New Car Review: 2004 Mini Cooper S MC40
SEE ALSO Mini Buyer's Guide
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
2004 Mini Cooper S MC40
If cars with transversely-mounted engines set on top of the front axles and driving the front wheels are the norm today, such was not the case when the original Mini - the first mass-produced car with that drivetrain layout - was introduced in England in 1959. It was a tiny, boxlike two-door sedan barely over ten feet long, yet a Mini could hold four people and luggage in surprising comfort. Designer Alec Issigonis was deservedly knighted for his design efforts - and over the next forty years, the Mini design theme made its way to the mainstream.
The Mini became more than a car in Great Britain. It was a cultural phenomenon, loved by people from all walks of life and all social classes. Humans being competitive by nature, Minis were soon raced. With the weight of the engine and transmission over the driving wheels, traction was very good. And the innovative suspension design worked as well on the track as on the road. Minis routinely won their class, and challenged considerably larger cars. (Well, almost any car was larger than a Mini...). In the early 1960s, Formula One constructor John Cooper was called upon to improve Mini performance, and the Mini Cooper was born.
The Mini's most famous win was not on a race track. It was at the Monte Carlo Rally, in 1964. One of the progenitors of today's World Rally Championship, the Monte Carlo Rally (or, in French, Rallye Monte Carlo) was - and is, as it continues today - run over regular European roads in the depths of winter. Slippery conditions were and are the norm, with plenty of snow and ice, especially as Hopkirk and co-driver/navigator Henry Liddon started from Minsk, then in the Soviet Union. The Mini's traction, Hopkirk's driving, and Liddon's navigation beat all competitors, even those with considerably more power and factory money behind them. The win was not a fluke; Minis went on to win the next three Monte Carlo Rallys in a row.
There is a special verison of the 2004 Mini Cooper S celebrating that victory. Hopkirk's winning Mini was red, with a white roof. And so all 1000 MC40 Minis are chili red, with a white roof. A copy of the original car's English registration, 33 EJB, is on the hood (bonnet, in British) where is was on the original, and commemorative decals in the shape of the old Rallye Monte Carlo identification plates are found behind the registration on the hood - again, as the original - and on the rear flanks. The vintage rally theme continues with two extra driving lights mounted on the front bumper and magnetic, removable, reproductions of Hopkirk's number, 37, on the doors. Inside, the MC40 features unique red-and-black leather sports seats, a real carbon fiber dash overlay, and a plaque with each car's series number and Paddy Hopkirk's signature. Mechanically, the MC40 is a Cooper S with special seventeen-inch alloy wheels.
I've just finished a week with number 571 of the thousand MC40s, and it's been a most entertaining week. Even with the number plates removed and stashed safely away in the trunk, the car attracted plenty of attention. A Mini is different, and the MC40 is even more so. So anyone seeking anonymity is advised to look elsewhere. Anyone seeking the most fun possible on four wheels is advised to look at a Mini. And if the MC40's exclusivity and rather steep $7000 extra price are not for you, any Mini, Cooper or supercharged Cooper S, combines fun performance and handling with great economy in a way that few other cars do.
APPEARANCE: The old Mini was nicknamed ``the flying shoe box'' for its functional, boxy shape and diminutive size. Today's Mini is of the same mold, although larger - at 12 feet long versus 10 - and more rounded in the front. Cooper S models, including the MC40, have a functional hood scoop to feed the intercooler. The MC40's cosmetics have been noted above.
COMFORT: Despite its small size, a Mini Cooper is a fully-functional car, with more interior space than some much larger sports coupes. The exemplary space efficiency of Issigonis's design carrys over. Six-footers can fit comfortably in the front buckets, and two adults can fit in the rear as well. The MC40 features custom red and black leather sport seats with very good comfort and support in front, and a similar pattern on the rear bench. The instrument panel is covered with genuine carbon fiber, not the imitation found in other small sports cars. And there is that special plaque behind the logo-bedecked shift lever. As in all Minis from 1959 on, an oversize black-on-white speedometer is found in the center of the dash. And as in all new BMW products (Mini being a BMW brand now), an Apple iPod can be connected to a port in the glove box.
SAFETY: The new Mini has a rigid central structure with front and rear crumple zones, front, front side, and side head air bags, and a bevy of contemporary electronic safety devices.
ROADABILITY: A Mini, especially a Cooper S with its ``sport-plus'' suspension tuning, may be the closest thing to a street-legal shifter kart. With its low center of gravity, short wheelbase, wide track, and, especially with the MC40's 205/45 VR17 tires, turn-in is swift, steering is quick, and grip is phenomenal. The ride is exactly what would be expected given the specification - the closest thing to a street-legal shifter kart. If your local highway department actually maintains the roads, it's fine. If not, you'll notice every bump, undulation, tar strip, and expansion joint. Hey, that's called ``road feel,'' and gives important information to an aware driver. Besides, once the road gets interesting, all will be forgiven.
PERFORMANCE: If the current Mini's 1.6-liter engine seems small, the original's was 850 cc, enlarged later to 997, 1071, and ultimately 1275cc. That's motorcycle size today. And where the old Mini's engine was a pushrod overhead valve design, the new one has an overhead camshaft and four valves per cylinder. In S trim it's supercharged and intercooled for a healthy 163 horsepower, developed at 6,000 rpm - considerably more than the best race-tuned 1275, and more civilized. Torque is 155 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm. The old car had a four-speed gearbox; the new S has a 6-speed Getrag box that is a true pleasure to shift. Low ratios in first and second make the most of what power is available below 3000 rpm, so low-speed performance is better than expected. It takes off over 3 grand, and around 5000 there is noticeable a supercharger whine and a serious kick from the blower. Unlike most cars today, the Mini has gobs of character. And unlike British cars of the past, that character is not something left on the garage floor. I spent the majority of my time in the MC40 on the highway, and averaged over 30 mpg.
CONCLUSIONS: Whether honoring Mini's greatest moment with the MC40 or driving a standard Cooper or Cooper S, a Mini is fun on four wheels and a practical and economical car as well.
2004 Mini Cooper S MC40
Base Price $ n/a Price As Tested $ 27,449 Engine Type single overhead cam 16-valve supercharged and intercooled inline 4-cylinder Engine Size 1.6 liters / x cu. in. Horsepower 163 @ 6000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 155 @ 4000 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 97.1 in. / 142.8 (143.9) in Curb Weight 2678 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 16.4 Fuel Capacity 13.2 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline Tires 205/45 VR17 Goodyear Eagle RS-A Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 24 / 33 / 30 0 to 60 mph 6.9 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES MC40 package - includes: chili red body/white roof, Mini Cooper S sport package, 17-inch anthracite cross-spoke wheels with all-season tires, Dynamic Stability Control, driving lights, 3-spoke leather sport steering wheel, front and rear fog lights, xenon headlamps with power washers, chrome side mirrors and exterior details, commemorative ``Rallye Monte Carlo'' decals, GB badge, replica ``33EJB'' number plate decal, magnetic #37 door numbers, carbon fiber dashboard, matte chrome shift knob with MC40 pattern, auxiliary gauges, on-board computer, special red and black leather rallye seats, individually-numbered commemorative plaque with Paddy Hopkirk's signature. approximately $7,000PRICES, SPECS, COMPARAGRAPHS, FUEL USAGE