Champagne Supernova – MINI Cooper

A latter-day assessment of BMW’s MINI reboot

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If Cool Britannia was a car…

There’s always been a faint whiff of the tribute act about the band Oasis, a nagging sense that it was all a bit better the first time around. Frankly, I’ve I’ll admit to similar ambivalence regarding BMW’s R50 MINI, especially on the back of formative experiences with the Issigonis original. So has longer-term acquaintance with a 2006 Cooper, a car I frequently drive on regular visits back to Ireland shifted perceptions about BMW-Rover’s retro reboot? 

‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory…?’

It’s worth bearing one thing in mind: millennium-MINI is a sports car masquerading as a hatchback. As such it doesn’t so much nudge you in the ribs, as thwack you over the head with its anarchic character. It’s written in the statute books of most civilised nations that it’s only possible to drive an R50 con vivace. Anything less is pointless, possibly criminal. Hurling Britpop-MINI down twisting, undulating country roads therefore, is one of life’s more amusing pastimes.

Here the ridiculously heavy steering (despite electric power assistance), beefy Getrag gearshift and stiff suspension are allies rather than irritants. At sane cornering velocities, ‘roll-with-it’-MINI remains pleasantly neutral, the meaty steering linear and sharp-witted, if lacking any real feedback. The wheel rim is far too thick, which doesn’t help. Only rank stupidity will unsettle the car mid-corner – lifting off can bring the tail out, but is easily corrected. The Cooper feels planted, faithful and predictable – a car to take out and drive the union jack pants off. Yet, while its handling is beyond reproach, something indefinable is lacking – call it a certain finesse.

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Image: Driven to Write

‘Cigarettes and Alcohol…’

The engine, a 1.6 litre Chrysler-developed unit develops 116 bhp and accelerates to 60 in 9.3 seconds according to those nice people at Autocar. Doing so elicits all the right noises, but of useful torque, there is little – Autocar recording a tardy 30-50 mph time of 9.7 seconds. Beneath the enticing induction roar sits a rather breathless powerplant with little to reward you should you explore the upper reaches of its revolutionary envelope. Speaking of noise, road induced roar is also unpleasantly high.

‘Shakermaker…’

In maximum attack mode, the Cooper’s ride quality is something you can overlook. However, most of the time, it’s appalling. Unlike the original car, which also bounced and pitched all over the place, ‘supersonic’-mini has steel springs and conventional dampers plus (one assumes) provision for adequate wheel travel. On pockmarked Irish road surfaces, it crashes and jars, the confined cockpit allowing the passenger’s head to make occasional contact with the roof header rail, which really isn’t really acceptable at all.

MINI-3
A road nu-MINI was made for. Chunky pillars and shallow glazing equals a confined interior. Image: Driven to Write

‘Definitely Maybe…’

Owing to the low roofline and thick pillars, MINI feels claustrophobic. The window area is narrow and slot-like; the all-black interior trim adding to the sense of gloomy confinement. The front compartment offers adequate leg and shoulder room for larger folk, but the rears are useless – MINI being in effect a two-seater. The steering wheel is well sited, but doesn’t adjust for reach or rake; a surprising omission in a sporty car.

Despite all this, it’s an easy car to handle, with compact dimensions and easily determined extremities. In the wet however, the swept area of the windscreen is worryingly small while mud and road gunk flung onto the rear screen quickly reduces visibility. Fortunately, the sizeable door mirrors are excellent. The boot will happily carry several decent sized postage stamps.

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MINI’s dash layout looks nice, but style over-rides utility. Image: gomotors

‘Be Here Now…’

Most controls are well placed and easily learned, but come with a dash of counter-productive whimsy. The centrally mounted instruments for example are a retro-inspired nod to the original, but force the driver’s eyes off the road. Similarly, the attractive looking row of toggle switches are confusing and impossible to operate accurately by feel. Fortunately, they don’t control anything of note. Two column mounted stalks control wipers, indicators, headlamp flash/dip and despite their vaguely Flash Gordon appearance, work fine in practice. The standard-fit dipped headlights however are scandalously poor. Standard-fit spotlamps (themselves no paragon) are essential for confident night driving.

Nu-MINI is commendably well made and finished. While some of the interior plastics are a little cheap feeling, everything fits well and has remained steadfastly in place and rattle-free despite the pummelling it has withstood on brittle West Cork roads. Over 8 years there has been one or two problems, but on balance it has proven a reliable and durable little steed.

Another field, another ruin. width=

‘Some Might Say…’

The Cooper is a friendly car and if you’re in the mood, terrific fun. View it as an inexpensive sportscar and mad-for-it-MINI won’t disappoint. On a brief drive, its easy to be won over – its charm, taut handling and amusing nature a winning combination, especially over challenging roads. However, when you’re just trying to get somewhere with the least fuss the R50 becomes a bit of a chore. Too uncomfortable, too cramped, too downright hyperactive. Its limited interior space, stiff ride, tiny boot and poor visibility seriously limit its everyday usefulness.

Having said this, I concede that it is possibly my fault for failing to succumb to millennium-MINI’s obvious charms. After all, its owner adores it – failing to even register the downsides I would consider dealbreakers. I have to concede it also sounds churlish to criticise BMW/Rover for producing such a driver-focused, technically dense machine when they could have opted to offer something a good deal more cynical. But I can’t help feeling an element of contrivance in the R50. The original Mini was a bit of a laugh, but at heart was a deeply serious motor car. ‘Wonder-wall’-MINI isn’t anywhere serious enough and that seems to be the heart of my problem with it.

Oasis had a couple of decent tunes and possibly one good album but behind the posturing, there was a nagging lack of substance about them as successive album releases became more bloated and derivative. Similarly, while the R50 Cooper may be something of a Champagne Supernova, I find bubbles give me hiccups.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

4 thoughts on “Champagne Supernova – MINI Cooper”

  1. My own take on Oasis was that Liam Gallagher looked too much to the right sort of people for the wrong sort of inspiration. John Lennon’s voice had range and nuance – he could do soft and caring, he could do good-time and he could do angry. Oasis vocals just seemed to capture Lennon’s most angry whinge – effective sometimes but tiresome with over-repetition. So, yes, BMW seemed to read that, as a bi-product of its engineering, the Mini was a great car to throw around, then read no further.

    If we accept that it’s not really a hot-hatch but a front-wheel-drive sports car disguised as such, which I feel is a perfectly correct observation, then we find it had one significant predecessor. The M100 Lotus Elan had an awful lot of stick in 1989. By clever use of a modified Isuzu drivertrain Lotus produced a car that got unqualified praise of its handling except … oh, it’s front wheel drive. This undeniably contributed significantly to the Elan’s failure – ‘enthusiasts’ just couldn’t take it entirely seriously. By disguising their sports car as a friendly hatchback, BMW cleverly came at it from the other direction and had great success. There’s no justice.

  2. I´d forgotten about the Chrysler engine in the Mini. Does anyone know why a Rover unit was not considered? I was only ever once in a Mini and found the packaging deplorable. And before that, I tried a Rover 200 and found the packaging deplorable too. As it happened I had a Peugeot 205 nearby which occupied less road space but had a decent boot and room for two in the back. What was it with Rover and mediocre spatial skills?

    1. According to the good folk at AROnline, It was politics. Rover wanted to use their own K- Series engines, but the decision was made in Munich. Their story of the cars development is interesting, one which doesn’t reflect too well on BMW.
      The 200 was based on a Honda Civic platform originally, which may account for the packaging. In fact, Rover/BL were traditionally very adept in the space efficiency department.

    2. I think that BMW were looking for a reason to hook up with Chrysler at the time – possibly even an M&A deal. This engine deal seems to have been the only fruit of this co-operation. The sad thing, of course, is that with a bit of development to the cylinder head gasket, the K Series would have been a perfectly good unit for the MINI.

      Packaging became an issue for Rover Group Cars as they first became reliant on Honda for donor vehicles, and then BMW seemed to help them contrive a FWD 75 with RWD-a-like packaging restrictions. Not ideal.

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