A Slow Jam (Mini Cooper S) / by Andrew Fails

Is it better for a car to be fast, or be fun?  

My last car, a Subaru Impreza WRX was unbelievably capable.  The rate at which it could devour broken back roads was simply mind-boggling.  But with the immense abilities of the car came an unexpected downside: boredom.  The car required you to push it SO HARD to get any excitement out of it. On dry pavement, I simply was not going to exceed the limits of the car without doing something fairly stupid.

That seems like a good thing, right?  Capable, predictable, and quick?  What more could you want? Easy. Amusement. What is the most exciting part of a drive? When you're right on that limit of control.  That's why everyone likes burnouts and drifting: that feeling that if it works, it's because YOU made it happen.  That heart-in-the-throat sensation of hoping you pull it off.

The Mini Cooper S has that in spades. Yes, the car is still very capable, but it requires a bit more work. The combination of a short wheelbase, stiff suspension, and narrow tires mean that the car is incredibly nimble. Not to be a cliche, but it really does feel like a go kart. It has a directness to the steering that makes any shortcomings just meaningless. If you catch a bump mid-corner, the Mini will try to hop to the side. So if you're going to drive quickly, you had better have your head on straight.

For a little bit of comparison, a Prius on 17" wheels has wider tires than the Cooper S.  A Prius is packing wider rubber under it, just process that.  My Mini is on 205 section tires, whereas a Toyota Prius of the same year is on 215s. Why not go wider? Simple choice, right? Wider tire equals more lateral grip, which means higher cornering speeds, better traction for acceleration, and better traction for braking.  But it would also make it less "darty".  It is incredibly easy to drive the Mini right on the limit of it's abilities, without having to resort to resort to triple digit speeds. Just a slight modulation of the throttle will drastically alter your line in a corner. As my father once passed down to me, "Think about lifting your right toe." That fraction of a difference in pressure will cause the Cooper S's nose to tuck in, and will pull you smooth through the bend, taming the understeer.  Of course, you can sharply lift your foot off the gas to provoke big slides.  Which is hilarious, but not necessarily fast.  But that just proves my point.  The difference between sliding wide, keeping a tidy line, or hanging the tail out in a raucous skid is just a matter of throttle pressure.

Speaking of throttle, we do have to discuss the pachyderm in the hallway: power. The Cooper S has a 1.6L engine.  That's 1600 cubic centimeters. I've ridden motorcycles with larger engines.  Granted, there is a small turbo to help it along. But still, the question: is it fast? Well...it's peppy. Or zippy. Or energetic. Or eager. Or any other euphemism that means quick, but not particularly fast. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. That just means that on a back road, you can go full-throttle almost the entire time. The Mini is a "momentum" car. It doesn't have a ton of torque, so it forces you to drive harder. Can you take a tighter line through that chicane to save en extra few miles per hour? Can you perfect your heel-toe downshifts to make sure you're high enough in the powerband to pull out of the hairpin?

At the end of the day, there is no "perfect" car. The best one is the one that meets your needs, and keeps a smile on your face.  The Mini Cooper S makes me laugh on a regular basis, whether it be from carving up rural highways, or pulling three gear long rolling burnouts in the rain. It's a car that allows you to drive like a total loon, without making your neighbors hate you. That, plus it hauls my camera gear, and will take me and the family to the amusement park. Can't beat that.