Sunday, December 17, 2006

R you ready for Something new?

Well, I did indeed get a chance to drive the upcoming R56 Cooper S hardtop (TURBO!!) a little bit during my lunch break last Friday (thanks for the offer, DR).

It was a preproduction R56 Cooper S in British Racing Green with a wood and panther black interior. One of my coworkers said it was a step up in appearance and another said they didn't really like the wood. I think I'm on the fence with this one. I'm holding the opinion that the Cooper was a bit "hot rod"-ish with the painted interior surfaces but I generally like swathing the interior with wood and leather though I like the look of metal as trim more.

More on the the interior... it is SOO much better than the first gen interior just from a tactile and aesthetic point. It also feels less cramped and higher quality. They really ran with the design cues, and while the center stack speedo is really odd, it looks pretty decent. Satnav will move the speedo to a more traditional place with the rev counter on the steering.

All the controls and toggles were pretty similar to the old MINI so nothing really to report there. My car had the optional "keyless" access and start so you don't have to take the keys out of your pocket unlock or start the car. It's a pretty pricey option so I don't think most people will take it unless they're just going whole hog on options regardless of cost.

The car I drove had a "dual" sunroof with the front sunroof being tilt and sliding, rear was tilt only. Strange thing is that there is no full headliner on the sunshades for the roof, just a mesh to block to sunlight.

Anyways, onto the driver's portion of my "review." Lets start with the gearbox and gearing. Again, the tranny is nice and slick. Gearbox was butter smooth just like the previous 6 speed. The MAJOR difference between the new S and the outgoing is that the new trans is definitely geared to take advantage of the new turbo motor. The gearing is MUCH MUCH taller and you can definitely put down power with less fuss. I found that unlike the old S, you don't need to shift near as much and the ratios are spaced quite a bit further apart from a feel standpoint. I think 3-5 should be a tad closer together with 6th being a bit taller for higher speed highway cruise.

Onto the driver controls. The clutch... BETTER... PERIOD. The height is reduced and the dead pedal is comfortable and finally usable! Engagement still isn't quite as positive as I'd like but I do like a heavier pedal that others with weaker calves might not appreciate.

The steering wheel... My colleague mentioned that the steering wheel placement feels a tad off center from the seat... IT WAS!! That kind of annoyed me that the wheel wasn't directly dead center in front of my seat. Maybe because I didn't have the sport seats in the car but it was just ever so slightly off and it didn't quite feel right as I tried to push the car. But the drive by wire system seemed a tad odd with the weight of the wheel being about right. The lack of connection to the linkage was fairly evident though.

DSC and Sport mode did make a difference in the car. Unlike with the old Cooper S, the DSC isn't crappily intrusive. With Sport mode engaged, the turbo was allowed to spike a bit and give that nice shot of torque and DSC tended to manage it without killing too much fun. I turned it off though since I was well capable of push the car much faster with it off. I didn't really get a chance to test to see if the car had an LSD, but it felt open. Wheel hop was still present though not too severe and torque steer was extremely minimal. The throttle though... OMG, I STILL HATE ELECTRONIC THROTTLE!! The throttle program is pretty much the typical with low rpm lag and an abrupt throttle closing at redline. Throttle lag under heel-toe braking makes for uncrisp and jerky downshifts. I think it may be that it doesn't like blips with the clutch in and brake on. I did recall hearing that some manufacturers limit the max throttle opening when braking. Hopefully that will be addressed with production or with the Cooper Works / open source flash since left-foot braking is a great tool when driving a turbocharged car at the limit.

Well, we move on to the WHOA! pedal. And it definitely is a WHOA pedal now instead of a MUSH pedal. The brakes feel much improved in terms of communication, firmness, bite. No more need to stomp the living daylights out of the pedal to stop the car quickly. My Scoobie should have at least this level of braking feel, secure and confident stopping power properly engineered for the weight and power of the vehicle.

Handling? Thumbs up on both. Handling is terribly and wondrously improved. Suspension stroke to take on bumps! Even more chassis stiffness and a more planted compliant ride without sacrificing that MINI feel. And the car's tires are so much better suited to the task. You can now put power down and have some tractability through sweepers. The powerband is much wider now thanks to the turbocharged engine and it definitely outmatches the old S with better low range torque and high RPM power.

With all the improvements on the inside and a few nice touches to the instantly classic exterior thrown in a vastly improved driving experience without boats of stressful noise like the R53 Cooper S convertible I drove previous. If you want this kind of small car, don't hesitate to strongly consider it. Heck, it even gets good mileage when you're whomping on it.

Somehow I don't think the aftermarket and user community will be able to resist very long before they take advantage of the fact that this car is turbocharged. Boost controllers, downpipes, and bigger turbines oh my! I wonder if the OpenECU community can crack a BMW engine computer and reprogram that crap throttle.


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