2011 Mini Cooper S : On The Road
My customary reaction to the winter months has been fairly consistent for the last decade or so — mutter (I gave up on grinning long ago) and bear it.
My customary reaction to winter driving has been equally consistent. As one who reviews vehicles for a living, I would load up with every all-wheel-drive/four-wheel-drive car, crossover, sport-ute or truck I could get my hands on. Pragmatically, it seemed like the best defence against the slippy-slide season.
So I can’t explain the impulse that has me in a Mini Cooper S in what has turned out to be a typical Canadian winter. Yes, it has been one of my favourite cars ever since the BMW version popped up on the scene in 2002.
Yes, it has snow tires — a truly exceptional set of P205/45R17 Pirelli Snowsport run-flats. But its cheerful sporting nature and minuscule dimensions truly seem to be the antithesis of what a proper winter vehicle should be. Both my mom and my wife — among others — expressed astonishment, presuming I was risking life and limb by driving such an impractical form of transportation under less than optimum conditions.
Yet, I can truly say I haven’t had as much fun booting around on (depending on the day) snow-covered, slick or grime-covered streets since I did the same thing in a Miata about 15 years ago. The Cooper S is truly a lion in winter.
To give credit where it’s due, the $30,850 Mini Cooper S is a sports car in hatchback form. Thanks to its 181-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine, tight six-speed manual transmission and light weight (1,210 kilograms), the subcompact is deceptively quick — zero to 100 kilometres an hour in seven seconds. Its small size makes it easy to manoeuvre around congested city streets, and its squat, low-slung body — with tires shoved to all four corners — allows it to attack on-ramps with abandon and twisty turns as if it was glued to the pavement (under ideal conditions, naturally, and never to the point of risking attention from the local constabulary).
When road conditions do deteriorate, it’s easy to dial it back. The Mini’s traction control system isn’t needlessly aggressive in that it allows some front-wheel slippage before diving in to save the day. And, with the turbo four’s maximum 177 pound-feet of torque reached at a low 1,600 rpm, it doesn’t mind being short-shifted. There’s no bogging, and passing speed is just a snappy downshift away. (Equally, the little sportster provided an opportunity for me to practice my handbrake turns on snowy streets, proficiency I had acquired several decades earlier during my scofflaw years when my own personal transportation included manual-equipped cars.)
As for fuel economy, I averaged a reasonable 8.3 litres per 100 kilometres during the week, the car’s frugality tempered by the fact its turbocharged engine consumes premium unleaded. When filling up a Mini costs more than $60, it can’t help but make you consider the benefits of hybrid powertrains.
There is a downside to the Cooper S’s sporting demeanour — its short wheelbase, optional sport suspension and stiff run-flat rubber all contribute to a ride that is firm at best and cringe-inducing at worst. With the cold snap/thaw/cold snap/thaw that has defined this winter, potholes are in full bloom, which makes keeping one’s eyes on the road ahead paramount if one is to avoid the sensation of being shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. Kudos, however, to the chassis engineers who reworked the second-generation model. Unlike its predecessor, which was prone to squeaks and rattles over harsher surfaces, the current version is as solid as a rock.
The Mini’s cold weather attributes aren’t limited to its performance either.
The settings on the optional (unfortunately) heated seats (part of a $1,900 Comfort Package) can be defined as toasty, hot and thermonuclear. Ditto the heating system, which, thanks to the car’s cozy dimensions, quickly warms the cabin. At the same time, I’m wondering if the car’s interior designers had spent any time in northern climates. If they had, I’m sure the various buttons that control the windshield and rear window defrosters, air flow and fan speed wouldn’t be so damned tiny and inconveniently located so low in the centre console that you have to remove your gloves to get at them as well as take your eyes off the road. I suggest six months of remedial Engineering 101 somewhere in the Arctic Circle is in order.
As should be expected from a subcompact, front-seat headroom and legroom is fine even for those more than six feet tall, but the back seats will accommodate only the very small. The upside of its 3,729-millimetre length is that the Cooper S can be parked in spaces where other vehicles cannot fit.
After 10 seasons on the market, I have grudgingly accepted the premium price BMW exacts for its Cooper S. I do so because the car is such a joy to drive.
Yes, for a little more money, one can spit in the eye of Old Man Winter with a $32,495 Subaru WRX — complete with 265 hp, all-wheel drive and a lot more room — but that’s just the pragmatic part of my sporting side piping up.
Pound for pound, the Cooper S consistently punches above its weight. And, with the right snow tires, it, too, can put Old Man Winter on the ropes.
Type of vehicle: Front-wheel-drive subcompact hatchback
Engine: Turbocharged 1.6L DOHC four-cylinder
Power: 181 hp @ 5,500 rpm;177 lb-ft of torque @ 1,600 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Brakes: Four-wheel disc with ABS
Tires: P205/45R17 winter run-flat (optional)
Price: base/as tested: $30,850/$35,565
Destination charge: $1,595
Fuel economy L/100 km: 7.6 city, 5.6 hwy.
Standard features: Hill Assist, automatic climate control, manually adjustable front sport seats, multifunction leather sport steering wheel with cruise control, tilt and telescopic steering column, power windows, door locks and heated mirrors, AM/FM/CD audio system with six speakers, on-board computer, digital speedometer, automatic headlights, bi-xenon headlights, engine start/stop button, sport button, front and rear fog lights, stainless steel foot rest and pedals, run-flat tires, automatic stability control with traction control, Cornering Brake Control, electronic brake-force distribution.