2,500 Kilometers in a MINI Cooper S

Everything seems huge when you're this tiny.

I’ve never really fully understood the traditional pleasure-pain paradox; you know the one, where something hurts like hell, but you don’t care because you also get pleasure out of it? Yeah, there’s a dirty element of it, but I don’t frequent the same nightclubs as Murilee or Mr. Emslie, so I never fully understood it. Conceptually, I thought I did, but having not experienced it, it was only my imagination. Having driven for 2,500 kms in a MINI Cooper S, I think I finally understand.
There have been accusations that the new MINI is a “girly” car. Perhaps. The Cooper S, however deserves no such criticism. Anyone who would make the claim that this vicious little beast is “girly” is doing nothing more than showing their own ignorance. The Cooper S is about as girly as a pissed-off piranha. With a similar level of bite.
We’ve realized, here at Hooniverse, that much of our community has an interest in new car reviews from a purely academic standpoint. We like to know about the latest and greatest available on the market, but when push comes to shove, when it comes time to actually shell out wads of our own hard-earned money in brown paper sacks, we’ll be far more likely to shell out for a used vehicle than for a brand new one. And more than likely, we’ll hold out for a car that is somehow interesting, unique, or fun-to-drive. In that vein, may we present the first generation of the new MINI Cooper S.

My partner-in-crime, CaffeineFuelled, bought this 2006 Cooper S Checkmate last year for an excessively good price, to replace her beige Corolla which I had referred to several times as “the most hateful vehicle I’ve ever driven”. At the time she purchased it, she didn’t know how to drive a car with a manual transmission. Yes, she bought the car without having test-driven it herself. I drove it for her, but she basically made the decision entirely on her own impressions from the passenger seat. And in all honesty, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make.
There is enough space for two peoples' luggage in the hatch — but only barely.

These cars really are excellent. Journalists gush over them incessantly, and it reaches the point where one has to wonder if those journalists are on the ol’ payola take from BMW. There’s no way around it, however. They’re the kind of impressive that makes your eyebrows shoot up, and your lips purse into a little “O” shape when you first try the car out.
Strangely, though, it’s the kind of impressive that’s hard to explain. Why is it great? It just… is.
The steering wheel and the shifter may be the best-balanced units I’ve ever seen, and have a feel that really just needs to be experienced. Each of them has a smooth movement that belies its tiny size. Imagine a wheel and shifter mechanism that was attached to a very large, very heavy, but very perfectly-balanced weight. There is a definite heavy resistance to any movement, but with the slightest effort it can be overcome, and then it moves smoothly. The Cooper S has the feeling of being a very large, very powerful, very heavy car, that just happens to be fantastically nimble and agile.
The Mini, however, doesn’t really come into its own until it’s given a proper set of corners to run through. It is a cliché that has been used a thousand times by journalists far more capable well paid than myself, but the total absence of body roll immediately brings forward comparisons to a go-kart. It’s one of those rare instances where there is no avoiding it; if you are asked to sample something, and it tastes like root beer, you have to say it tastes like root beer. The MINI, similarly, avoids any other comparison.
There are other similarities, however, one being size. The other being the ride. The MINI has an extremely firm ride, which for quick zips around town, or through a sporting course, or up a quick mountain pass, can be fantastic fun. When you take the car on a 24-hour round-trip journey, you start to understand the whole pleasure/pain paradox. As the driver, particularly through the twisting roads of the mountain, the grin that’s plastered across your face would have to be removed with a pry-bar. As the passenger, the firm suspension begins to tire you out after only a couple hours. After five hours or so in the car, you need to stop and get out just to stretch your lower back.
It also starts to be rather astonishing just how obnoxious other drivers can be to a car that small. Both CaffeineFuelled and myself are primarily used to driving larger cars, and we could not believe how many times people would cut us off in the much-smaller MINI. Other drivers’ disregard for a smaller vehicle had never been so obvious until we did this drive. Both of us ended up somewhat on edge as time and time and time again, whoever was driving found themselves blaring the horn and swerving to avoid someone who was being deliberately inconsiderate because they were driving a larger vehicle.

Irritants aside, however, these factors are nowhere near enough to sully the MINI’s overwhelmingly positive and impressive experience. One needs only to blip the throttle on the powerful little supercharged engine to remind yourself what an experience it can be. While it’s civilized and quiet at cruising speeds, when prodded into anger, there is an ethereal howl that instantly bellows forth from the tiny little beast like nothing I’ve experienced. The supercharger is only barely muffled, and when pushed, emits a scream like something from a horror movie. This mixes with an angry roar that sounds like a mid-1960’s racing engine belching from the exhaust, and it is a noise that startles and impresses.
Clearly, BMW wanted that reaction, because the sound is a far too perfect interpretation of beautiful anger for it to be an accident. While carefully pulling the car out of our hotel’s underground car-park, two girls walking past were admiring it to one another, commenting on how “cute” it was. As I blipped the throttle to nudge it slowly over the speed-bump, they both jumped at the noise that echoed out of the underground garage, and their faces looked slightly frightened, as if a tiny puppy had just turned vicious on them.
There are a number of vehicles you can buy brand new for less than $20,000. Some of them are even pretty decent buys. But I will go on the record and state that there is not a single one of them that can hold any kind of a candle to a lightly-used Cooper S. The “S” will have its way with those competitors so thoroughly they’ll be left wondering what happened to them. And you’ll be left smiling from ear to ear.
And if that doesn’t explain the pleasure/pain paradox, I don’t know what will.

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  1. Thrashy Avatar

    Welcome to the warped world of the tiny car lover! Before long you'll be lusting after gray-market kei cars, Honda S600s, and Berkeley Sports. Compacts will begin to seem like studies in bloated excess. Eventually, you'll come to believe — with a conviction bordering on the religious — that curb weights over 3000 pounds are crimes against nature, and that inconsiderate SUV drivers should be subject to summary execution.

  2. Deartháir Avatar

    I wouldn't count on it. CaffeineFuelled likes to operate in extremes:
    <img src="http://i1134.photobucket.com/albums/m619/Dearthair/23861_10150176324320297_633205296_11852986_5049762_n.jpg&quot; width="500">
    In other news, they need to fix the stupid photo server websites so they stop being so anal.

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      Nibbles, why did you detach that comment from the comment I was replying to?

  3. BЯдΖǐL-ЯЄРΘЯΤЄЯ Avatar

    Correction "Everything seems huge when you're THIS tiny"
    <img src="http://www.ocoop.com/images/gallery/mini-old-new.gif"&gt;

    1. Tropical Ice Cube Avatar
      Tropical Ice Cube

      Man I love that pic. How bloated these new hairdresser-specials-cum-chrome are!
      BTW I did way more than 2,500km in my '83 real-deal-accept-no-substitute Mini 1000 – so did my wife in her '91 one… not as crazy collectors of fine brit antiques, rather as the cheap transportation they were. But for the starter motors, of which I lost count, we only kept eye on the radiators – blew 4 of them due to traffic jams in as few as 5/6 years; this lateral position with unassisted fan-on-the-crank setup may have been super-compact, but was also super-bad at air flow.
      I say again: Accept no substitute! If you can't afford Formula racing, or a Lotus 7, then get yourself a (real )Mini.

  4. ptschett Avatar

    You'd think from my vehicular history that I want my cars to be 5 meters long and with about that many liters of engine displacement, but I would like to have a little sporty late-model fun car of the Mini or Fiat 500 variety someday. First I need a 3rd parking spot under my control, then it'd be nice if my local Mini dealer (or Fiat, for that matter) was closer than being on the opposite side of MN from me.

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      I've tried the new Fiat… the two are comparable cars in size only. Other than that, they are nothing alike at all. The Fiat is an economy car in every sense, while the MINI is really a subcompact luxury car. Now that's not to say that there's anything wrong with the Fiat at all, but they're cars that obviously get compared, and they really shouldn't be.

      1. Mechanically Inept Avatar
        Mechanically Inept

        We have a 2007 Fit, my cousin just got a 2005 Cooper S, and my friend's brother has a new 500 Sport as a company car. I haven't driven the Mini, but I really liked the 500. Compared to the Fit, it pulled better at low RPM, and it handled a bit sharper. The seating position is awkwardly high, and the clutch and shifter are kinda iffy, but I did only drive it for about 10 minutes. As a passenger, the Mini rattled and rode terribly, and just did not seem like a quality product (I believe Mini's reliability rankings reflect this). It did not help that, within 3 weeks of buying it, the electric locks gave out, and the driver's door would not open, and the battery died for some mysterious reason.
        Purchase price of the Mini? $16k, or what the other two cars cost new. Some people like the Mini, but I just don't get the appeal.

        1. Deartháir Avatar

          Forgive me, you're going to be on the receiving end of a bit of a rant, and this vitriol is not directed at you, but at the flawed logic that prevails around cars like this. You just reminded me of it, and I'm using the opportunity to get it out.
          First off, I've driven a LOT of Minis. They come in at our dealership on trade quite frequently, and even the one that had been in four accidents didn't "rattle" terribly. All Minis have a firm suspension, and that's by design. If you want a floaty ride, get a Corolla. That's not the purpose of this car, and you can't have something that handles as phenomenally well as the Mini and get a ride like a Lincoln. It just doesn't work. You have a lemon, and unfortunately that's tainted your perspective.
          Secondly, let's put this in perspective. A race car requires an engine rebuild after pretty much every race, or at least after every weekend of racing. By that measure, then, a race car is horribly unreliable and vastly inferior to a Corolla. But put a Corolla around a race course for a day, as I did a few months ago, and at the end of the day the Corolla's brakes are shot and the transmission is smoking.
          Sports cars, and sporting cars, always end up with lower reliability ratings. It's not a coincidence. I see it day in and day out. When you have a car that is a whole lot more capable, you begin to test its limits. On those few Minis that are driven as a boring commuter car, their reliability will be fantastic. But when you have something that accelerates that fast, handles that well, and puts a grin on your face that quickly, you're going to use it. And the harder you use a car, the more likely it is that it will develop problems, no matter how well-built it is. I've driven the Fit quite a few times. It's a very decent car, but it sure isn't anywhere near as much fun as a Cooper S, and I'll guarantee you that it can't take the same amount of abuse. In that test I mentioned earlier, we put five brand new Jettas against five brand new Mazda3s, Civics and Corollas. At the end of the day, the Corollas, supposedly the most reliable, were smoking heaps, and the two "least" reliable, the Mazda3 and Jetta, were still in perfect shape.
          Comparisons like these are inherently flawed, because the biggest variables of all, the driver and the way the car is driven, are completely uncontrolled, and the more fun a car is, the harder it's likely to be driven, and the less likely it is to be reliable. The Corolla — and, to a lesser extent, the Fit — are absolutely going to be more reliable because of the fact that they don't inspire the same level of joy.
          Again, forgive me for using your comment as my foil, it's not an attack on you, but you've got the misfortune of bringing up a point that has been bugging me.

          1. Mechanically Inept Avatar
            Mechanically Inept

            To be fair, the Mini belongs to my cousin, not me, and I have not driven it, so I don't have a full perspective. Being a broke-ass college student without the time or skill to work on cars, I just want something that will get me where I need to go comfortably and reliably, at which my Dodge Caravan has performed admirably. To me, anything small with a stick shift is a fun car, and compared to the Caravan, anything feels like a sports car. I just need an appliance with good fuel economy and a manual transmission, and then I'll be happy.

  5. Lotte Avatar

    I guess cars are a little like people in that they are adaptable. We're in North America, land of big, open highways, the occasional huge-ass pothole, winter, and 90-degree intersections controlled by stoplights or stop signs. This MINI is obviously a fish out of water. And yet it survives! I was going to argue that this car isn’t fit for here, that the very design of our roads ostracizes the little thing and the humane thing to do would be to move with it to The Isle of Man for its sake. But I won’t because, for one, I do want to see variety, and secondly, it’s here and it works! What the? How…?
    It does seem to need a regular diet of premium and ribbon-like tarmac, though. Now that’s troublesome!

  6. longrooffan Avatar

    Well done Sir, well done. A bit off topic: Do you still have snow on the ground up there in June? And the landscape you saw on that cruise is absolutely breathtaking. Makes me want to move there. Wait…I forgot about February! Finally, nice garage in the background of the image of the Mini and that truck. What else is in there?

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      A Corrado, a CB750, a Yamaha Grizzly, a Silverado HD, and…. I think that's it.
      And yes, there's still snow on the ground in Banff. It's a pretty gorgeous part of the world.

  7. LTDScott Avatar

    While I hate to rain on your parade, steady sales of Mini Cooper superchargers and power steering pumps from my company don't exactly instill confidence. And my two friends' reports of reliability on their 2nd gen Coopers isn't much better. So while they may be a blast to drive, I wouldn't buy one.

    1. JeepyJayhawk Avatar

      When have any of us every been concerned with reliability?

      1. P. Frere Avatar
        P. Frere

        I would be a bit concerned since the cost of a supercharger rebuild in a mini cooper s is likely $800-1,000 and the power steering pump is $500+ and both are known weaknesses of the model. I guess you just have to budget for it when you buy the thing. It is odd is that there are such serious failings in a car which feels quite well-made when you inspect/drive one.

        1. faster,Tobias! Avatar

          I've been at a MINI dealer for six years now, and I can honestly say I'm not aware of a problem with the superchargers. in fact, in the time I've been here I've only seen one changed out due to seized bearings. The power steering pump, on the other hand…there is a cooling fan for the pump which is in a very bad location, located on the underside of the engine facing downward. What is happening with the pump is that this fan gets jammed with debris/snow/garbage and then burns out, leading to the pump to overheat and fail. There is an aftermarket slotted plate available that fits over the fan and prevents crap from jamming it.

        2. LTDScott Avatar

          Exactly my point. I can deal with repairs, but these are common problems that are expensive.
          And I already own three unreliable cars, but make sure I have one cheap to operate and reliable daily driver in my fleet.

    2. Deartháir Avatar

      I hear Corollas are fantastically reliable. That's clearly what one should buy, then.

      1. dculberson Avatar

        There's a continuum, I mean how many of us are running around in 60's Lotuses? Not many. If they were even as reliable as a Mini, I bet most of us would have one in the garage! It's all part of the pleasure/pain paradox.

        1. Deartháir Avatar

          I do have a '73 Lotus in a garage over in BC somewhere… is that close enough? 🙂

    3. Sam Avatar

      If I wanted reliability, I would have gotten a Camry.
      I wanted driving fun.
      I got a BMW 3-series with an inline 6 and a manual gearbox. Which has proven to be a very reliable car with proper maintenance.

  8. Target29 Avatar

    Next time you go through Banff, Deartháir, take the 1A just west of Banff. It is a twisty bit of pavement that goes by Johnston Canyon and ends up at Lake Louise. The speed limit is only 70km/h, but if you're on it at the right time you can go quite a bit faster (if the bears and moose cooperate)