Day 3 of the MINI Takes The States Tour placed a big emphasis on driving. Not the kind of stop and go commuter traffic that we experienced in New York, Philly and Baltimore, but on the kind of high performance spirited driving that MINIs are known for.
Don’t get me wrong – as much as auto writers posture about blasting across twisty blacktop or exiting a corner on a road course with the wheel cranked at full lock, they know somewhere deep down they understand that their audience wants to know how the car does in the daily grind of traffic, gas mileage and all the unglamorous stuff left to plebian drivers. These are the conditions where we drive our press cars 95% of the time; stuck in a barely moving single file row of other cars, belching greenhouse emissions, A/C cranked and the same Lady GaGa song playing across the same 5 radio stations owned by one media conglomerate.
If you’re test driving a mid-size sedan, then the review will be centered on these conditions. But if you’re in something a bit sportier, you’ll go to bed a little earlier on a Friday night and maybe not go to the bar with your buddies. The alarm will be set for an ungodly hour, but you won’t need that double batch of morning coffee, because the urgency will be there. It’s like Christmas morning even though the August humidity is just starting to creep into your day. Today was one of those days.
Hit the jump to see how it all went down:
The day started off at FedEx Field outside of Baltimore, with another owners meeting and an Autocross (called a Minicross). I’m a big road course guy, and can’t say I’m a big fan of dodging cones, but I got to FedEx Field early and had my pick of the entire MINI fleet to use on the course. Since it wasn’t timed, I decided to go for the base Cooper, with a manual gearbox.
The base car acquitted itself well on the tight second gear course. The layout wasn’t very challenging, since it was meant for people with zero high performance driving experience, but the nimble responses and the overall joy that comes with driving a slow car quickly meant that I had fun behind the wheel, but stand by my opinion on autocross – get thee to a track day.
If you weren’t big on the autocross, MINI also had a full range of Tamiya R/C cars available to play with. I haven’t picked up an remote control car since I was a kid, and the Tamiya cars were far quicker than what I remembered.
True to real life, the MINI remote control cars are front wheel drive. Yes, they even understeer around tight turns.
MINI Clubman S
I managed to worm my way in to a MINI Clubman S for the day, while my driving partner got some seat time in the standard Clubman model. While I enjoy his company, I relish every chance I get to go for a solo drive in a fast car, and our route book promised that the drive from Baltimore to Pittsburgh promised to be a route that was both “fun” and “twisty.” I wasted no time in getting on the road right after the autocross and the Clubman was initially a bit disconcerting.
With a fairly big blind spot on the driver’s side, and less visibility than the Cooper S, I felt a bit uncomfortable in the car initially. The rear doors bisect everything in the rear view mirror, an annoying quirk that you soon get over, but one that is abnormal and reduces visibility.
Cruise control was present this time, but I couldn’t seem to activate it for the life of me. And the mounting bracket for the MINI branded Garmin navigation unit is placed behind the steering wheel, where the thick spokes block out pertinent information like when to turn, distance to the turn and what direction to go in.
On the other hand, the Clubman S was an absolute pleasure to drive on the 250 mile drive from Baltimore to Pittsburgh. With a mixture of 4-lane interstates, two lane highways and one enormous mountain pass that swung up and down like a teenager’s mood, the Clubman was unflappable (once you remember to really look at those blind spots when changing lanes).
The powertrain is the same as the Cooper S, a 175-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Cruise control was an afterthought, since all I wanted to do was put my foot down whenever I got the chance – the lag-free power delivery makes it all too easy to do extra legal speeds, and zip by the myriad SUVs and pickup trucks which chugged pathetically up steep grades in Pennsylvania’s mountain regions, while the Clubman shot alongside them in the left lane, with a simple 5-4 downshift providing enough torque to let you feel it in your backside. The six-speed manual, despite its relatively long throws and tall shifter, comes close to Miata-like directness and the ratios are well spaced. Sixth is a great gear for the highway, but still leaves enough torque for most passing maneuvers. Naturally, first and second are prone to fair amount of torque steer as the revs rise, but that’s symptomatic of nearly any powerful front wheel drive car.
Although the Cooper S I drove yesterday had a “Sport” setting, the Clubman was the first opportunity for me to try it out. The steering tightens up noticeably and while the throttle response is a little sharper, but not so much that the average driver would notice.
One thing that might turn off the average driver is the stiff ride. People who enjoy cars will appreciate the composure that comes with it – even though it’s firm, it doesn’t shock the rest of the car and is free of rattles, shakes or other disturbances, with the longer wheelbase undoubtedly helping regulate these gremlins. The ride feels a lot like a well set up track car with real small diameter race springs (not the crappy coilover sleeves favored by the “Import 2NR” set) and properly valved shocks. The downside of course, is an uncomfortably rigid ride over expansion joints and rough pavement, but it pays dividends where it counts.
Towards the end of the 4-hour drive, I had hit a stretch of rural Pennsylvania that started to get interesting. The two lane road running through a small town suddenly turned steep and sweeping, when I came upon a giant bright red sign that said “DANGEROUS MOUNTAIN AHEAD.” If there was ever a time to see what the Clubman S was capable of, this was it.
While the posted speed limit was generally between 30 and 40 mph, the Clubman S had no trouble cornering the canyon like passes at well beyond those speed. With the “sport” button selected, the sharp, well-weighted steering and neutral handling instill a ton of confidence in the driver – perhaps the most important characteristic for those of us who don’t do any competitive racing on road courses. A quick application of the brakes was enough to scrub off enough speed to allow you to enter the corner towards the top of third gear, and then accelerate mightily towards fourth on a straight section. A heel toe downshift (which takes a bit of time to master, due to the fast acting brakes and dull electronic throttle) is all you need to repeat the sequence for the next corner. Mario Andretti may have said that “if everything is under control, you’re not going fast enough,” but the lack of drama when driving a Clubman S at speed on a public road is a great recipe for fun without putting anybody in serious danger, or running afoul of the law.
The drive was so pleasurable that I waited another few miles for the chance to get off the highway so I could turn around and do it again, this time running just a bit closer to the concrete barriers set that keep you from flying off the road or into oncoming traffic. The harder I pushed, the more eager the Clubman S was to indulge me. With a mostly uphill run this time, the MINI’s turbocharged four was put to the test, and it never let me get caught out by turbo lag, propelling the car up the straights seamlessly.
The one big letdown had to do with the seats. While they’re decently comfortable initially, they’re not terribly supportive, and you feel like you’re sitting on them rather than in them. After a few hours, you begin to feel like you’re sleeping in a bed that’s too soft, and your back begins to ache. During spirited driving, they simply don’t hold you well enough in place. I couldn’t help but envy one gentleman on MTTS who has harnesses installed in his Mini Cooper S JCW.
After my shenanigans, I came to a rest stop, where families with Expeditions, Yukon’s and minivans all inquired about the car. One person wanted to know about the “long wheelbase MINI” while another asked if I was “in a race” with my “rally car”. The crisp white paint, grille mounted fog lights and blacked out wheels make the MINI stand out even further from the SUVs and vans on the road. I even got a thumbs up later on from a Mustang Cobra driver, who gave it as he stepped on the gas of his drag-tired shod ‘Stang, while the Supercharged V8 let out a demonic wail from its big blower, and a deafening roar from the dual pipes. As quick as the Clubman may be, I’m more likely to have a quiet evening with Lindsay Lohan than keep up with him.
Sunday I’ll get to drive the MINI Countryman and have a chance to chat with MINI head honcho Jim McDowell as we head into Columbus, Ohio. Stay tuned to Autoguide’s news blog and our Twitter feed for more coverage.