So, Just What Makes the New MINI Different?

As I drive a MINI Cooper around, people seem to know that there is something, well, different, about the car. Something makes them smile when they look at the car. What is that quality?

First, The car has attitude. While not really retro, the car draws on and “surfs” its heritage. Though it is a thoroughly modern car, it features what Chief Designer Frank Stephenson calls “design cues” from the original Minis. At first glance, the car offers the comfort and familiarity of the smooth, rounded curves from the past which make it look like a big toy, so kids naturally love it. But the more you look, the more it is apparent that this is a high-tech design. The external fit and finish are superb. The styling is focused, with repeated motifs working together to create a unified look. Rather than being generated on a CAD modeling program, this car was modeled the old-fashioned way, full-size, in clay. One look inside lets you know you are in another world. Interestingly, MINI has provided a wide range of options to customize both the MINI Cooper and the Cooper S, but in a typically modest, British way, have managed to organize them in such a way that when installed, even the most luxurious items aren't ostentatious. There is, in fact, no standard MINI configuration because about 96% of MINI Cooper S models and 70% of MINI Coopers are custom-ordered and configured by their owners and the rest are custom spec'd by the dealers. Out of a field of 100,000 new MINIs, it is projected that only five will be exactly alike.

While at first nod it might look like just another hatchback, it quickly begins yielding up clues that it isn’t an econo-box. Hooded front lights, in the style of the Jaguar XKE, add a real panache to the front end. The car leans forward with a wide, aggressive stance. While the MINI’s hood is smooth and aerodynamic, the Cooper S adds a functional hood scoop and a boxier, more aggressive profile to the nose. The interior is handsomely appointed from the base model up, and only optional sport or leather seats distinguish the custom from stock. In fact, there are options and finishes available for the base model which can't be had in the Cooper S, making it desirable in its own right. All levels are equipped with A/C, a thoroughly adequate four-speaker CD/FM/AM stereo, power windows and power locks. Options include a dual-pane sunroof, custom-designed Harman Kardon audiophile sound system, satellite navigation, automatic windshield wipers, Xenon headlights with power washers, and automatic climate control. The MINI plant in Oxford, UK is designed with the fact in mind that that ninety-percent of these cars are custom-ordered. There is no standard MINI configuration. Given the range of available options, you can create what the British call a “kitted-out” or customized car, directly from the factory. Even when the owners of man of these cars get together for a rally, it is evident that there aren’t any duplicate cars in the bunch.

Second, this is a driver’s car, built to provide the driver a fun driving experience. In test after test, the MINI Cooper S has compared favorably with the Porsche 911 and the Lotus Elise, cars costing twice to ten times what the MINI does. The steering is very responsive and tight, taking only two-and-a-half turns, lock-to-lock. It is power-assisted with a electro-hydraulic power system driven by an electric pump which doesn’t draw down engine RPMs while it works. The undercart of this car places the wheels at the far corners of the car, providing a very flat, stable platform. The suspension packages available offer three levels of stiffness beginning with a smoother ride and topping out with the “Sports Suspension Plus” package which keeps the car flat even in strong turns, at the cost of transmitting more pot-hole jounce to the driver. The brakes rate highly in all tests I’ve seen and are smooth and powerful, but gentle. The two engines available in the USA provide either a quick naturally-aspirated power curve (mid-to-top heavy) or a very smooth supercharged power curve (smooth from low-mid to top). It all adds up to a ride which naturally encourages the driver to adopt a more sporty, more spunky driving style.

Click for X-Ray Vision.

Third, the car has a high-tech heart in its “body computer”. The computer controls everything from the lights to the engine. The accelerator pedal is actually a digital encoder which communicates the intentions of the driver to the computer. Then, much like the system controlling the F-16 Falcon aircraft, using an encoder on the steering wheel and other sensors, the computer matches driving goals to engine performance and braking. This allows addition of sophisticated handling packages which also monitor the wheel turn rates, speed, rate of turn, degree of steering, and with the optional Directional Stability Control (DSC), yaw direction. The computer correlates the information and controls individual brakes and the engine to manage over-steer, under-steer, and wheel-slip conditions. Because the computer also controls the lights, windows, locks, and optional alarm, powerful entry and exit modes can be programmed, allowing you to remotely salvo combinations of actions with the touch of the remote key.

It all adds up to car with attitude, handling, performance, quality, luxury, and features, way beyond its size or cost. The result is a car which people of all stripes buy because they like it, providing something of a great equalizer, along the lines of the original Volkswagen Beetle.

Where the hamsters work: Pictures of the MINI Cooper S engine

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