Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Mini Cooper S

See how the Mini Cooper S performed against its competitors in our Hot Hatch Comparison.

MSRP: $24,000
Price as tested: $31,200 

I admit that I have never driven a Mini before in my life. The car has never really interested me that much because I have always viewed the Mini Cooper as a cutesy chick car. My female neighbor owns one, and my fiancée thinks they are adorable. Of course, my image of the car has been built on the base model Mini Cooper, and not the sporty S model. Seeing as how I was already in the neighborhood, I figured I would just drop in, test it, and see if it could change my perception of the Mini Cooper.

The Good

Most of the Mini Coopers I see on the road are of the base variety. I had never paid much attention to the difference between the base Cooper and the Cooper S. After getting some up close time with a Cooper S, I feel that I can safely say that the Cooper S definitely looks sportier and more aggressive than its more pedestrian counter part. The additional aero bits, the hood scoop, and the larger and fatter wheels and tires actually make the Cooper S look kind of cool. It still possesses that cute, bug eyed look, but it looks a bit more like a male gymnast rather than a cute cheerleader.

The inside of the Cooper S was pretty darn nice. Leather surfaces were soft and supple to the touch and plastic surfaces felt nice and solid without the hard, cheap, industrial feeling one gets from cheap plastic. The JCW (John Cooper Works) package seats were very comfortable and supportive, and the cloth on the seats felt premium and upscale. Dials and switches offered good feed back and felt very solid, and the polished metal trim pieces are well integrated with the rest of the interior. Considering that this car is built by BMW, and costs about $31,000, I had hoped the interior would not disappoint me, and, for the most part, it did not. More on that later.

Mini's 1.6L turbocharged inline-four cylinder offers a competitive amount of horsepower and torque. This tiny little turbocharged unit spits out a very respectable 181 hp and 177 lb./ft. Considering that the Mini Cooper is not a very heavy car, the engine allows the car to accelerate quite briskly. I was actually really surprised at how quickly the Mini was able to accelerate. Adding to my surprise was the Cooper's exhaust note. The sound this car makes is definitely anything but cute.

The Bad

Why BMW? Why do you think this is a good design choice?
My top complaint about this car is, and probably always will be, the dash design. Yes, I understand that BMW is attempting to retain the heritage of Mini by keeping the speedometer right smack in the middle of the dash. However, BMW's insistence on maintaining Mini's trademark heritage does not change the fact that the speedometer positioning makes it incredibly hard to read. With most cars, where the speedometer and tachometer are positioned right behind the steering wheel. All the necessary information you need is in your lower peripheral vision. With the Cooper, in order to properly read the speedometer, the driver actually needs to take their eyes off the road, which is incredibly dangerous. Planting the car's infotainment system right in the middle of the speedometer just makes things worse by creating a giant distraction when you are trying to figure out how fast you are going. Yes, heritage is important, but if it is a poor design choice, heritage should not supersede safety, especially when it pertains to something that could potentially get someone killed.  At the very least, it seems BMW should have offered something else, such as a heads-up display or digital speedometer in the tachometer, that it is readable in the driver's peripheral vision.

The Mini's handling was decent, largely thanks to its short wheel base, but it was much rougher than I had expected. While BMW was able to sort out the chassis relatively well, as evidenced by the car's relatively minimal body roll, I could not shake this unsettled feeling when going into a corner. There is something about the way this car handles that makes me feel uneasy. I would have to assume it is in big part due to the skinny wheels and tires. The steering feel really did not help either. With sport mode active, the Cooper S' steering wheel feels well weighted at speed, but it still fails to provide clear feedback on the road. This seems to be an inherent problem with BMW's electric power steering racks. Sure, it is very sharp and precise, but all that does not really matter when I cannot get a feel for what the wheels are doing.

The Cooper S transmission seems to suffer the same problems as the 2013 BMW 328i my brother and I test drove a few months back. The six-speed manual in the Cooper S has a very cheap and plastic feel to it while pushing it through the gates. It is, admittedly, a little better than the unit in the 328i, but not by much. The large knob also makes it incredibly uncomfortable and awkward to use The clutch, while having a fairly short travel distance, is ridiculously light. It felt more like I was stepping on a pillow instead of a clutch pedal. 

Being a hatchback carries certain expectations of usable cargo space. Unfortunately, this is pretty far from the reality with the Mini. With its rear seats folded down, the Cooper S offers a relatively paltry 24 cu.ft. of space. Fold the seats up, and you are looking at a pathetic (for a hatchback) 5.7 cu.ft. My S2000 with its itty bitty trunk has almost as much cargo capacity as the Mini with its seats up. 

Finally, there is the price tag on this thing. A large part of the obscenely high price tag has to do with the fact that no one wants to buy a manual transmission car anymore. When someone does, the dealer is going to make sure they make as much money off the car as possible by tacking on every last option they can squeeze into the car. All these options, unfortunately, do not enhance the driving experience of this car at all. In fact, I feel many of the useless options actually take away from the enjoyment of this car. For example, the $250 chrome trimmed interior turns what would have been a very classy and upscale interior into a tacky mess, the $250 anthracite colored headliner goes completely unnoticed, and BMW wants to charge you $100 for some racing stripes.      


Has driving the Mini Cooper S changed my opinion of the Cooper from cutesy, bugged eyed, chick car? Yes. Would I ever buy one? No. There are just far too many compromises with this car that make it difficult to recommend. The engine is actually pretty great, but that does not make up for the iffy transmission and the uneasy way the car handles. It really is not practical at all with its paltry cargo space and somewhat crowded interion. And in order to get one the way I would want it, I would be paying an arm and a leg for it. Hardcore Mini fans will still flock to this car, regardless of what I say, but I personally cannot recommend this car to anyone looking for a sporty hatchback. There are simply better values on the market today.


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