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Old 11-13-2006, 08:43 AM   #1
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Default First Drive: 2007 Mini Cooper/Cooper S (

First Drive: 2007 Mini Cooper/Cooper S (

Stare at a picture of the new Mini Cooper and you wonder, for a moment, whether somebody's made a mistake and run a picture of the old one.

But no, it's not a mistake: what you're staring at are pictures of the new Mini, which is about to go on sale in Europe and will hit our shores early next year. In trying to answer the question of how to redesign an icon, BMW evidently decided the best way was to not redesign it at all.

Look hard enough and you start to see the differences between the old car and the new. Up front, the hood still retains its clamshell design, but the headlights are now connected to the rest of the car rather than the hood, reducing repair costs and production complexity; it's taller, too, to meet new pedestrian-impact standards that mandate four inches of space between the top of the hood and the top of the engine. In profile, the Mini's window line now rises up towards the rear of the car, giving it a more pronounced wedge-shaped appearance; as a consequence, the roof looks a bit lower, even though it's not. Details have changed, too: the side vents have been redesigned and all of the lights, up front and at the back, are bigger and have larger chrome rings. Almost unbelievably, given how similar it looks, every body panel is new.

If the current Mini that's on sale now - I recently drove a Cooper S John Cooper Works Competition Edition (surely the award-winner for the World's Longest Car Name) - isn't actually that 'mini', the new one is even less so. While the new Mini looks small because its big wheels are pushed out to the very corners of its chassis, the new car is actually 60 mm longer than the outgoing one. Combine the stretch with a redesigned rear suspension (which dumps the current Mini's excellent but not exactly space-efficient Z-axle) and a re-profiled rear hatch and the result is not only an increase in cargo space for the tiny trunk but also improved rear legroom, which is one of the current model's major shortcomings.

After a few days behind the wheel of the Competition Edition, I'm at a loss to suggest ways to improve the way the current Mini drives, save for its brittle, almost punishing ride on the standard run-flat tires. Nevertheless, there are changes afoot. Mini project manager Uwe Gaediecke told Car magazine in the UK that the goal was to mature the car, make it "better educated". "You don't have to drive it in an active way all the time," he said.

Thanks to a slightly more grown-up chassis set-up and larger standard tires, the overall effect adds up to a lot more comfort and stability in both the base Cooper and the Cooper S - all seemingly without much of a reduction in driving pleasure when you're really booting along. The front McPherson struts and lightweight rear suspension - it's simpler than the old Z-axle set-up, but not the rumoured torsion bar - has also brought about a major improvement in ride quality and body control at high speed, two shortcomings of the current car that will remain on sale until next spring.

So at least initially, before the no-doubt numerous JCW editions start to proliferate, the overall driving experience of the new Mini is a bit less extreme than the run-out Competition Edition, with its lightning-quick steering reactions, super-sharp brakes and throttle- adjustable, almost twitchy chassis behaviour on the limit (and with the stability control turned off). No doubt we'll see editions even more extreme than the 208-hp Competition Edition, with more power, larger wheels (my tester ran on 17s) and an even rortier exhaust note from the twin rear pipes. The new Cooper S is fast but fairly refined, with less noise from the engine room and a slight reduction in excitement because of that fact.

Extracting a distinctive engine sound from the Mini's new engines was inherently more difficult than with the current car, especially in the faster Cooper S thanks to the muffling effect of the turbocharger. While the current fast Mini is supercharged, and comes with a distinctive whine as standard, the new 1.6-litre four in the Cooper S makes a more muffled sound. Power is up, from 163 to 175 horsepower; torque now measures 177 lb-ft. Like the base, normally-aspirated 120-hp 1.6, the Cooper S' new engine features BMW's throttle-free Valvetronic technology, which not only improves overall power, but also brings with it a claimed 20 per cent increase in fuel economy. The Mini's CVT transmission has been dropped; a six-speed manual is standard in both the regular Cooper and hot Cooper S models, with a six-speed automatic optional on both cars; we only tried the manual during the press preview, and it featured the same short, chunky throws of the current transmission.

Where the Mini has seen the most change is undoubtedly inside. The same basic design themes remain - huge central speedometer, tightly- packaged three-spoke steering wheel, four circular air vents, metal pedals, narrow console and oval door trim - but the execution is very, very different.

While the current car features a range of fancy finishes and small pieces that can sometimes give off a discordant sense - the Competition Edition features brushed metal, carbon-fibre, alcantara, silver and black cloth as well as three shades of plastic - the new Mini's interior is far more unified in appearance, with fewer textures, fewer colours and a generally higher-quality look and feel.

If you can believe it, the speedometer is even bigger, since it now houses the audio controls. The centre console design has been simplified; they're still chrome toggle switches divided by metal rungs, but they're now, like the climate controls and CD slot, inset into a clean silver oval that juts out from the soft face of the centre stack. Optional finishes include genuine wood trim, which makes for a surprisingly luxurious ambiance in combination with the tan leather option.

There are a couple of noteworthy details. An optional lighting package allows you to change the colour of the subtle lighting around the roof lining, door panels, dashboard and cubbies at the flick of a switch (five colours, from cool blue to deep red, are offered). Satellite navigation now joins the speedometer in the centre of the dashboard rather than relegating it to being strapped to the steering column; the system features a much larger screen and is far easier to use. The ignition key has been replaced as well; there's now a flying-saucer shaped key and a start/stop button, just like in the latest BMWs.

As always, customization will be high on the list of the new Mini's selling points. The old options list grows even longer with the new car. Outside, you can still order the car with its roof and mirrors painted in a contrasting colour - and then embellish it with stripes, rooftop graphics, a choice of alloy wheels and a newly-designed body kit (the Competition Edition kit on the outgoing car features a deeper front air dam, fog lamps, silver rear vents and a roof spoiler). Inside, you can choose from a number of dashboard colours and finishes, seat colours, seat trim in leather or cloth - and even go so far as to choose matte or chrome-finish air vents.

Such flexibility in specification is undoubtedly one reason BMW has managed to ship an amazing 830,000 Minis since the current car's introduction in 2001. In doing so, the company proved that, given the right product and the right range of options, people - even North Americans - are more than willing to pay premium prices for a small car.

The new (ahem) new Mini, with an even greater range of configurations and a newly refreshed series of mechanicals, will no doubt continue the outgoing car's success: depending on which engine you choose and which options you choose to add, the price will likely range from just over $25,000 to well past $40,000.

And that's before the introduction, within the next couple of years, of the new Mini convertible and the super-hot John Cooper Works models. If you can't wait that long - and given how great the current JCW is to drive, you would be forgiven - there may still be a few of the 64 Competition Editions still available for sale.

At a glance: 2007 Mini Cooper/Cooper S
European data

Price (estimate): $25,000 (Cooper)/$33,000 (Cooper S)
Engine: 1.6-litre inline-four; turbocharged 1.6-litre inline-four
Horsepower: 120 (Cooper)/175 (Cooper S)
Torque (lb-ft): 118 (Cooper)/177 (Cooper S)
Fuel consumption L/100 km (European combined): 5.89 (Cooper)/7.85 (Cooper S)
Competition: Volkswagen GTI; Audi A3, Mazdaspeed3, Nissan Sentra SE-R

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