the credit goes to its fully independent suspension (front MacPherson strut/rear multi-link) and wide track, but the other credit must go to its extremely solid body structure which BMW claims is more rigid than the current BMW 3-Series coupe.

MINI Cooper S
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And for a small car, the MINI’s ride is really very comfortable. When my driving partner was at the wheel, I didn’t feel uncomfortable or queasy even though we encountered plenty of bumps and sudden turns. I give a lot of credit to the Cooper’s optional 16 inch Dunlop Super Sport tires which have excellent grip in the dry and the wet. My only complaint is that they are a bit noisy on dry pavement, particularly in the 80 to 90 km/h range. The Cooper S’s run-flat Goodyear tires were quieter and offered surprisingly good grip for heavier run-flat tires.

I found the steering light and quick, which can be a drawback if you take your eyes off the road for a moment – you’ll find yourself off course when you look up again. The MINI’s steering is an electro-hydraulic, engine-speed sensitive, variable-assist system.

The supercharged Cooper S feels slightly less nimble than the Cooper — it weighs 100 kg more – and the engine is not quite as eager to rev into the higher rev range. On the other hand, the Cooper S has significantly more torque, so it doesn’t need to rev as high to produce its 163 horsepower. Off the line, the Cooper S is more responsive than the Cooper, and in 30 to 50 km/h passing, the Cooper S is also more responsive. Its 0 to 100 km/h time of 7.4 seconds is almost two seconds faster than the Cooper. The supercharger makes a whining sound when accelerating, not quite as pleasant as the racy sound of the Cooper, but not bothersome either. During low speed driving or when cruising on the freeway, the Cooper S is reasonably quiet – the engine does just 2500 at 100 km/h and 3000 at 120 km/h.

MINI Cooper
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The Cooper S’s 6-speed manual transmission is even better than the 5-speed manual in the Cooper with light, quick shift actions that contribute to the fun driving experience.

Braking, courtesy of standard four wheel discs with ABS and EBD (electronic brake differential) is quick and fade-free — BMW really knows how to build brakes.

The MINI cabin is quiet at freeway speeds, but I noticed some air leakage around the side windows at high speed – probably because the doors are frameless.

Outward visibility is unobstructed and the rear window includes a rear wiper with an intermittent setting, a good idea because it can get pretty dirty. The upright, wraparound windshield is a little unusual, and as the top of the windshield is quite far forwards, I found myself unable to see the traffic lights when stopped at a stop line.

MINI Cooper
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The MINI’s sporty interior is dominated by large plate-size speedometer in the centre of the dashboard which has a silver-coloured background and illuminated red numerals at night. A tachometer sits on top of the steering column – it looks great, but I found that I couldn’t see the top half of the tachometer from the driver’s seat. If you order the optional navigation system, the navigation screen replaces the central speedometer and the speedometer moves on top of the steering column next to the tachometer.

The Cooper’s dash and a portion of the doors is covered in a metal-look plastic trim which, while contemporary, looks a bit too plasticy to my eyes. The Cooper S has a darker gun-metal finish which I found rather unusual as well.

The MINI’s two spoke steering wheel is a reminder of the original Mini’s spartan two-spoke wheel – it looks great, but I wondered why the horn buttons were placed on the spokes rather than the hub – perhaps so they can be reached without the driver taking his/her hands off the wheel.

My test cars had leatherette upholstery with front seat heaters with two temperature settings – a nice warm welcome on a cold morning or evening. Cooper S models include standard front sport seats which add extra side bolstering. Front passengers have plenty of headroom and legroom, while the two rear passengers have generous headroom and adequate legroom — there’s no room for a third rear passenger.

MINI Cooper
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Getting into the back seat requires moving the front passenger seat forwards which it will automatically when you recline the seatback – however, it won’t return to its original position without readjusting the seatback and seat track. Rear passengers have their own storage bins, one cupholder, and two height-adjustable head restraints.

The MINI could use more storage space in the front – there isn’t a console storage bin or a centre armrest/storage compartment – just a glovebox and door pockets.

The 150 litre trunk is pretty small – it holds two standard airline carry-on bags, but little else. However with one, or both of the 50/50 split folding rear seatbacks folded down, there is two or three times as much cargo room – up to 670 litres.

Though the Cooper S is more powerful, I liked the Cooper better — to my eye, it looks cleaner, has a great engine, gets better fuel economy (City 8.3/Hwy 5.9), has a whack of standard features, and is priced about $5,000 cheaper. And I’m betting the resale value on the MINI will be pretty high, should you decide to resell.

How does the MINI stack up to the competition? The Cooper S’s competitors might include the VW Golf GTI 1.8T ($25,895), Honda Civic SiR ($25,500), Acura RSX Premium ($27,000), Toyota Matrix XRS ($24,540), Pontiac Vibe GT ($26,550), Chrysler PT Cruiser Touring Edition ($26,440), VW New Beetle GLX 1.8T ($29,665), Nissan Sentra SE-R ($19,998), Mercedes-Benz C230 ($33,950), and Subaru WRX ($34,995).

MINI Cooper
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As you can see, the Cooper S is more expensive than all but the C230, New Beetle 1.8T, and WRX – although the Cooper S does include some standard features which the others don’t such as head airbags, and emergency door unlocking. Still, for the car with the smallest interior and smallest cargo area, the Cooper S is relatively expensive.

The standard MINI Cooper has fewer direct competitors — they might include the Ford Focus ZX3 ($17,395), Toyota Matrix XR ($20,925), and VW Golf GL ($19,230). Again, the Cooper seems relatively expensive, even though it offers a higher level of standard equipment.

Still, the MINI probably has the best looks of the bunch, the best overall vehicle dynamics, and a very strong street presence. For those who want great handling, braking, and steering combined with BMW engineering and MINI cache, the Cooper and Cooper S will be worth the premium.

MINI Canada’s web-site is www.MINI.ca.

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