2,500 Kilometers in a MINI Cooper S
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.
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.