It's hard to believe, but the Mini brand just turned 50. Nevermind the huge gap in new model production until BMW bought the pint-sized automaker in the early 2000s, but the name Mini as we know it has been around for half a century. It's over the hill, though still looking good for its age.
To celebrate, Mini created two special edition packages for the Cooper hatchback – the Mayfair and Camden – named after two of London's trendiest boroughs. And while the extra kit doesn't provide a performance boost or driving enhancements, they do add some extra cheekiness to the already-cute Cooper.
We recently spent some time with the Camden package fitted to a base Cooper hatchback. The most notably addition is the talking Mission Control system, and while we always enjoy spending time with special editions of our favorite cars, our test run in this Cooper did more than provide us with a few gee-whiz features to show our friends. You see, we hadn't driven a base, non-turbocharged Cooper in a very long time, and while we certainly love the S and John Cooper Works models, there's a lot to be said about the bottom-rung of the Cooper range. Follow the jump to find out what.
Photos by Steven J. Ewing / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
Visually, the Camden package adds a choice of special paint colors (White Silver Metallic in this case), white pin stripes on the mirrors, xenon headlamps, front foglamps, appropriate badges on the sides, grille and door sills, and unique 17-inch Silver Shield wheels. We like what we see, though we're still arguing with ourselves over whether those alloys get a full-fledged thumbs-up or thumbs-down. While we don't dislike them, we'd honestly prefer something more akin to the traditional eight-spoke design found on the Cooper S.
Moving inside, the Camden package is nicely applied to the cabin, where a white and black theme is present throughout. It's sharp and fits well with the voguish theme that Mini has going on inside its offerings. That same white pin striping from the outside mirrors is found on the plastic dash materials, and if we're honest, the interior design is what garnered the most positive feedback from passengers. We appreciate the upgraded Harmon/Kardon premium sound system that comes as a part of the Camden package, especially since we find the standard Mini audio system to be a bit weak for pumping out the jams.
Spruced-up design aside, the Mini's interior is growing a bit tiresome for our tastes. After all these years, we're still having trouble getting used to the controls on the center stack. We've lost track of how many times we've gone to adjust the volume and inadvertently changed the audio track on the CD player, and while the dinner plate-sized speedometer is a fun throwback to the original Minis from the 60s, we'd much rather see that space allocated to house a more functional audio and navigation system.
That aside, we don't have much in the way of comfort or quality issues. The Mini's cabin is surprisingly spacious and the front buckets are extremely supportive and plush. We've driven long distances in these chairs and would eagerly do it over and over again. Sight lines are great in all directions, and smart features like the dual glovebox design, fold-flat rear seats and cubbies in the doors make for a hatch capable of carrying a raft of personal items, regardless of its exterior size.
Then there's the Mission Control system – the absurdly annoying chatterbox that comes as part of the Camden kit. Sure, it'll make your girlfriend giggle, and it's sort of cute for the first few minutes you're in the car, but if we're honest, the best part about this feature is that it can be turned off (or hacked, as the folks at Automobile found out). It presents itself right away when you start the car, the different voices talking to one another, but as you start to drive, the conversation tapers off. That is, until you're twenty minutes into a Sunday drive, you take a quick left-hander, and suddenly, "Love that go-kart feeling!" comes blaring out of the speakers. That's one way to ruin the perfect line you had going into a turn.
But beyond the Mission Control and Camden-ness beats the heart of a real champ, even in naturally aspirated form. Remember, the base Cooper only cranks out 118 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque from its 1.6-liter inline-four, but it's the car's chassis tuning that makes it a real honey for all sorts of driving situations. Granted, it doesn't provide blistering acceleration off the line, taking a quoted 8.6 seconds to reach 60 miles per hour if your foot is pressed to the floor, but for an diminutive hatchback, it delivers enough power, especially when you consider that it's capable of achieving 28 miles per gallon in the city and 37 on the highway. We can't think of many other vehicles that are this frugal and so entertaining.
Our test car was fitted with the standard six-speed manual transmission, which is really the way to go in any of the Mini models if you want to get the most out of your driving experience. Yes, we're partial to do-it-yourself shifters in the majority of the cars we test, but it just feels so right in the Mini. The clutch pedal has a good deal of weight behind it, which isn't terribly noticeable unless you're faced with long stretches of stop-and-go traffic, and it's easy to modulate during shifts at speed. The stick is pleasant to use, as well, and while we can see how some drivers would prefer shorter throw lengths between the gears, we like the notchy throws and overall engagement.
When it comes to on-road dynamics, we've always been impressed with how well the Mini handles, especially when it comes to the steering. The helm is one of the best in the industry – a small, thick-rimmed wheel that inspires plenty of confidence as soon as you grab it. From there, the steering is nicely weighted, never light or flimsy, providing enough feedback and communication to the driver to make the whole experience immensely involving. One complaint that we've always had with most Minis is the overabundance of torque steer, but with only 118 hp delivered to the front wheels without the aid of a turbocharger, it's barely present in the base Cooper.
To get the most out of the Cooper's dynamics, it's best to drive in sport mode, activated by pushing a small button just above the shifter. This not only improves the throttle response, but it stiffens the suspension slightly, and when combined with the Camden's larger 17-inch wheels wrapped in 205/45-series rubber, there's plenty of grip for the tomfoolery that Mini driving inspires. We'll admit, the suspension damping is a little harsh for the pothole-laden roads of metropolitan Detroit, but once you're out on smooth, twisty roads, all is well.
The base Cooper, while lacking in turbocharged oomph, is still a total hoot to drive. It's an extremely well-balanced and spirited little hatch, and while we'd still probably spend our hard-earned bucks on the upgraded S model, enthusiasts who stick to the lower-end of the price scale will be immensely satisfied.
Speaking of price, that's the big issue we have with Mini's clever Camden car. We've always said that at a base price of only $18,800, the Cooper provides exceptional bang for the buck, but when you start ticking boxes on the options list, it becomes clear that this is, in fact, a product from the BMW group. On its own, that Camden package commands $4,500, and our test car's window sticker showed an additional $1,000 in extras. Tally that up, add $700 for destination and delivery, and the end result is – get ready – a $25,000 base Cooper. For reference, the Cooper S starts at $23,000, albeit without as many extra amenities, but to be blunt, the Camden package simply isn't worth all of that extra coin. Ditch the Mission Control system, spec the same goodies found in the Camden package, and you'll actually spend a bit less.
So while the Camden package might prove to be a hard sell, our time spent with the talkative Cooper reminds us that we don't simply love the Mini range for its turbocharged offerings – the entry-level model still packs plenty of punch, regardless of what flashy goodies have been added on. As a purchase proposition, this car really does speak to us. As Mission Control would say, "This is it – total Mini love."
Photos by Steven J. Ewing / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.