What happens when you get what you want...

...or "Whitney gets car fever"

So Saturday, before Ike started tearing through our area, our intrepid family went a-Cincinatti'ing. Yep, swimming pools, movie stars, and the best MINI dealership in the world.

I hadn't been to Cincy MINI since last August, when a mishap with my radiator drain plug had me driving 120 miles roundtrip for a $2 part. Whitney hadn't been there since spring of 05, when we had the Pup in for its last dealer service.

Turns-out, Whitney missed the place. Before my first test drive, she proclaimed that Maria, Joey, and herself were remaining in the Odyssey.

"Okay, I'll be back," I replied. I dragged the family this far. Might as well get on with it, as the British would say.

The dealership hasn't changed at all...same friendly folks (though new faces), same user-friendly attitude towards test drives: "Which one do you want to start with," Motoring Advisor Emily asked.

"Oh, something with a 5-speed"

"You mean, a manual? Oh, they're all six-speeds now"

Ah, so they are:


Dropping into the Base Cooper was like putting on an old shoe from high school: So intensely familiar, and yet you feel changes. The shoe hasn't changed--YOU have changed. Everything fell to hand immediately, and immediately I noticed superior touches in the new R56 MINIs:

  • They finally added a telescope to the steering column.

  • The they redid the center console so it doesn't dig into your right calf

  • The new Getrag 6-speed is a revelation, as is the clutch. Really, the snick-sick motion and light clutch felt like driving a motorcycle more than a car. Rifle-bolt mechanical and precise. That 6th gear finally makes long highway slogs possible, too.

  • It finally feels like a real car. The R53 (previous gen) always felt a little raw and alive, with an ultra-firm ride that punished on the highway. Even with the run-flat tires, this car was supple on I-71.

Even yet, the R56 was no panacea. It's still a MINI: The squared-off roof still had me peering up at stoplights. The 118 hp in the Cooper's still just adequate, especially on that manic merge on the freeway. However, the new transmission and clutch make it a pleasure to wring out every bit of that 1600cc's.

So, test drives complete, I returned to find Whitney, Joey, and Maria chatting up the sales girl and Whitney having a gleam in her eye: "Hey, so...have you driven the clubman?"

I fanned my hands in front of her face and said, "So...who are you and what have you done with my wife?"

So...yeah...my darling wants to get back into the MINI clan. BADLY.

* * *

Some dislikes of the new R56's:

  • The new MFSW. It's three-spokes (good), but looks awful and has 8 non-sensical buttons for radio, on-board computer, and cruise control. However, it's a paragon of sense compared to...

  • The center stack of radio, climate, and ??? controls. Stylish? Sure! Useable? Egads, no. I finally figured-out the climate control, but the radio controls were an impenetrable mess. I finally relented and just started using the steering wheel controls to cycle among the 6 presets on the radio. I'm sure it'd make sense after a few thousand miles...

  • Still don't like the new nose. The R53's with the integrated headlights in the bonnet was perfect. I understand the European pedestrian crash standards bear on the design, but UGH!

The biggie is, I didn't particularly like the 'S' too much. Yes, it has much more power, but it has gobs of torque steer when you cane it and the wheels aren't perfectly straight. This is (essentially) the same complaint I had about the R53 when it came out--the Cooper felt sorted, the 'S' felt like an overdone brute. Fast forward 6 years (has it really been? wow), and the new chassis is much sweeter and both engines have been upgraded.

Basically, I think the Beamer has just spoiled me with its rear-wheel drive. Putting that much power in such a light car through the front wheels just feels...wrong...to me now. In either case the BMW, MINI, and PSA engineers should take a bow...these engines are gems. The only thing I noticed was a tendency for the non-turbo car to hang onto revs. I assume that's the same emissions-control nonsense you get with all modern electronic-throttle cars.


I forgot how incredibly agile and tossable these cars really were. My BMW just can't feel that agile...I could slam the suspension and put on meaty swaybars, but that carved-from-an-ingot chassis of the MINI would still spank it.

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