Now that you’ve spent some time thinking about your ultimate goals, and how fast you want to get there, we can help you sort through the choices you’ll need to make before you sign the order form and start counting the days until your very own MINI is produced, shipped, and prepared for you to pick up at the dealer.

Cooper or Cooper S?

The first buttons you’ll have to click are the ones labeled Cooper or Cooper S. This is actually pretty simple. Since the Cooper S costs only $3000 more than the Cooper, and offers many more features and capabilities, we think it offers the best value for money.

For starters, the Cooper S has a 6-speed manual transmission. That difference alone, in almost anyone’s book, would justify the extra money. You’re probably already pretty sure that an automatic transmission is for people who want to use their right hand for something inane like applying make-up. You already know that a quick hand on the gearshift and a good foot on the clutch separate the motorists from those people who buy a car for transportation. And you get the bolstered sport seats thrown into the bargain.

But it isn’t only the MINI Cooper gear shift and sports seats that you’ll be able to look forward to. It’s all the extra horsepower potential lurking in the pages of the go-fast catalogs that separates the Cooper S from the perfectly-adequate-for-other-people Cooper. Yes, the Cooper can be made to go faster. But by the time you’ve installed everything possible, you will have spent more than the $3000 you saved, your Cooper will have reached its maximum horsepower potential at just about where the Cooper S starts, and you’ll still have only one tail pipe on the back.

By comparison, with a Cooper S, you start with a car that is already pretty quick, and after that the sky’s the limit. So click the button marked Cooper S and we’ll move on.

(For those of you who already bought a Cooper before you bought this book, don’t worry. Keep on reading and we’ll give you all the tips we have on how to get the most out of your Cooper. If you decide you want a little more performance, we’ll discuss modifications that will give your Cooper approximately the same horsepower as the standard Cooper S.

And if you have to drive under conditions where an automatic transmission makes sense, the Cooper automatic still allows you to upshift and downshift on your own, so you can learn to upshift and downshift at the most efficient shift points.

And we can guarantee, if you learn to be a better driver as we’ll teach you along the way, you’ll be able to beat many of those Cooper S owners who think that they can buy fast lap times with their credit card.)

Tintop or Ragtop?

We can’t really help you much with your decision if you’re trying to decide whether to buy the coupe or the convertible, often referred to as tintops and ragtops by motoring enthusiasts. BMW has done an excellent job of engineering body stiffness into the convertible so it won’t rattle and shake over rough roads and railroad crossings, so the convertible will be just as good as the hardtop on backroad tours. Also, there’s a lot to be said about being able to look up at the mountains or redwoods when you’re driving that scenie byway, instead of craning your neck to peak at them through the windshield.

However, the convertible does have some blindspots when the soft top is up that you wouldn’t have with the hardtop. That can make it a bit less safe in heavy traffic, or when backing up. More important, most track day activities and some autocross events won’t allow a ragtop to run because it offers less protection in the unlikely event of a roll-over. So if you’re thinking seriously about high-speed and timed events in your MINI future, the hardtop might be the better choice.

The real question is where you’re going to be driving. If your home base is blessed with temperate weather all year around, you’ll be able to get a lot of driving time with the top down. On the other hand, if your driveway looks like Ice Station Zebra six months of the year, the hard top may be easier to live with.

Premium, Sport, and Cold Weather Packages

After you’ve clicked the button marked MINI Cooper S, decided on coupe or convertible, and taken a first shot at picking a color scheme (don’t worry, you can come back and play with this again later), you’ll have to decide whether you want to take any of the three combination accessory packages—Premium, Sport, or Cold Weather—that the MINI dealer will offer you. The simple answers, we think, are “no,” “maybe,” and “it depends.”

We would say no to the Premium package because the primary component in it is the sunroof. It’s very nice if you want to cruise down the highway with the sun fighting the sun block you just applied, but when you’re going fast and concentrating on your driving, it’s just a noisy distraction. And it adds weight, something the person seeking performance isn’t going to want. Besides, if you envision your perfect car with a checkered flag, Union Jack, or custom graphics on the roof, you won’t want the sunroof.

The other components in the premium package, including cruise control, multifunction steering wheel, automatic air conditioning, and on-board computer, can each be bought separately for a total of $1200, so even if you want all of these convenience items, you can still save $100 by buying them separately. On the other hand, if you have your heart set on the sun roof—and it certainly is the closest you can come to a convertible without buying the cabriolet—and think you want any one of the other  convenience items and can live with the rest, then at $1300, the premium package would be a bargain.

The Sport package is a definite maybe. It includes one thing you will want, the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system, and some things you might want, including the Xenon headlamps with power washer, fog lamps, and bonnet stripes. The package also includes 7x17-inch MINI S-Lite alloy wheels and tires.

If bought separately, these options would cost a total of $1890 but the complete package is available for $1300. This price difference makes the choice seem obvious, but it really depends on whether you want all the individual upgrades in the package.

We definitely advise you to buy the DSC, whether or not you buy the rest of the package. Selected separately, this option costs $500. That’s a small price for the peace of mind you will have in knowing that if you hit a patch of wet pavement or black ice on a dark night while cruising down the road, sensors in the system will tell your throttle to ease back and apply the brake on the spinning wheel to keep you from skidding, all in the fraction of a second it will take you to realize you are in danger of spinning into oncoming traffic.

Sure, you’ll switch off the DSC before your turn in the next drifting competition, but the rest of the time, you’ll want it on. And yes, the standard traction control system will keep your wheels from spinning under most circumstances, but it won’t help you much in the turns.

But the main issue with the sport package is the wheels and tires. We’re going to recommend you buy performance wheels and tires from aftermarket sources, since there are better choices out there. Unless you definitely want the Xenon headlights ($550), fog lights ($140), and bonnet stripes ($100), you’ll save money by not buying the Sport Package that you can use to get the high-performance wheels and tires you want.

If you have decided that you do want to get the lights and stripes, as well as the DSC,  then you might as well get the whole Sport combo. There’s nothing wrong with the bigger wheels and tires offered in the Sport package, and by the time you’ve paid for the other parts of the package, the wheels and tires are effecitvely free when you buy the whole deal (you can do the arithmetic). Then you can wait until you’ve worn out your first set of tires before ordering your own set of wheels and tires from your favorite aftermarket supplier.

 As for the Cold Weather package, that depends on where you live and drive. If you live where winter lasts four months of every year or more, with colder-than-whatever mornings, accompanied by slush on the road and the sun not even over the horizon yet, then the warmers for the seats, mirrors, and windshield washers will be very good things to have, indeed. And they won’t slow you down during the fast season. Those warm seats are also a nice option in other parts of the country if you’re buying a convertible and like to drive with the top down even on chilly morning.

John Cooper Works Tuning Kit

You said you wanted performance, right? Then why not go for the whole deal and have your local dealer install the BMW-approved John Cooper Works Tuning Kit? After all, it takes horsepower from 163 to 200 ponies, and brings torque up to 177 pound-feet from 155 in the stock Cooper S. With that power, you can get from zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds and, if you can find enough space on a closed course, get up to 140 miles per hour. And you get a slick decal and engaving on the exhaust pipes to prove you’re faster than the average bear. Now that’s motoring.

Nevertheless, we suggest you don’t opt for the JCW kit. We say that because the parts are pretty expensive at $4500 in the box, and then you still have to pay your dealer to install them, which takes ten hours of shop time. The whole thing is going to cost from $5000 to $6000 out the door.

For the same amount of money, with aftermarket components you can easily get your horsepower well past the JCW’s 200 mark, and at the same time improve the tires, wheels, brakes, and suspension to keep your power under control, so that you’ve got a balanced performance package. If you still need decals to impress the pedestrians, the aftermarket suppliers will be happy to help you out.

You might note that the MINI website makes a point that the JCW tuning package comes with a factory warranty, and won’t affect your standard warranties on your car. That’s an important point, of course. When you start making changes to engine, suspension, brakes, or other mechanical parts of the car, these changes can affect the performance of your car.

However, reputable aftermarket suppliers now offer their own warranties on the parts that they sell, and some, such as MiniMania even guarantee that if their properly-installed parts cause a problem that voids any part of the factory warranty, they’ll pay for the repairs and replacement themselves. You should check the fine print yourself on both the factory and the supplier warranties, but at least you know that you can make changes to upgrade your MINI without worrying that you’ll lose the peace of mind of BMW’s solid warranty protection.

Getting the Right Rubber for the Road

We’ve already said that you may not want the wheels and tires that the MINI dealer has to sell you. To understand why, we need to start talking about performance.

Performance, in gearhead terms, is the general measure of how well your car does the four things it is supposed to do: start, run, turn, and stop. To win on the autocross or race course, you need to get up to speed as quickly as possible, go as fast as possible, get around corners as rapidly as possible, and stop in as short a distance as possible.

While many of the components on the car contribute to one or more of those goals, your wheels and tires contribute to all four. More than any other component on your car, the tires and wheels you choose will make significant differences in performance.

Let’s be clear about one thing from the very start: there is no such thing as the best tire and wheel for all those jobs. But there are some features that you should consider when buying any tire and wheel. They include weight, flexibility, and grip.

Weight is the most important aspect to consider. When we measure weight in a performance car, we divide it into two categories: unsprung weight, and sprung weight. Unsprung weight is the weight of all those things that stay attached to the road, or at least should stay attached to the road, when you hit a bump or pour the car into a turn while the rest of the car, the sprung weight, goes up and down on the springs. In other words, the wheels and tires are most of the unsprung weight.

In order to improve performance, we want to reduce our unsprung weight to the minimum required to get the job done. The first issue with heavy tires and wheels is that it takes more torque to get them up to speed. Further, Since heavier wheels have more momentum than lighter wheels when they are spinning, more braking effort is required to slow them down.

Finally, the more unsprung weight you have, the more difficult it will be to adjust the handling of the car. Changing springs, shock absorbers, and anti-sway bars will change how the weight above the springs moves around, but it won’t change have any effect on movement of unsprung weight.

For these reasons, you really want the lightest wheels and tires you can buy within your budget that are still strong enough to do their job.. The problem with the original stock or factory-optional wheels is that they’re heavy. There are many choices of wheels on the aftermarket that are much lighter because of their materials and construction, but that will still provide all the safety and functionality needed.

Tires are another issue where we’re going to go to the aftermarket to get better performance. Your MINI can be purchased with two different types of tires: performance run-flats and all-season run-flats. Notice that both types are “run-flat.” That’s a nice  engineering feature, assuring that a flat tire won’t leave you parked beside the road. They also allowed the designers to avoid having to figure out where to stick a spare wheel and tire, which saved weight and cost.

But there are two problems with run-flat tires. In order to provide the run-flat capabilities, the tires are heavier than standard radial tires and they are stiffer than regular radial tires. As a result of the weight, they require more engine power to turn and have more inertia when stopping. Because of the stiff sidewalls, they don’t flex as well, so they don’t stick to the pavement as well in turns. They also give a rougher ride than most standard radial tires, which may not affect performance, but certainly detracts from comfortable motoring.

So here is where we stick our neck out for the first time and suggest that if performance is your goal, you can improve the performance of your new MINI by buying from sources other than the dealer. Reputable aftermarket dealers offer an extensive variety of wheel designs to choose from at a wide range of prices and varying weights, as well as tires with different performance and behavior characteristics from several different sources.

Tire Rack (www.tirerack .com) for example lists 42 different wheels, and several different brands of tires for a high-performance MINI Cooper S for you to choose from. The MiniMania catalog shows 25 different choices of wheels, which are supplied with Kumho Ecsta Supra 712 Z-rated tires, a tire choice that they’ve tested and liked on their own cars.

Making the change won’t even cost too much. A good set of four aftermarket wheels that are much lighter than the MINI wheels, shod with a set of proven performance tires, can be put on the car for between $1000 and $1,300. Of course, you can get much fancier, and more expensive, tires and wheels but at least that gives you a ballpark idea of your costs.

Bottom line, if you don’t need or want the other components in the Sport Package, such as the Xenon lights, save your $800 and put it towards a good set of tires and wheels. It will be the single best investment you make in improving the safety and handling of your MINI.

Other Accessories and Choices

But wait, we’re still not through with all the choices in all five boxes on the MINI website. We still have to think about interior trim and a few other miscellaneous goodies.

Let’s start with seats and upholstery. Since you’ve already opted for the Cooper S, you’re going to get a good set of sport seats, with effective bolstering to keep you from sliding around on those tight corners. And you can choose from a variety of different colors. We don’t have any advice on most trim decisions but we do suggest that you order the gray cloth upholstery rather than the leatherette or leather.

In our view, cloth upholstery is best because it provides more grip against the seat of your pants in tight maneuvering, helping those bolsters do their job. It’s also cooler in summer and warmer in winter, and won’t show wear as much as the leather or vinyl.

Best of all, the cloth doesn’t add anything to the cost of your MINI. We talked about trade-offs earlier. How about thinking of your decision as trading off the leather, which won’t help you go faster, for a set of tires and wheels that cost about the same and will definitely help you go faster. Seems like a fair trade-off to us.

There are a few other choices to make. If you didn’t choose the Sport package, you might want to look at those front fog lamps again, but as far as we’re concerned they don’t really do much good in fog conditions, and they just irritate other drivers ahead of you. Rear fog lamps, which provide brighter visibility to drivers overtaking you, on the other hand are a good option if you ever drive anywhere when you’re likely to be in the fog.

The navigation system is another option that depends on what kind of driving you do. If you are going to be driving back and forth to the same office every day, and rarely venture into unknown territory, you can probably pass on this expensive item. It certainly isn’t going to be much help getting through the corkscrew at Laguna Seca.

On the other hand, if you’re going to be using your MINI to make sales calls or long-distance trips, the navigation system can be a real time-saver. We’ve tested them and we can say that the latest generation of these high-tech gizmos is pretty terrific. It will change the interior in one important respect, however. The screen goes where that big pie-plate of a speedometer would normally be mounted, and instead you’ll get a smaller speedo mounted next to your tach on the steering column. That’s actually kind of a good thing.

The multifunction steering wheel and cruise control are also a matter of personal taste and requirements. If you expect to spend long periods of time on the highway, being able to set the speed and forget it, while tuning the radio without taking your hands off the wheel, are good things. If you don’t expect to do much over-the-road driving with your MINI, save the $650 to spend on your new go-fast, sound-good exhaust system that we’ll discuss in the next chapter.

Auto-dimming mirrors, rain-sensitive wipers, and automatic air-conditioning are nice things, we suppose, but these are probably things you can manage to do for yourself rather than paying little robots to do them for you. As for the “park distance control?” Give us a break; the car is only 14 feet long, for heaven’s sake. If you can’t get it into a parking place without a back-up beeper, you’re never ever going to master the Charlize Theron parking maneuver or even hope to drive your MINI through a Beverly Hills mansion without knocking over the lamps. 

Whew! That should take care of all the little choices to make and right-clicks to push, so you should have an idea of what the car is going to cost and be ready to talk to a real live MINI expert at your nearest dealer (the address of which, of course, can be found on the website, along with a map and driving directions).

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