In the Autoblog Garage: 2007 MINI Cooper S

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MINI was kind enough to furnish a fully-stocked iPod in our 2007 Cooper S tester, and after a few days of enduring OPPs (other-people's-playlists), we swapped in our own to catch up on podcasts and to sample the Beastie Boys' second installment of instrumental stylings. We know our place in the world, so we're not going to pretend to be music critics, but after flogging the MCS over the course of a week, blaring The Mix-Up through the dual-zone moon roof, we found ourselves comparing both the old and new cars with the old and new albums. The verdict: both are superior in their own way, and only nostalgia tips the previous iteration into favor.

All photos Copyright ©2007 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.

While lazier reviewers disregard the MINI's new sheetmetal, any gearhead worth their cred will instantly recognize the R56 whether stationary or at speed. The new front end dispatches the former model's Brit Bulldog fascia in favor of a more sophisticated -- albeit chunkier -- appearance, while the northward-bound beltline gives the new-new MINI a more planted persona. The turn signals have found a home within the headlamps and although the hood scoop is no longer functional, MINI was smart enough to keep it blocked off so airflow wouldn't be disrupted when feeding the intercooler. As a whole, it's certainly not a coup in the styling department, but it's subtle in the same way the new-for-'05 Porsche Boxster was; one of our favorite mid-cycle refreshes to date.

While the outside remains understated-retro-chic, the inside is a totally different game – basketball to be exact. Our Cooper's interior was swathed in "Leather Lounge Redwood" ($1,900) and although it was trying hard to look like BMW's delectable "Coral Red" it came across more like a rock from Spalding rather than an enclave for serious-minded motorists.

The leather hue however, was the least of our gripes. MINI saw fit to increase the size of its central-mounted speedo to accommodate the integrated sat-nav and stereo controls. While our tester didn't benefit from GPS-guided assistance, the gaping sore in the middle of the dash proved to be the definitive design foible. "Large" is an understatement, and although we understand the nod to Coopers of yore, it proved entirely useless since the steering-column mounted tach gives you the option to display your current speed in a multi-function LCD.

On the upside, the Cooper's switchgear is considerably funkier than its predecessor, with a number of stalks to control everything from the windows to the rear fog lamps; the latter foretelling a trend that we hope catches on. While fit and finish is par for the BMW course, our only gripe with the materials was the water bottle-grade plastic used for the automated air-con controls and CD slot surround.

The Premium Package Cooper S benefits from a host of buttons on the steering wheel that allows manipulation of the cruise control and stereo inputs, and also includes the dual-pane panoramic sunroof and automatic A/C. While we've never been partial to some of the set-and-forget climate control systems, the MINI's proved to be the exception to rule, never causing us to choke on scalding air after sitting out in the sun.

In a vehicle with such diminutive dimensions, it truly is the little things that count. Some are manna from automotive heaven while others are off-putting at best. The aforementioned computer display integrated into the tach provides speed, real-time fuel consumption and how many miles you'll traverse before hitting the next premium-grade pump. But it doesn't provide coolant temperature, something we'd assume would be a necessity on any vehicle with sporting pretenses. The steering-wheel controls for the stereo are straight-forward enough, but the buttons and menus necessary to scan through playlists on our 'Pod are ill-conceived, as were the duo of knobs on the dash -- one integrated into the stereo (selection), the other fitted below the CD input (volume) -- which served to perpetually confuse both driver and passengers alike.

Most of the MINI's interior elements are well suited to the handsome hatch; the pedals are things of beauty, as is the piano black trim and overhead switchgear. Others, like the ability to change the hue of the ambient lighting emanating from the roof-mounted bulbs and above the front seat belt anchors stood as proof that MINI's interior designers have entirely too much time on their hands.

As expected, rear seat passenger room is laughable, even with the front seats moved as far forward as they could conceivably be comfortable. Similarly, the trunk offers just enough space for a few bags of groceries, some camera gear and little else. We now wholeheartedly accept MINI's choice to ditch the rear seats in the last generation's production run salvo GP model, and would consider similar surgery if we plunked down the cash for the R56 model. It would do wonders for weight savings in a vehicle whose small footprint has never quite matched its Big Mac and fries tonnage.

Slide the key-fob into its home in the dash, press the starter button and... oh, it's started. The former model's stentorian sound is as far away as the nearest used car lot. Dipping the brushed-metal go-pedal to the floor does little to excite the senses, something that the John Cooper crew have already cured -- we just wish we wouldn't have to pony up the extra cash for the upgrade.

After selecting first, easing out on the clutch and rowing through a few gears, we're assured that the new-new MINI hasn't lost its ease of use. Clutch take up is progressive and perfectly matched, the shifter slotting from gate to gate with minimal effort. The action of the six-speed manual is clean, if a bit on the rubbery side, while the electrically driven steering is as good as any boosted unit we've sampled before.

Once we were finally able to open the taps on an abandoned stretch of road, any issue about a less-than-enthusiastic exhaust note turned into superficial complaints left 100 yards back. The MCS' power delivery (particularly after pressing "Sport") is startling at first and never gets old. Above 2,500 RPM, the turbo spools up quickly, huffing sacrificial air molecules into the 1.6-liter BMW-PSA four pot. While 175 hp is nothing particularly noteworthy, the way the turbo'd Cooper delivers its peak torque is. Normally, 177 pounds of the stuff twists the front wheels through equal-length half shafts, but when the MINI's brain detects your wanton desire to hoon, an "Overboost "function, fueled by the mill's direct injection and variably geometry turbo, produces 192 lb.-ft. of twist pummeling the pavement with prejudice. Shocking for a mill that has less displacement than a beer boot at Suppenküche.

But in keeping with the MINI-ness of its elder sibling, the new Cooper S isn't all about power. Hairpin turns, off-camber bends and anything that tests the Cooper's lateral gumption are to be treated with respect. The multi-link rear suspension handles anything you can chuck at it, but the extra weight hanging over the rear makes for an entertaining steer. The initial input into the wheel translates quickly to the front tires, but in a few miniscule – but perceivable -- moments, the back end follows suit. Turn the wheel quickly... wait... and the back end will begin to come around. We'd never advocate four-wheel drifts on public roads, but know that the Cooper is capable, right down to the moment your bowels give out.

Sure, the R56 MCS is a little longer, a little fatter and a bit disjointed inside, but everything else that makes it a MINI is intact, and in some cases embellished. The combination of potent power, a competent chassis and small size is everything many motorists want. But for the kind of coin MINI demands for its highbrow hatch, it had better deliver – and it does.

All photos Copyright ©2007 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.

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