Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hangin with Mr. CooperS

And on this freakishly warm yet rainy December day, I took a red 2006 Cooper S convertible with a 6 speed manual for a spin. Yup, that's right... a convertible in the rain in December. Go figure.

Lets start with my first impressions after getting into the car. I immediately thought... hmm, pretty funky looking interior, it looks alright...

MAN! this seat is HIGH! Whoever was driving the knowledge car last must either be really short or like feeling disconnected from the road. So as a proceeded to adjust the seats, I obviously had to pull on various handles and turn a few knobs. Hmm, these handles don't feel that sturdy... they're "toyish"-ly cheap feeling. The seat itself as a standard Cooper S leather seat with heating which was pretty darn comfy for a BMW seat while still being relatively supportive.

Second thing I noticed other than the cheap feel of the interior controls, the noise! Maybe it was because I only drove relatively quiet cars like my Scoobie, the 7, a Jetta, a Camry... but the engine tone was pretty loud in comparison. It sounded decent, but the car seemed very much like all sound and fury signifying nothing. 7 seconds is not exactly head-snapping acceleration when even a land yacht (750Li) is out-accelerating you.

After I dropped the seat down and dropped the ebrake, I went to the gearshift and the clutch pedal. Oh the WONDERFULLY placed clutch pedal with ZERO space between the dead pedal and the VERY high clutch pedal. Pedal effort was pretty much par for the course, but the height... HIGH. I know I like sitting close to the steering wheel, but it just felt flat uncomfortable trying to squeeze my size 10 feet around high pedal onto the tiny dead pedal to rest. The clutch engaged fairly high but I'm not sure if that was typical or from abuse by folks that don't drive stick properly.

The gearbox was pretty friggin smooth. Quick and responsive upshifts and downshifts with heel-toe done really easily. I noticed a bit of crunch between the 1-2 which backed up my theory about people not driving it right. The gear ratio on the car was very tight for gears 1-5 so it was pretty easy to keep the car in the powerband. Also the gearing seemed VERY short probably to maximize the 3-5k RPM range where the engine seemed to have the best response.

The big problem was with keeping a front wheel drive with short gearing, a supercharger, overly skinny tires, and a rainy surface, planted to the ground so it can put power down. Umm... it couldn't and the DCS CONSTANTLY kicked in and pulled back throttle and slammed on brakes pretty severely. I turned the DSC off and the car was actually driveable in my hands with some judicious throttle control. Wheel hop and torque steer were constantly there but manageable since I have driven much more powerful FWD cars before.

And finally to the item that supposedly sets the Cooper apart from other cars. Handling. No real complaints here. Because of the arrangement of the wheels at each corner of the car, it did seem to feel toss-able and the softtop didn't take too much away from that. I noticed the lack of suspension travel and crap tires pretty quick. Also because of the height of the seats, it never quite felt that fast. But the stiffness of the chassis was totally present. Steering was clear and precise... but it did have a tendency for understeer like most FWD cars. Trailbraking helped a ton, but I could feel the crappiness of the stock tire setup holding the car's potential back by a LARGE amount. Brakes had good feel as well, though the pedal was a tad soft.

So, verdict? Umm, yet another NO. It's a MINI Cooper... and the R53 convertible feels too cheap for what you're paying (~$28k). Compared to the Miata with folding hardtop and other alternative small convertibles, there's just not even a question. Get something else for the NY metro area whether it's for top-down summer fun or year-round daily driver with a folding top. BMW makes a nicer convertible for just a bit more money and other companies make more focused cars that are cheaper, including MINI itself. I guess if you're a sucker for the styling...

My colleague offered me a go at the new 2007 Cooper S hardtop with the new turbo motor. I'm definitely going to hit him up and show him what it can do if I get the chance. I think his dog's not doing so well, so I might not see him for a bit... stay tuned.


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