Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
It's painted Mellow Yellow, but our 2007 Mini Cooper S is surprisingly green. We're talking tailpipe green, and although the Mini is no Prius, it's close, according to the EPA.
A quick check of the agency's greenhouse-gas emissions meter shows the Mini just a few shades away from its Prius gas-electric counterpart hybrid. It emits an estimated 5.8 tons per year, versus the 3.4 tons generated by the Prius. In comparison, a four-cylinder Honda Accord emits 6.4 tons.
We find this comforting and you should, too. You see, without cleaner gasoline-powered vehicles, we stand a good chance of getting stuck driving hybrids. Ever driven a Prius? At full throttle it sounds like your microwave cooking a hot dog, while its driving dynamics deliver an equivalent level of excitement.
That's not our idea of a good time and apparently it's not Mini's either. This Cooper S might be lighter, safer and more efficient than before, but it's also faster, sounds better and corners quicker than its predecessor.
Green Is Good Much of this Mini's appeal is generated under the hood. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is no bigger in displacement than before, yet it's packed with new technology. The Cooper S swaps its former belt-drive supercharger for a more efficient exhaust-driven turbocharger. Direct fuel injection ensures precise combustion and BMW's Valvetronic valve-timing system controls the airflow.
There's an extra 4 horsepower for a total of 172 hp, and the curve peaks at 5,500 rpm instead of 6,000. Torque is up to 177 pound-feet at just 1,600 rpm and there's an overboost feature at full throttle that delivers up to 192 lb-ft in short bursts.
Power is still routed to the front wheels through a standard six-speed manual transmission, but you can opt for a six-speed automatic. The manual gearbox is fortified with double-cone synchros in 1st and 2nd gear, although we don't notice much of a difference in shift quality. The stick still feels big and heavy, with long throws from gear to gear.
We didn't expect to feel the modest gains in power, but instead the car drives as if it's been transformed. Forget the supercharger whine, because it's been replaced by the smooth swoosh of the twin-scroll turbocharger. If there's turbo lag, we aren't feeling it. There's a full head of steam by 2,000 rpm and the engine pulls steadily right up to the 6,500-rpm redline.
Track tests prove it's not all in our heads. The Mini's 6.5-second acceleration to 60 mph is nearly a full second quicker than that of the last Cooper S we tested, while the car runs through the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 92.9 mph, making it both quicker and faster than before. Credit goes both to the more powerful engine and the fanatical engineers who shaved 70 pounds off the previous car's 2,660-pound curb weight.
Clean Handling Yet another nod to efficiency is the Mini's new electric power steering. It's not only lighter than a conventional hydraulic setup, but it also ensures there's no engine-driven pump to bleed away the horsepower of the tiny four-cylinder. Mini also likes to point out that the speed-sensitive assist can be programmed for different driving situations.
We would have liked to have programmed in a little more road feel, as the new system is less direct than before. It's still lightning quick and tracks well on the highway, but it's no longer the perfect link between your hands and the tires. Hitting the "Sport" button is supposed to make the steering effort heavier, but we can't feel even the slightest bit of difference.
It's no fault of the suspension, as the design is largely a carry-over from the previous model. MacPherson struts control the front, while the rear axle gets new aluminum control arms that reduce unsprung weight by 13 pounds. Our test car's Sport appearance package includes 205/45R17 Dunlop Sport SP tires to replace the standard 195/55R16s. Stability control and xenon headlights are also included in the package.
Ride quality is less of an issue with the 17-inch run-flat tires than it was before. The new Mini rarely feels as if the suspension is bottoming out and there are fewer of the sharp impacts that made the old car miserable with the big tires. Just as before, body roll is minimal, and the Mini won't run out of grip unless you're really on it through a tight corner. If you get it to slide, be prepared to rein it in quickly as this Mini will rotate the rear end abruptly if the stability control system has been switched off.
It was with the electronic controls shut down that the new Mini recorded its fastest run through the slalom, with a pass at 68.4 mph. That's 4 mph faster than the last Cooper S we tested and a tenth of a second quicker than our best run in the latest Porsche 911 Turbo. That's good company.
The Mini's brakes turned in an equally stunning performance, with a best stop from 60 mph of 109 feet. This is supercar territory yet again. The brakes stay strong after repeated stops, although they have a lot of initial bite, so a light foot is required around town if you're carrying passengers.
It's Not All in the Details With so much improvement to the Mini's driving dynamics, the interior comes as a letdown. It's still surprisingly spacious inside and the overall design is more original than anything you'll find for $20,000, but the detailing leaves us cold.
The giant central speedometer isn't growing on us, but unfortunately it's just growing. It now incorporates the radio readout and the fuel gauge in addition to speedometer numerals that are a half-inch tall. Order the navigation system and it gets tucked inside the dial, too. Mini tells us that by combining so many gauges into one unit, the center stack has been slimmed down to increase legroom. This might be true, but it's not particularly noticeable.
Below the big speedo is a mix of wheels, dials and knobs that are neither good-looking nor particularly easy to use. Instead of a simple ignition switch, the Mini now uses an odd key fob that plugs directly into the dash. After that, you press a button to fire it up. It's novel once, but after that, it's just one step too many.
Just Cruising Once you're situated, started up and moving, the Mini becomes likable again. Other than some moderate road noise from the larger tires, the cabin is relatively quiet for a compact coupe.
You can ignore the big speedometer, as there's a digital readout in the middle of the tachometer and outward visibility remains excellent. The rim of the optional leather-covered steering wheel feels sufficiently thick. Although the seats take some time to adjust to just the right position, they're comfortable given the minimal padding.
The engine that delivers so much punch during hard driving is just as enjoyable on the highway. Even in 6th gear, rolling into the throttle generates a smooth swell of acceleration that no other engine of its size can match.
The Payoff A week of thrashing this Mini is over and we've racked up a good thousand miles, most of them hard miles. There's no doubt this Mini is a better driver than before, but it's time to find out if it's really a green machine, too. According to the EPA, the Mini Cooper S should make 29 mpg city/36 mpg highway. We tallied our own fuel-economy records and got a combined 32.7 mpg for the week.
With a sticker price of $23,650, our Mini Cooper S is priced right there with its traditional sporting competition, not to mention the Toyota Prius hybrid. But when it comes to delivering performance and a little environmental street cred, the Mini Cooper S is streets ahead, the future of driving fast.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
How does it sound: C- The sound quality is average at best. The lows are not low enough and lack any genuine punch. On tracks where there's prominent bass, it sounds muddy and poorly defined, plus the door panels buzz in protest. Highs and mids are equally ill-defined and do not add any useful detail to the music. Highs frequently turn to squeaking, while acoustic music sounds especially flat and one-dimensional. Even pop music loses some of its sparkle.
How does it work: B Mini's new dash arrangement is a big improvement in terms of functionality. The buttons are easier to use and are more logically laid out. BMW's influence is more than obvious, as the graphics and the audio system symbols are exact duplicates of those used in many BMWs.
The new arrangement also has a little more flair than that of the previous car. The Mini's winged logo is incorporated into the center stack by climate control buttons that are cleverly grouped. The only problem with this setup is that these climate controls separate the majority of the audio buttons from the volume knob.
Placed low in the center stack, the round volume knob is out of place. The round menu selector knob is where the volume adjustment should be, so we cranked the wrong knob many times. Not cool.
Special features: The Mini's base audio system is simply adequate. Still, there are a few notable options. Audiophiles will want the hi-fi system that boasts 10 Harman Kardon speakers and 230 watts of power. There's also an audio package that includes HD radio and Sirius Satellite Radio with a lifetime subscription — and the subscription stays with the car even when you sell it. Then again, at $1,400 for the package, it's not exactly free.
The best deal is the upgraded hi-fi system, which is only $550.
Conclusion: If music is an integral part of your daily commute or weekend cruise, skip the base stereo and opt for the upgraded package and an iPod connection. — Brian Moody
Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says: I'll admit it, from the outside I can't tell the new new Mini from the old new Mini. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, either. Let's face it. If BMW had changed the Mini's styling too dramatically, it would no longer be a Mini. Plus, changing the looks of a car whose success is based solely on its styling and proportions would be stupid. And that would be a bad thing.
The good news is that from behind the wheel the difference is dramatic as far as engine performance is concerned. Open the throttle in the new car and there's a satisfying intake growl to go along with the noticeable increase in thrust. The gear lash and belt whine of the supercharged engine are gone, replaced by the whoosh of a turbo and better drivability that go with it.
Turbo power delivery is better suited to the Mini's snappy chassis and the engine is far more willing to play at high rpm. Our testing tells the same story. We cut a full second off the previous Cooper S's 0-60-mph time and eight-tenths of a second from its quarter-mile sprint. Combine this with the car's high-strung handling and this is a more involving Mini — even if it does look the same.
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