Mini Cooper

MINI Cooper S Coupe, Hands On.

Yesterday afternoon I received a phone call from my favorite auto sales associate, Ms. Maryanne Calhoun at Baron MINI in Merriam. The purpose of her call was simple, the new MINI Coupe had arrived at Baron. I didn’t get her call until after they had closed for the night so going to see it, and drive it was going to have to wait until Saturday. That little wait was worth it.

Here is my two cents after spending some time with the Coupe this morning. This isn’t an in depth review, just some observations about the car.

First off the coupe feels small. I know it is built on the same frame as the convertible and it is the same dimensional size except for the height, but those two vertical inches make a difference. I felt almost claustrophobic inside the car. The roof line sits so low that seeing traffic signals was at times painful and I had the seat as low as it would go.

When I first got in the car I thought to myself “You better get used to using your side mirrors instead of shoulder checking because the over the shoulder blind spots are worse than the convertible with the top up.” I was pleasantly surprised that they weren’t. The expanse of glass across the hatch gives ample viewing when you glance over your shoulder, and the side mirrors make up for the rest.

The car drives like any other MINI Cooper S. Loads of pickup, rapid fire shifting, nimble turning, cornering, and weaving through traffic. With that said, the ride is just as stiff as any MINI hardtop. The ride at times felt almost rough. Now this could be in part to the 18 inch wheels and lower profile tires, but in all honesty I think it has to do with the suspension. Personally I like that feel, but I can see where some people would be put off.

The exterior of the Coupe is full on MINI, and is quite a head turner. The “Three Box” design looks great in person, much better than any of the photos I have seen. As always the front of the car is familiar, and has an aggressive look with the driving lamps installed. If I were to get the Coupe I would get the JCW Aero Kit though. The wider front spoiler, side skirts, and other ground effects really do add to the styling of the car. The rear of the car hides a spoiler that pops up automatically at 50 miles per hour. This is a handy reminder that you are speeding on city streets (well I should say it told me to slow my ass down when it popped up. And yes I was going way over 50 without realizing it) The spoiler drops back into the trunk line when your speed drops below 37 mph, and the technology is not just a first for Mini, but for the BMW family as a whole.

As I mentioned earlier that two inches that was shaved off the roof line, and the 13 degree rake to the windscreen is noticeable when you are in the car. Forward visibility is tight, rear visibility is almost non existent, especially when the rear deck wing is up at 50 mph plus. The rest of the interior is pure MINI. Thankfully the center console that houses radio controls has been redesigned, and is much more user friendly. The car still has the large center speedo, with the tach floating above the steering column. The seats were the same comfortable body hugging seats MINI drivers have gotten used to. In the car I was driving they were a combination of cloth and leather.

As for driving performance the car gets up and goes. It has lots of oomph, quick throttle response, and great acceleration. With that there is noticeable torque steer from the front wheel drive assembly. If you are a MINI owner, or anyone that drives a front wheel drive car that has any kind of pick up, you are used to this and it’s not a big deal. I have been driving a rear wheel drive BMW for the last 2 months and I had forgotten what this feels like. It isn’t bad, it’s just different.

So, bottom line… I would buy this car. It was a blast to drive. It looks great in person. It was fun as hell. If any of you want to buy my 128i I will sell it to you. I need to make a profit though so I can put a down payment on the Coupe.

MINI Maps for Facebook.

If you are my Facebook friend, follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you probably know that my MINI was in an accident this weekend when I was rear-ended by a truck on I-35. I am missing my MINI this morning, especially since my rental car is a Nissan Cube. Sorry it’s just not the same driving experience.Anyway, this morning I found a link to the new MINI driving game for Facebook in my inbox and decided to check it out.

Mini France has just launched a Social Networking / Google Maps mash-up “Advergame” called “Mini Maps“.The Facebook application was built using Flash, and basically allows you to customize your MINI, and then challenge friends anywhere in the world to race. Using Google Maps as your race track, the roads are actual satellite images of the city you choose for your backdrop. I loaded the app and took my MINI for a spin around Kansas City this morning.

The application which was developed by the guys at DDB Paris & Unit9 were able to add in a number of features to the game, like weather conditions, day and night scenarios, as well as the ability to unlock new cars and customize the car you are driving. The application is slow to load, and is finicky about the browser you use. But the application itself is pretty slick. This yet another great example where Facebook is blurring the line between advertising, entertainment, and social networking.

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Yesterday I made the trek from Kansas City to Chicago land via the highways and byways of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. As we motored North and East, the cost of gas crept up  slowly topping out at $4.45 a gallon on the South side of Chicago.

The good thing is, my MINI was rocking the mileage at 36+ per gallon the whole trip. I set the cruise at 75, let the car roll and watched the miles go by. While I didn’t get 36 plus the whole time the lowest average my dash board read out gave me was 35.1 which isn’t that bad when you consider how hilly I-80 is in Iowa, and the fact that I was going faster than the gas sipping sweet spot of 65 miles per hour.

Stopped behind a truck on I-80 in Illinois. So much construction hampered my mileage with frequent stops.

Getting 30 Plus.

OK, I’ll admit it… I’m a lead foot. I like to drive fast, I have a fun car with a lot of pick up, and I tend to take advantage of it. It’s hard not to mash the gas pedal down and rack my way through all six gears getting the car up to speed. I like pushing it through winding roads, and I like snaking through busy traffic on the freeway leaving all the left-lane lollygaggers in my wake.

Lately though, as the price of gasoline has edged toward 4 bucks a gallon, (and inspired by Kristy’s Honda Insight 45 plus to the gallon) I have been trying to drive a little bit gentler.

The result of my new driving style has been an increase in fuel economy from about 24.5 mpg to 30 mpg. I know it’s not great, but it is better, and I’d probably get better than that if I drove the freeway to work. Red lights kill you and Kansas City’s lights are all out of sync. Hit one green light, you might hit another but don’t count on it. The best part is, that my gentle driving style during the week means more gas in my tank on Saturday and Sunday. All of this translates to a few hours of fun driving without feeling guilty. Yes that’s right I do not feel guilty about having fun driving my car just for the sake of driving it. And I don’t feel guilty about putting the top down and stomping on the gas.

Even after today’s run about town, I am still getting 30 mpg, and if I push it I might be able to get it close to MINI’s projected mpg of 35, although I know you never get what the EPA says you will. None the less I’m getting better mileage than I was and that is a good thing.

Rocketman! BSUR and PostPanic’s 2 Minute History of MINI.

Some days you stumble across things that ignite your passions on a number of fronts. As a MINI owner, the Rocketman concept gets me going because it is a cool looking MINI concept. As a guy that does a lot of  animation, motion graphics designer, video editing and special effects, this video for the Rocketman gets me going because of the superb use of great animation, motion graphics, green screen shots, post production, editing, and integrated CGI. This product film for the MINI Rocketman was created by BSUR and PostPanic. This two-minute short film tells the history of MINI using both 2D and 3D animation combined with live action footage. which is PostPanic’s specialty.

MINI VS Monster!

I own two MINI Coopers, so I am a little bit into all things MINI. That could be the reason I like this TV spot, but it isn’t.

I love this spot because it is beautifully shot and edited. Because it captures the stereotype of modern Americana as it is perceived by many people around the world. Because it is spot on to the MINI brand, and because this ad is pretty damn fun.

Shot over a 6 day period of time by Robert Jitzmark, this is set to be released as an extended 3D commercial in European theaters at the end of January. No word if a version will make it to the USA, but here’s hoping.

The 2011 MINI Countryman, Hands On.

Since I have the week off, I decided to have a little year-end fun and go over to Baron Mini to test drive the new Countryman. If you are unaware, the Countryman  is the new Mini crossover small SUV. And while it is a full 15 inches longer than a regular Mini, and a full 5 to 7 inches taller, this thing drives like a sports car. It is pure Mini in styling and performance, and I was totally impressed.

So what exactly is the Countryman? Well what it is not is mini, it is the largest of the entire line up of the Mini brand. The thing is though, it’s not really all that large either. When you see it in person you will probably be taken back by its size at first, but in reality, it is about the same size as the Nissan Versa and the Versa still feels like a compact car in many ways. One thing Mini purists can rest easy about is knowing that there aren’t any plans to create larger versions of the Countryman anytime soon.

Despite having a hatch at the rear, it’s not a hatchback in the conventional sense of the word; despite the option of ALL 4 four-wheel drive it’s not really an off-roader. And while its name leans to rural locals, to me the Countryman seems more like a city guy.

So when you think of the Countryman forget normal categorization. Forget it for the same reasons the MINI became such a huge hit in the first place: because it couldn’t be pigeonholed. The Countryman exists to lure people who fancy a MINI but can’t squeeze their lives, family and friends into the back seats or boot; it’s also for current MINI owners who have outgrown their MINI but not the ethos the MINI brand represents. And because it’s that bit bigger than the smaller three-door MINI Clubman, the Countryman thumbs it’s nose and waves a bit of charm in the direction of people who have checked out, say, a VW Jetta wagon, and come away thinking, “technically excellent, but emotionally barren.”

What I loved about seeing the Countryman in person, was the styling. MINI got it right. The car is not really elegant, but it has a solid aggressive stance to it that feels sturdy and rugged. It’s tall and bluff, some of the visual vestiges of the original Mini are gone, but many are hinted at in the final styling of the vehicle. You really need to see it in person to get a sense of what I am talking about.

If you’re already a fan of the MINI’s interior styling then you’ll love the cabin. It’s as stylized and kooky as ever and even if you’re not a fan of the Frisbee-sized central speedometer that encircles a multi-media display screen, it’s an interior you won’t mistake for any other. Running longitudinally through the cabin is an aluminum rail on which sits (in the car I test drove at any rate) a couple of sliding cup holders and a sunglasses case – yes, it’s a gimmick, but one that’ll keep you amused. It is like the “Openometer” on my convertible. 100% useless, 100% fun, 100% MINI brand.

In addition to the “Rail” the Countryman comes standard with the iPhone connection kit that not only allows your phone to talk to the bluetooth connected hands free set up, but in the car I drove they were able to connect my iPhone to the head unit and display movies in the central screen. The connection kit sits in a central docking station between the seats, and communicates with the multi-media display. It gives access to thousands of digital radio stations, lets you Tweet, Facebook, play video, make phone calls and all manner of other digital distractions that might make you the driver all others hate. But the technology is cool, and I am rather jealous that I don’t have it in my MINI.

The Countryman I drove came with a pair of individual back seats that slide fore and aft (it is my understanding you can get a bench seat, but I don’t know why you would after you see this option.); and like all MINI products larger adults are going to grumble about lack of knee-room in the back. And while the boot is handily bigger than the regular MINI’s and has a double-deck floor for extra flexibility, you still won’t get one of those trendy three-wheeler baby strollers in it. Furthermore, in the split seat version, with the rear seats folded down you won’t even get a flat surface.

As for the driving experience the Countryman lives up to the MINI S badge stamped on the side. On I-35 I was constantly having to back off the gas, because I would look over and catch myself doing 85. The car was nimble, quick, and quite agile despite the higher center of gravity and over all size and weight.  Now with that said, The Countryman’s greater height means the body rolls more through corners, blunting the regular hatch’s agility. And while it has plenty of road holding, the steering isn’t the precision instrument you’d get from the standard Cooper S. But this isn’t supposed to handle like the Countryman’s smaller sibling. It is a Crossover, not a sport hatchback.

The steering is nicely weighted and had a crisp feel at turn-in with immediate response from the wheels when you stepped on the gas. The Countryman I drove was really quite engaging – the torque steer and mild amounts of under steer that I’ve come to expect from my Cooper S Convertible are gone. There’s a lot more weight being thrown around and the higher ground clearance gives you a slightly more disconnected feeling from the road, but I adjusted to it rather quickly. The automatic transmission felt good and more fluid compared to the automatic in the 50th anniversary Mayfair Cooper S that is my second driver at home.

Like all other MINI’s, the Countryman has a Sport mode that will tighten up the steering rack, improve throttle response and stiffen the suspension to provide a more engaging feel on the road. But unlike the smaller Cooper S, Sport mode isn’t nearly as crunchy on city streets or broken pavement, (even with the large 18-inch alloys on the one I drove). If I were the owner of a Countryman I  would just leave it in Sport mode all the time – the improved dynamics really make it feel more like a smaller Clubman, which not only makes me happy out on the road, but makes me feel better about the Countryman’s size. It make the car much more lively than I expected.

If I were in the market for a small SUV for city driving and hitting back gravel roads on occasion, I would definitely consider this car. It holds true to the MINI brand and experience, while giving the driver a larger all wheel drive alternative to the original MINI.