First Drive: 2011 Mini Cooper S
Henry Ford, Ferdinand Porsche, Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler. All pioneers in the automotive world. But this list would be woefully incomplete without the inclusion of Sir Alec Issigonis, the man most responsible for the design of the original Mini.
Issigonis once famously said, "When you're designing a new car for production, never, never copy the opposition." Sage advice, we'd say, as the Mini – a true clean-sheet automotive design, with its transverse engine, front-wheel drive and sparse seating – went on to become one of the most successful vehicles in history. And its name and likeness continue to live on in the form of the modern-day Mini Cooper, Clubman and, most recently, Countryman.
Despite the similarities from one modern generation to the next, the BMW-owned automaker is quick to point out the myriad of changes made to the Cooper for the 2011 model year, not the least of which are improvements to the engine and transmission options, resulting in more power and improved efficiency.
So, the logical question is: Do these changes make a better Mini, or are they so minor (or is that Minor?) you won't even notice?
Photos copyright ©2010 Jeremy Korzeniewski / AOL
The most obvious place to begin charting the changes is the exterior. Up front you'll find restyled bumper fascias and larger fog lights, while optional black headlight housings are now available with adaptive Xenon lamps.
The electric Mini E's hood has been cribbed and installed on base Coopers, while the turbocharged S models still have their hood scoops and gain functional brake cooling ducts. At the rear are tweaked taillamp assemblies with LED fog lights along with a redesigned rear bumper housing the reverse lights.
The final notable tidbit is the availability of a new hue: British Racing Green II. Finally, a color that actually looks like the classic BRG we all know and love. It's about time, as the previous dark green, while perfectly acceptable, simply wasn't "British Racing Green." While that's a color we're excited about, perhaps now would be a good time to point out the, ahem, interesting combo of the vehicle in our photos. While there's nothing at all wrong with the new Spice Orange hue for 2011 or the Classic Green Lounge Leather (Mutant Ninja Turtle Green, as we took to calling it) interior... let's just say the two should probably never be combined on the same vehicle.
Minor changes filter inside, beginning with the standard dinner-plate sized speedo gauge mounted front and center. As ever, the unit's primary purpose is to house the speedometer, along with a much smaller electronic fuel gauge. Underneath you'll find the buttons and dials to control the audio, but what you won't find is the terminally confusing secondary dial on the center stack. Mini has nixed it for the 2011 model year, a development for which we can only offer three cheers. Carrying over from past models is the smaller tachometer mounted atop the steering column and directly in the driver's line of sight.
This arrangement may seem a bit odd for drivers accustomed to a standard gauge cluster, but it doesn't take long to acclimate. Style-conscious buyers are likely to love the refreshed Mini's key, which must be pressed into a slot in the dash before pushing the 'Start' button, but we wonder why it's not using a simple proximity sensor instead. And, of course, those well-known chrome toggle switches that control locking and power windows are still located at the very bottom of the center stack in front of the shifter – a stylish concession to functionality.
All of the surfaces the driver will come into contact with are high quality and mostly soft, including the shifter knob (do yourself a favor and choose the short-throw six-speed manual, please) and the excellent, small-diameter steering wheel. Another fashion-forward feature is interior lighting that goes from a sporty orange to a soothing blue in five steps.
For 2011 there are three audio packages to choose from, the first of which eschews any newfangled tech in favor of a simple CD player with HD and satellite radio all standard and pumping through six speakers. Stepping up a notch will get you to the truly innovative tech known as Mini Connected. Those who've never completely come to love the central speedo are sure to prefer this upgrade, which houses a 6.5-inch display in the giant gauge, placing the speed readout along the circumference of the dial. Aesthetically, this is a big improvement over the glaring white face of the standard setup.
When stepping up to the Mini Connected with Navigation, you'll get (rather obviously) a sat-nav system stored on flash memory cards that are accessible via a USB connection. There's a plethora of functionality with the Connected system, including Bluetooth audio, album art (similar to what you'd see on your iPod), Web radio streaming and even RSS feeds that can be read aloud. You can also send pre-written Tweets, update your Facebook status with location information or perform local Google searches.
We found the technology package fairly easy-to-use and navigate, despite the fact the screen is not touch sensitive. Instead, you toggle through the menus using a control knob mounted between the front seats. If that sounds complicated... well, it is a little complicated, but we're pretty sure most anyone shopping in a Mini dealership will be able to figure it out.
We're happy to report the 2011 Mini Cooper drives almost exactly like the 2010 Mini Cooper – no real surprise considering the limit of the changes. A boost in horsepower on standard models from 118 to 121 horsepower is nominal, but the Cooper S gets a bump to 181 ponies (up from 172), which can be felt when accelerating up a hill or on-ramp. Electronic power steering has allowed the crafty German engineers to add anti torque- and anti bump-steer to the Cooper's repertoire, and the modifications were obvious when compared to last year's model. The new suspension tricks were particularly transparent under hard acceleration and even more pronounced when matting the throttle on the turbocharged model, with its 'Overboost' function delivering up to 192 lb-ft of torque from 1,700 rpm onwards.
Despite the added power, Mini has managed a slight increase in fuel efficiency across the board, with the standard model now registering 37 miles per gallon. Perhaps more impressive is that the Valvetronic-equipped S makes even more power while earning a 36-mpg highway figure.
We also noticed that the S model's computer allows the turbocharged cars to 'pop' under deceleration more than before when in Sport Mode (activated from inside the cabin with a console-mounted button), a quaint nod to the Minis of yore.
We won't employ the terminally-overused 'go kart' descriptor (dammit, just did), but if you've driven a modern Mini, you'll be instantly familiar with the quick, slightly darty steering and lively ride. Step it up a notch by ordering the Sport suspension and those adjectives change to firm and even borderline harsh on some pockmarked roads. But you're rewarded with a direct connection to the tarmac that fades away only when the stability or traction control decide to intervene... which sometimes happens far too early. Do it right (or get lucky...) and you can turn the telltale understeer into a surprisingly neutral drifter that's hilariously fun when the road turns twisty.
While it may not bear much in common with its iconic predecessor, the 2011 Mini Cooper retains all the charm and panache buyers have come to expect since the brand's rebirth just a few years back, and the added improvements just sweeten the deal. There aren't any cars currently available in the States that can match the size, fun and refinement offered by the 2011 Mini. And even in it's current form, we have a feeling Sir Alec would approve.
Photos copyright ©2010 Jeremy Korzeniewski / AOL
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