2006 Mini Cooper S Review


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2006 Mini Cooper S
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2006 Mini Cooper S

Four years after its debut, driving a Mini Cooper is still just about the most fun to be had on four wheels. That may be the reason the Mini has succeeded where others have failed. The concept of a premium small car, one that is neither equipped in a bare-bones fashion nor sold at a rock-bottom price as a economy-first commute module, was virtually unknown, in the U.S. at least, until the Mini. There was no logical reason the Mini should have succeeded in the American marketplace, but succeed it did.

Emotion trumps logic. Because there is no way to keep from smiling and enjoying life while driving a Mini. That's the result of a combination of both the driving experience and the Mini's unique style. It's thoroughly modern in design and execution, although it does leverage a certain amount of ever-popular 1960s nostalgia - which is its right, as the original Mini was perhaps the most important car ever to be built in England, and one of the most influential vehicles ever built. It was the first car to successfully combine a transverse engine and front-wheel drive, and so is the spiritual ancestor of the majority of cars made today.

Because of its diminutive size - all of 10 feet long - and lack of power, the original Mini didn't make much of an impression in the US. At home in the UK, it was different. The Mini was a phenomenon that transcended social classes. Commoners bought them, royalty bought them, celebrities and rock stars bought them, and the Mini was an integral part of the English landscape in the early 1960s.

Performance sold then as now, and Formula One constructor John Cooper was retained to build high-performance Minis. The Mini Cooper was born, first with a 997cc, 55-horsepower engine, and eventually with 1275ccs and 76 horsepower. With excellent handling and about 1400 pounds to pull, the Mini Cooper S 1275 could show its heels to many a larger and allegedly faster car, including some two-seat sports cars.

The original Mini stayed in production from 1959 to 2000, although the Cooper was discontinued by 1971. The second generation was in development when BMW bought parent company Rover Group in the mid-1990s, and a commitment to the car from BMW ensured that the second-generation Mini made it to production. Since its debut in 2002, changes to the current Mini have been, well, minimal. Mini is now the brand name, with Cooper being the model. The regular Mini Cooper has a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 115-horsepower; the Cooper S adds a supercharger and intercooler to extract 168 horses from that same displacement. Convertible models of both debuted in 2005.

A modern Mini is larger and more luxurious than an original, but it still has its predecessor's cheeky attitude. In any trim, a Mini is considerably more upscale in appointment than one from the 1960s. Windows are power-operated, not of the manual sliding variety. The seats and interior trim look suspiciously similar to BMW parts, not a bad deal at all. It may be small and economical, but a Mini in any form is far above a basic econobox in specification, comfort, and performance. I thoroughly enjoyed my week with the Cooper S. I also had the chance to drive it on a local race track a couple of weeks beforehand, and it got my vote for the most fun car of the day. Not the fastest, just the most fun. The Cooper S is balanced, with great acceleration and braking, fine cornering, very good comfort, and more interior than expected from its size.

APPEARANCE: There are no major changes to the Mini's looks for 2006. It's still a small two-box vehicle very much in the mold of the original if larger at a whole 12 feet in length. There is considerably more style than on the old ``flying shoebox,'' with sculpted fenders and hood, and rounded body contours, but the wheels are still as far to the corners as possible. Of course, the modern 16- or 17-inch wheels, with low-profile performance tires, are a little larger than the ten-inch wheels and skinny tires on an early-`60s Mini, but even with the Cooper S's flat air-dam front bumper fascia and letterbox hood scoop for the supercharger intake, a Mini is not an intimidating vehicle.

COMFORT: No laws of physics were broken in its design and construction. The Mini is not really larger inside than out, it's merely one of the most space-efficient cars made today. True to the original in concept, the larger box holds passengers and cargo, with the smaller box in front for the drivetrain. There is plenty of space in the front buckets for two six foot-plus adults, with two smaller people in the rear. Rear access is improved by a spring-loaded front passenger seat that easily moves forward when someone wants to get into the rear seat, and automatically returns to position afterwards. The interior is highly-styled, with an interesting oval motif to the interiors of the doors, and all three mirrors. But fashion does not override function. The only nod to nostalgia is the large white-faced speedometer mounted in the center of the dashboard, where it was in the original Mini. Seat comfort is up to BMW's high levels, and visibility is excellent. The available full-length dual-pane panoramic sunroof allows excellent top visibility for all occupants, and has both smoked glass and a shade to protect from excessive sunlight.

SAFETY: Minis have maxi safety features, starting with a strong unibody structure with a safety cell around the passenger compartment and front and rear crumple zones. Dual front, front side, and side head curtain airbags are standard, as are four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Dynamic stability control is available.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The old Mini's reputation was built on handling abilities far above its station, and the new one is even better. It's short and wide, with a low center of gravity, and a firm tuning to its fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension. Steering effort is near-perfect, and turn-in response is immediate. Grip from the tires, the optional 205/45 VR17s on my test car, is excellent, and is improved by the optional, highly-recommended, limited-slip differential, which sends torque to the driving wheel that can best use it. If not the best-handling front-wheel drive car ever made, the Mini is certainly among the top few. Although it's at home at speed on the track, it's just as much fun to drive at legal speeds in the everyday world, and its small size makes city maneuvering and parking a snap.

PERFORMANCE: Small size can make a vehicle seem faster than it really is, but in the Cooper S's case there is no illusion. It's quick, with a 0-60 time of 6.87 seconds, and it's fast, with a top speed of over 130 mph. Fuel economy is very reasonable, with EPA ratings of 25 city, 32 highway. I got 25 overall, with my foot to the floor as much as possible, and I've gotten 30 in highway driving in the last S I had. The modern Cooper's fuel-injected, twin-cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine would have been exotic technology in the day of the original's 8-valve pushrod unit with SU carburetors, and the S gets a power boost to 168 horsepower (at 6000 rpm) and 162 lb-ft of torque (at 4000 rpm) from a mechanically-driven supercharger. It gets to the front wheels with a minimum of fuss by way of a six-speed gearbox with excellent, precise linkage and equal-length halfshafts, to banish torque steer. There is decent low-end power, but the engine likes to rev, and higher in the rev range the supercharger does its best, with a noticeable whine and solid kick. A Cooper S is the closest thing to a street-legal shifter kart going.

CONCLUSIONS: Banish boring driving with a Mini Cooper S.

SPECIFICATIONS
2006 Mini Cooper S

Base Price			$ 20,600
Price As Tested			$ 27,950
Engine Type			dual overhead cam, 16-valve inline
				        4-cylinder
Engine Size			1.6 liters / 97 cu. in.
Horsepower			168 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 			162 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission			6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		97.1 in. / 143.9 in.
Curb Weight			2679 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		15.9
Fuel Capacity			13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement 	        91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				205/45 VR17 Dunlop Sport 9000 (opt)

Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				    independent multilink
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		25 / 32 / 25
0 to 60 mph				6.8  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Royal Gray Metallic paint			$   450
English Panther black leather interior		$ 1,700
Combo #4 Convenience - includes:
  universal garage door opener, autodimming
  rearview mirror, rain sensor and auto
  headlights					$   400
Combo #1 Premium - includes:
  multi-function steering wheel with cruise,
  dual-pane panoramic sunroof, automatic
  air conditioning, on-board computer		$ 1,400
Combo #2 Sport - includes:
  Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), front
  foglamps, 17-inch alloy wheels with
  performance run-flat tires, bonnet stripes,
  Xenon headlamps with washers			$ 1,400
Limited-slip differential			$   500
Interior surface park lane			$   200
Center armrest					$   200
Harmon Kardon sound system			$   550
Destination charge				$   550

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