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Mini Cooper S (2008) long-term test goodbye

Published: 11 December 2008

Long-term test goodbye – 11 December 2008

Our Mini Cooper S has gone back after a year’s motoring on the CAR fleet. It’ll be sorely missed and I maintain I’d rather have a Cooper S than any other hot hatch. Yes, a Renaultsport Clio might fly around corners with a smidge more attitude and a 500 Abarth might pack even more pizzazz than Oxford’s rocket, but as an ownership proposition it’s hard to fault the Mini. 

It goes back in remarkably good shape, feeling solid and fresh after a low-ish 12,017 miles. Next time you see a new Mini, just inspect the quality of the paintwork and body panels to get an impression for how many BMW genes are in this car. And it’s that solidity – the sheer quality of the thing – that won me over. Every time I sank into the Cooper’s (upgraded £1210) leather seats or heard the artful, high-tech indicator tick-tock, it felt special. You make no sacrifices when you downsize to a Mini.

I’ve written previously about how brilliant the Mini is to drive and that was key to its appeal. It made every drive an event and the upright windows and excellent visibility help here. It’s just the sort of car you jump in and drive, and it’ll quickly put a smile on your face. Okay, it’s far from perfect, but I can summarise the dynamic faults thus:

Stiff ride on Chili pack’s 17in wheels
Torque steer at T-junctions
We miss the old supercharger’s music!

Faults? Just the small matter of a failed gearbox – but if you read the full saga below, you’ll see this happened while in the care of a sister magazine and I’m loathe to kick Mini too much when we don’t know exactly what our rogue colleagues might have done while YJ07 MBR was in their care. The dealer service on this warranty repair almost made up for the inconvenience suffered (and, yes, we shopped undercover). Had we kept the car for longer, we wouldn’t have pulled into the service bay until 21,000 miles or August 2009.

One other gripe was the fuel economy. We had high expectations of Efficient Dynamics but the benefits failed to materialise on our Cooper S. Mini claims 45.6mpg combined, but we averaged 34.2mpg over the year – a precise and disappointing 25% off the official figure. And, no, we didn't rag it absolutely everywhere.

Most tanks hovered in the low to mid 30s and it only twice broke into the 40s. It’s a shame, as the stop-start system works well once you’ve adapted your driving style, but the fact remains that my motorway and cross-country driving milieu didn’t make much use of the stop-start. At least we know from our own tests that the Cooper or diesel are the Minis to buy if parsimony is your thing.

So the Mini’s gone – and it’s replaced by the Jaguar XF in CAR’s car park. From a brilliant small British car to a potentially excellent big exec. The Jag has a lot to live up to…


By Tim Pollard

Logbook

Total Mileage

12,017 miles

Since Last Report

2017 miles

Overall MPG

34.2 mpg

Since Last report

36.0 mpg

Fuel Costs

£1587.56

Other Costs

2 new tyres £296

Highs

Refinement of new R56 Mini, build quality, turbo grunt, clichéd ‘go-kart handling’, brilliant spec of our Cooper S

Lows

Gearbox claim under warranty, nobbly ride on 17in alloys, small screenwash reservoir, cramped boot, disappointing economy


Previous reports

14 November 2008 The windscreen is fixed
13 October 2008 Chav lights
9 September 2008 New tyres
18 July 2008 The gearbox is fixed 
14 June 2008 The Mini’s boot is tiny!
28 May 2008 Fixed under warranty
19 May 2008 Cracking up
16 May 2008 Gearbox woes
8 April 2008 Lasting quality
18 March 2008 Cooper S vs Ka
11 February 2008 Ambient lighting
4 January 2008

The 1.6 turbo finds its feet

6 December 2007 First report

 

The window is fixed - 14 November 2008

Mini Cooper SI’d completely forgotten how expensive modern windscreens are. Snazzy glazing used to mean a strip of tinted shading at the top of the window, but our Mini comes with a raft of gadgets to make life on the road easier: heating elements to defrost the window, light and rain sensors for auto lamps and wipers, and a tint to reduce glare. Brilliant – until they go wrong. It’s typical of modern life that more gizmos = greater complexity = higher cost when they need fixing.

Yes, I was shocked when I realised just how much it was going to cost to replace our Cooper S’s screen. A rocketing stonechip spewed up by a passing car not far from home smashed a six-inch long crack in the screen right next to the driver’s A-pillar. I’ve put up with it for several months; I know you’re supposed to mend these things quickly but this was never a fixable starburst. Besides, I somehow always think of better things to do at weekends.

The crack inevitably grew and ended up nearer 12 inches. Time to change the screen – YJ07 MBR soon returns to its birthplace of Oxford where it will be sold on through the dealer chain, and there might be cracks in my relationship with BMW if I don’t fix it fast. So we spoke to Autoglass, who dispatched a mobile unit from the Peterborough outlet to give CAR a lesson in windscreen technology.

The new screen was suckered into place in just over an hour, the sensors near the rear-view mirror peeping through the shiny new glass. The fitter also replaced the glossy black A-pillar trim which had an exit wound where the stone had ricocheted off the glass (this impressed me; I didn’t realise they’d have body parts in their vans).

Modern adhesives are fast acting and we could drive our Mini one hour later so long as we avoided car washes for 24 hours. I was impressed by the hassle-free factor of using Autoglass’s mobile service, although rather shocked by the price. The damage? A toe-curling £1600. Thank goodness most comprehensive insurance policies cover glass damage!

By Tim Pollard 

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Chav lights - 13 October 2008


Chav lightsGuess what BMW’s engineers call the rainbow-style variable cabin lighting on the new R56 Mini? ‘Chav lights’. I unearthed this amusing gem when I passed through Plant Oxford and chatted to some German engineers, who let slip in conversation that the Interior Lights Pack pack – which changes the interior lights from blue, through reddy purples all the way to growling orange at the flick of a roof-mounted switch – is referred to internally as the ‘chav light’ option.

Overseas readers not familiar with the etymology of the phrase may need educating on this morsel of UK slang. Chav is a recent addition to our lexicon and refers to people who are ‘lower-class, common, proletarian or vulgar’, according to the dictionary. It’s reported also to stand for ‘council house and violent’ and chavs are usually found at the McDonalds drive-thru in a Vauxhall Nova with huge rude exhausts, strictly unaerodynamic body addenda and a Burberry baseball cap at a jaunty angle. ’Nuff said.

I only mention the chav lights because our Mini Cooper S long-termer has them as part of the optional Chili pack. And despite being colour blind, I rather like them. I keep the interior bathed in a cool blue glow that infuses door panels, rooflining and centre console with a soothing glacial glimmer, although other CAR staffers occasionally experiment with more fiery hues.

Oh, and I should point out that I don’t have an ASBO to my name and Little Britain star Vicky Pollard is no relation…

By Tim Pollard

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New tyres - 9 September 2008

London motor show video 

We’ve fitted new tyres to our Mini Cooper S – after just 10,000 miles. Sounds disappointing on a supermini (albeit a posh, sporting one weighing a Focus-like 1205kg). But there is a good reason for replacement rubber: we recently drilled two holes in our front tyres. Deliberately.

Fret not – your correspondent hasn’t developed vandalistic tendencies overnight. We took the Black and Decker to our Mini’s front boots for a CAR Online video testing run-flat tyre technology. You can watch the video on our player below – suffice to say the run-flats performed well after our DIY assault.

We tested them at Bruntingthorpe test track and were impressed how they drove when flat; there’s a rumbling sound when you corner – that’s the composite reinforced sidewalls doing their support thing – and, as you’d expect, steering response isn’t as sharp as usual. But you really can drive on a puncture (or two) for up to 150 miles. Which could be a life saver.

I’d used run-flats as the maker intended once before – on a first-gen BMW Mini Cooper S back in 2002. I had a puncture in Dorset on Christmas Eve en route to Cambridge, a journey that would have exceeded the recommended distance on pancake-flat boots. Shops and tyre fitters were closing early for the festive break and only after a hair-wrenching hour of phone calls could I track down the correct spec of tyre. I really wanted a spare that day, although the Mini’s farcically tiny boot might have had other ideas...

Fast forward to 2008 and we replaced the front tyres with another pair of Dunlop SP Sport 01s, fitted by the convenient and quick Kwik-Fit Mobile service which joined us at Bruntingthorpe. The original boots were far from worn, but fresh rubber has given the Mini boosted levels of grip, especially in the wet. The Cooper S can torque steer and slide around if you mix big wheel angles with maximum thrust coming out of junctions, and the new rubber has curtailed its worst excesses.

But despite the convenience of run-flats, I still have doubts. They can’t be repaired, I reckon they’re nearly 60 percent more expensive than normal tyres and – cardinal sin this – they do a good job of ruining the ride. Our test Mini jiggles and bounces like a hyperactive toddler over anything other than bowling green-style tarmac.

My advice? Stick with the regular 16-inch wheels on the Cooper S and to hell with the aesthetics of the 17s that come with the Chili pack. They ride so much better and only Robert Kubica will notice the drop-off in grip.

I’d be fascinated to try a Mini on conventional tyres. A quick search on Blackcircles.com reveals that the average current price of 205/45 R17 tyres for the Cooper S is £95. Our Dunlop SP Sport 01 rubber cost £148 per corner. Which means only one thing: you pay a stiff premium for something which – although improving – still comes with many disadvantages…

By Tim Pollard

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The gearbox is fixed - 18 July 2008

How is our new gearbox – recently replaced under warranty – faring? Brilliantly, in a word. Scroll down the page to read our gearbox woes, one of only two blots on the Mini’s copy book in its ten months with us so far.

The new transmission was fitted in two days by Sycamore Mini in Peterborough and the problem (a graunching at middling engine and road speeds) disappeared at a stroke. Engineers suspect cogs in the box’s innards had become fouled, causing a worrying whine very much at odds with the Cooper S’s slick, sporty, premium feel – and sparking a £4000 operation to fit a replacement. Thankfully all covered under warranty and with impressive ease by Sycamore.

Now the Mini is flicking between gears with the alacrity we’ve come to expect of a Cooper S. It’s not an amazingly fast, rifle-bolt gearchange – like that in the sublime Honda Civic Type R, for instance – but this is a decent six-speeder to operate: the action is once more positive, short of throw and with a very BMW, engineered, deliberate precision when you touch the chunky chromed gearlever.

It’s also thankfully free of any grumbling, wince-inducing clonks and whines. Just the way a small BMW’s gearchange should be.

By Tim Pollard

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The minis boot is tiny - 14 June 2008

Mini Cooper S long term test

Just how small is the Mini’s boot? The picture above illustrates the problem perfectly. Sling in two small overnight rucksacks and two laptop bags – hardly a giant cargo, I think you’ll agree – and that’s your lot.

Goes to show how small 160 litres really is. Thankfully we’re not running a Mini for its boot capacity. If you do need to play transporter occasionally, swing down the split rear seat backs (a simple task with easy-to-tug levers only a short stretch away) and the load bay expands to a rather more respectable 680 litres. We recently slung a pair of new tyres in the back easily, for instance.

But don’t pick a Mini for family transport. Buggies and baby paraphernalia are enemies of the Mini hatchback; and even the Clubman ‘estate’ isn’t much better in this regard. I know one young London couple who manage to transport a young family in a second-hand Cooper, but I wouldn’t recommend it…

Happily, things are much better up front. Drive the Mini as the makers intended – one or two up, day-to-day driving, little luggage – and the Cooper S sparkles. There’s plenty of room in the front for even the tallest drivers and stowage space aplenty. We even recently found a new cubby hole lurking behind the metal-look strip on the fascia above the glovebox. There are practical touches galore. Even if there is a pygmy boot.

By Tim Pollard

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Fixed under warranty - 28 May 2008

Mini Cooper S long term testRegular readers will remember that last month we were shellshocked by the news that our pristine Mini Cooper S would need a new gearbox. After just seven months. And 7000 miles. At a cost of £2700... Not good.

In a weird way, we’re grateful something big’s gone wrong. Modern cars – and especially factory-fresh, lab-prepped press demonstrators – rarely break. Modern engineering means magazine critics rarely get to savage genuine mechanical failures – so you can understand our excitement when the Mini’s gearbox broke.

I say broke, but that’s a tad unfair. I was away for a week and the Cooper S apparently went from its usual frothy self to grumbling patient overnight while on loan to a sister magazine. It manifested itself in a decidedly unhealthy whine from the transmission at medium speed and revs; dip the clutch and it disappeared, suggesting a fault in the gearbox innards.

A trip to Sycamore Mini in Peterborough confirmed our diagnosis. ‘We don’t fix gearboxes any more,’ said a senior engineer. ‘It’ll need a new one,’ he added helpfully. ‘I hope that’s under warranty,’ I spluttered.

Thankfully it was – and a good job, too, as the total bill ended up north of £4000. I should point out that CAR always mystery shops on these occasions – we posed as regular punters and stripped the car of any media credentials. BMW vows it doesn’t tip off dealers about press cars and the administrator’s screen showed no visible VIP alerts.

How did our mystery shopping go? The dealership experience was first rate: courteous, professional and the car was returned spotless and with a new gearbox under warranty after two days’ work. Now it’s time to ask head office to investigate the fault for our next report.

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By Tim Pollard 

Cracking up - 19 May 2008

Mini Cooper S long term test windscreenTook associate editor Tim Pollard’s Mini for the weekend, and it all started rather badly. There might be a new gearbox in the Cooper S (more next week) but there’s also a new crack across the windscreen. It's in an awkward spot and we'll have to get it fixed soon. But it didn't stop me thinking if I had to own any car on our long-term fleet, it would be the Cooper S.

Why? Well, I picked the Mini over the Civic Type-R and our newly arrived Evo X – both are too hard-riding and wearing for long journeys. Ben Barry’s Golf GT is missing the crucial 'i' from its badge. Diesel doesn’t do it for me when I have some back roads lined up, so that means the Defender, C-class, Allroad and my own Qashqai are off the list. And the editor’s 335i? He spends what free moments he has wishing for sun, which never seems to come. Except this morning and we were all heading inside to work. That's no way to live...

But don’t think that the Mini is winning my vote without having its own merits. It’s quick, comfortable, and has a badge and ambience that make you feel special. Treat it like a two-seat coupe, fold the rear seats, and there’s even a big boot too. I love it.

By Ben Pulman

  

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Gearbox Woes - 16 May 2008

Disaster! The Mini might need a new gearbox – after just 7000 miles… Yikes. We noticed a grumbling whine from the transmission under part-load – it was especially noticeable in the middle rev range at middling speeds: a whirring and whining that made us wonder for the health of the drivetrain. Dip the clutch and it disappeared, suggesting it was the six-speed ’box.

How did this come to pass? It’s all a bit of mystery, happening while I was away for a week. Junior staff writer Ben Pulman drove the Mini at the weekend (it was fine), then a sister magazine borrowed the car for the Monday night and by the time assistant editor Ben Barry drove it on the Tuesday, the whine had appeared. The colleagues who borrowed the Cooper S denied any wrongdoing, but we are left wondering what happened in that short, overnight loan. Surely a modern gearbox should withstand most punishment thrown at it, leaving us puzzled as to what really happened…

Anyhow, we’ve dropped into the Sycamore dealership in Peterborough (incognito. Lovely place. Friendly staff), where an engineer identified the problem inside the gearbox. ‘We don’t fix gearboxes any more,’ he said helpfully. ‘It’ll need a new gearbox,’ he added. ‘I hope that’s under warranty,’ I spluttered.

Thankfully, it will be. We’ll report back with the full story when the work’s done in the next few days.

By Tim Pollard
 

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Lasting quality - 8 April 2008 

Mini Long term test driveOur long-term Mini has shed its new-car sheen. Seven months into our year-long tenure, it’s bearing up well – all the alloys are in one piece (not bad, for the thinly tyred 17in items that come with the Chili pack) and there are no battle scars on the paintwork. Given a good dose of TLC it comes up sparkly new, feeling as glossy and new as the day it rolled off the production line. Sit it alongside a volume supermini – even our 2007 Car of the Year, the Fiat 500 – and you begin to understand where that premium price has been spent.

The cabin is proving durable, too, although I’ve noticed a sporadic creak from the dashboard near the offside windscreen pillar. It’s not been annoying enough to warrant a trip to the dealer yet, but if it becomes more frequent or louder we might have to pop into our local garage.

By Tim Pollard 

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Cooper S vs Ka - 18 March 2008

Had my first drive in a SportKa this week, and despite over a decade’s difference between the Ford and our long-term Mini, both share some remarkable characteristics. Both Ka and Cooper seem to pivot directly from the steering wheel. There’s no wallow, no inertia. You turn, they go, without any slack. These two are what hot hatches should always be like.

The differences are clear though, as obvious as the 78bhp gulf between the two. Sit in the Ford and the steering wheel sits in your lap. Step inside the Mini and it seems comparatively huge. The upright windscreen actually makes the Cooper S feel quite large. It is up front, but not in the back, and definitely not in the boot.

But despite the age gap you feel more involved in the Ka, even cruising around town. It's mostly down to the lack of refinement, something the Cooper S has far too much of in my opinion. The Ka’s engine sounds like it’s in the glovebox, but I like that. I don’t like the fact that there’s next to no feel or inertia from the Mini’s clutch or gearbox in stop/start traffic. You end up making clumsy getaways. Some might like this, but I wish our Cooper S was just a little less refined. Then again, the Mini could do with less tyre noise. Moi, a hypocrite?

By Ben Pulman

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Ambient lighting - 11 February 2008

Tim Pollard's Mini Cooper SThe better half rather likes Minis. And while she wants a cream or green one, and very rarely approves of any car I bring home, even she couldn’t resist the Mini’s charms.

While I’m happy behind the wheel (the Mini really is a great car) she gets everything else she needs. A digital radio, comfy seats, and that large central speedo to keep an eye on how quick I’m going. In fact, the only thing she doesn’t like is the switchable interior ambient lighting that lets you choose your preferred hue. Which must make me a bit of a tart because I quite like this gimmick.

By Ben Pulman

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The 1.6 turbo finds its feet - 4 January 2008

Tim Pollard's Mini Cooper SThe Mini is now run in and feels, frankly, bloody fast for a supermini. We limited ourselves to below 4500rpm for the first 1200 miles (hardly a problem in a lightweight, low-pressure turbo supermini) but the odo passed the magic number in the first week, so we can now explore the more interesting upper reaches of the Cooper S's rev range.

For those who have yet to drive the new, new Mini, here's what happens when you bury the throttle. You lose the intriguing compressor whine from the old supercharger - a shame - and instead witness a more gradual, but relentless shove. It's impressively fleet of foot, and helped by the delightfully precise, snickety gearchange. Mind you, it's so flexible, you rarely have to rev hard for swift progress.

I know of one Cooper S owner who took their standard car on a dyno test and found 205 horses under the bonnet, some way more powerful than the claimed 173bhp, even taking into account the overboost function. Maybe it's time we took our Mini to the gym to see how strong it really is.

By Tim Pollard

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Mini Cooper S first report - 6 December 2007 

Tim Pollard's long-term Mini Cooper SSpeccing CAR's long-term Mini was like taking an indecisive teenager clothes shopping. Does that blue go with that charcoal? Hasn't the girl next door got those wheels? Does my bum look big in this seat? I kept scuttling back and forth betwixt brochure and browser, formulating the exact combination of options and accessories to make our Cooper S one in 15,000,000,000,000,000. No, I don't know how to pronounce that number, either. Suffice to say, ours is the only Mini ever to roll out of Plant Oxford in this precise choice of 14 trim and colour variables.

Cue blushes and no more pocket money for the rest of the year. Yes, we picked 14 options totalling just over four grand, but that's about par for the more eager Cooper S buyers. You can see why personalisation is all the rage these days (it was a lot of fun) and it's also testament to BMW's ability to prise money from the wallets of potential buyers.

Picking the colour was a two-way toss-up between laser blue and chili red, contrasted by the white roof and mirror caps. I didn't pick the Accident With Tipp-Ex matching white wheels though (a no-cost option). Apparently, there's a geographical split on colour choices: Londoners prefer black Minis while buyers in the US like theirs in cool white. I plumped for the laser blue, exclusive to the Cooper S. It suits the Mini's chunky stance down to a tee.

The £1995 Chili pack was a no-brainer, and the majority of buyers pick it for the air-con, xenons, onboard computer, extra storage and sports steering wheel. I was less keen on its 17-inch alloys, fearful of their effect on the ride but there's no way you can request the original 16s if you spec the Chili pack. Even a week into our ownership, I think that's a shame, the Cooper S jiggling over the bumpy unclassified roads round my way.

Our other big luxury was the classy carbon black lounge leather (£1210). It's the selfish choice - your cheeks spending far longer in contact with the seat than your eyeballs do the outside, and it's offset by the new brushed aluminium trim and chrome line interior. Smoked rear glass for £120 was a must (to shade our 10-month-old), as was the £280 digital DAB radio (Peterborough not being famed for the quality or choice of its local airwaves).

In effect, BMW is letting Joe Public loose on the design process, freeing up our imaginations to create more bespoke products. There's clearly potential for bad-taste excess (although more lurid combinations are banned) but overall I'm pleased with the result. This isn't just any Mini, and heaven knows, there are enough of them around nowadays. It's my Mini and that counts for a lot.

In a month that included CAR's greatest performance cars test and an altercation with a grey Cooper S Works, plus a trip to the airport, we've already passed the 1200-mile mark in its first week. So we can now exceed 4500rpm and start to exploit the responses of the 1.6 turbo and the character of the new, new Mini. Has it really lost the magic of BMW's first effort? And should you really spend £20k on a supermini?

We're about to find out if it's special or specious.

By Tim Pollard 

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