Story and photos
by Laurance Yap
Heresy! A tiny urban runabout – and the cutest little urban runabout at that – that I want with the optional automatic transmission rather than with the standard, and slick-shifting five-speed manual. Has, like, hell finally frozen over? Well, in my defense, the Mini Cooper’s optional continuously variable transmission (CVT) is no run-of-the-mill automatic. Rather than a fixed number of gears with steps – and shifts – in between, this transmission has two cone-shaped gears linked by a belt, which, as it moves between them into different positions, creates an infinite number of gear ratios. The result? No jerky shifts to interrupt the flow of power, and, in theory, better fuel economy and also better acceleration.
True, it takes a bit of time to get used to the way a CVT works. Full-throttle standing starts result in a jerky step-off and then the engine revving up to its power peak, and the transmission juggling those infinite gear ratios upward as the car gathers speed – it sounds and feels like an elongated clutch-slipping launch all the way up to cruising speed. But that elongated feeling is deceptive; because the motor’s always producing optimum power, acceleration is quick, smooth and uninterrupted, resulting sometimes in surprising terminal velocities when it comes time to slow down.
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You don’t need to slow down often. With its friendly face and incredibly short overhangs, the Mini’s endearing to look at – so endearing that you’ll find its looks grant you access into traffic lines you wouldn’t be let into in any other, less-cute, car. That shape, composed of big circles and rounded rectangles, suggests the original car without actually being a copy of its design. It’s a lot bigger, for sure, with plenty of room in front, but the back seat and trunk still manage to be authentically tiny thanks to the sophisticated, but hard-to-package, “Z-axle” rear suspension.
Perhaps concerned about the Mini acquiring an image that’s overly wimpy, parent company BMW has introduced a range of optional styling packages designed to endow the Mini with a bit more aggression. With the now-clichéd clear-lens tail light, gorgeous, and huge, multi-spoke alloy wheels, and a dechromed front bumper so low and pointy it looks straight off a race car, you can now make your Mini as predatory a street racer as you want. Most of the cars we drove at the launch between Montreal and Ottawa had souped-up Civic drivers gawking in openly shocked surprise – when they wouldn’t give the standard-look “cutesy” edition a second, condescending, glance.
Rakish new body or not, the Mini’s still no speed demon. Though decently quick around town, especially with the CVT, it’s still a fairly heavy car being pulled around by a 115-horsepower 1.6-litre four-cylinder (the 163-hp Cooper S model still offers just a six-speed manual). Though a tuneful, powerful-enough partner for aggressive driving, the motor – co-developed with Chrysler before the Daimler takeover – is not such a great highway cruiser, with a slightly rough edge and not much torque unless you really wind it up. The CVT helps here, with taller gearing at cruise and a seamless transition to to the lower “gears” for passing to make use of the engine’s relatively peaky power band.
Driving a Mini, now or in the past, though, has never been about speed.
And what’s most amazing about the new car is how much momentum you can maintain thanks to its poised suspension and ultra-grip tires. Get it up to speed, and save for the occasional traffic light, driving becomes a delightful game of conserving, and building, momentum. The steering fires you into corners with mere twitches of your wrists; the brakes are powerful and easy to control; the cornering attitude is remarkably flat and stable for something with such a short wheelbase.
When the road gets twisty, and you want to set up for a corner, slide the CVT’s shift lever to the left, where six preset gear ratios are there for the taking; bang the stick forward for a downshift, back for an upshift. Response is instantaneous, though obviously not as satisfying as a proper matched-rev downshift in a car with a clutch. It’s too bad that BMW has so far resisted the temptation to fit the steering wheel with shift paddles, because those would almost rectify the fun-factor balance – and would be safer, too, not requiring you to remove hands from wheel while cornering.
Aside from the new shift lever, the CVT’s interior is stock Mini Cooper, which means a sea of bulging and curving shapes – torpedo-like dashboard inserts, metal toggle switches, circular door handles – that will either delight you or put your taste-o-meter on high alert. The big central speedometer is easy to read, once you get used to it, but the tach isn’t – even though it’s attached to the adjustable steering column. The optional sports seats fitted to our launch cars are an absolute must, as the base chairs are covered in cheap vinyl and offer less-than-inadequate side support for the cornering forces the Cooper so regularly dishes up.
Priced at $1200 over a stock $24,950 Mini Cooper, the CVT model isn’t for everyone. My technology-geek side – the one that lives in downtown traffic – loves its slick and seamless operation, but I’d have to think twice before purchasing IT instead of, say, the $1700 sport package for use during fun weekend drives. But that the option is now available broadens the Mini’s already-considerable appeal; previously a high-heart-rate funster-slash-urban shopping trolley, it’s now also a car that’s relaxed enough so you won’t feel all that guilty when subjecting it to rush-hour traffic.
Let’s put it this way. If I left this business tomorrow and had to buy myself a car, a Mini – especially with the CVT – would be at the top of my shopping list.