Posted by: joevanderfluit | September 5, 2016

MINI Cooper: Lovely Fing, Innit? Part II

So obviously, I quite like my Cooper. Love it, in fact. But, I say with a heavy sigh, that did not make the breakup from the Little Purple Beast any cleaner or easier. Like James Hetfield once put it, “…then it comes to be/that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel/was just a freight train comin’ your way”, the Miata chose its moment with vicious precision and absolutely ripped my guts out while I was thrumming with excitement, minutes before I parked her for the last time and removed my plate and left to pick up the MINI. Taking a page from Transformers, she spoke through the radio by cuing up “Here’s To Us” by Halestorm. The last time I drove the car I loved so dearly, I had to contend with the most bittersweet song sung by the best, gravelliest, smokiest, sexiest voice in modern music remind me of the mutual feeling me and that battered hunk-o-junk had: “…Stuck it out this far together, put our dreams through the shredder. Let’s toast, ’cause things got better. And everything could change like that, and all these years go by so fast; but nothing lasts forever. Here’s to us, here’s to love, all the times that we fucked up. Here’s to you, fill the glass, ’cause the last few days have kicked my ass…” I never heard another song piped through those poor abused, weedy little speakers. I couldn’t. It had to end that way. 7686178464_fdc8ea66c7

I’ve been lucky enough to avoid any serious heartbreak insofar as women are concerned: I got that part right the first time. The cars I’ve owned, though, have always stepped up and filled that void. The black Ranger I haven’t had since, what, 2009 still has her evil, rusty hooks in the cold, bleak depths of my heart. And now the Miata is the same. I mean, I knew well enough we were at the end of our road. The iron oxide cancer was spreading so badly through the rockers that the jack points were compromised, and it was overdue for a timing belt service and probably could have used some tires. And as much as I wanted to not care about it, it really wasn’t comfortable anymore. It just didn’t work. One must understand the pain that fact inflicts upon me. Losing that car feels as much as an ideological defeat as personal loss. I absolutely hate the trajectory of the modern automotive industry. Anything that isn’t a crossover, an overweight blob of a tall wagon on stilts, just doesn’t sell anymore. The Miata and I were waging a war to prove something. That rear-wheel-drive isn’t a boogeyman waiting to kill on the first wet or slippery road. That ground clearance and all-wheel-drive mean nothing in snow, and that tire and driver is what does. That electronics don’t matter and “features” are overrated.

I am fighting a losing war. I refuse to “upgrade” to an automatic transmission while an unstoppable tide of autonomous cars are storming over the horizon. I was forced to capitulate and get something with dynamic stability control and front-wheel-drive. The Cooper lets me soldier on with a manual gearbox and low-slung stance that still doesn’t really need to slow down for corners, but in some way it still does feel like a forced step backward; one that I and those like me cannot afford. I legitimately enjoy driving, being in control of something mechanical and intricate and pretty. I’ve never bothered to care about safety ratings. I see it the same way I see commercial flight: not a chore, but an opportunity to do something conceptually awesome. That makes me one of a relatively few sick individuals. The Miata was one hell of an enabler. So how does the Cooper stack up where it matters?

Engine: The old: 1.8L inline-four; 132 horsepower, 109 lb-ft torque. The new: 1.6L inline-four; 121 horsepower, 114 lb-ft torque. Okay, so these are both pretty much just little economy car motors. By the end the Miata sounded exactly how I wanted it to, with a mixture of legit (new muffler) and gloriously ghetto (holes drilled into the intake) modifications. The MINI has potential but little aftermarket support for anything that isn’t a turbocharged Cooper S. Both cars had no power and, torque? Ha. Funny. The Miata made a noise like an annoyed wolverine but the Cooper burns 75% of the (premium) fuel and doesn’t feel any slower to the trusted old Butt Accelerometer (patent pending). Judgment: dead heat. A slow, dead heat.

Gearbox: Both are six-speed manual. I won’t take it any other way. The Miata truly spoiled me here. Mazda dropped in the sweetest, slickest little gearbox I’ve ever driven. The stick ran straight from the centre console into the top of the transmission; no cables, no linkages. It was the most viscerally satisfying thing. It’s why I like vintage light switches and cocking guns and watches with gracile little gears and hands. The sound and the feel of precise mechanical bits working in concert is my trigger for the James May Fizz. The only gearboxes I can imagine being any more satisfying that that of the Miata are the gorgeous gated Ferrari and Lamborghini units, or the modern art sculpture inside the Spyker C8.

Except that the Miata ‘box is quicker than any gated shifter ever. It was always an absolute joy to run through the gears with but two fingers and a wrist flick. The Cooper’s is odd in comparison. The actual lever is quite long, with a long throw. But considering it runs through some manner of linkage all the way to the front transaxle, it’s still full of mechanical feel and is weighted beautifully. The action is thus slowed down, and ironically feels more like a gated shifter that the Miata’s. But the Miata is the example of how sublime a manual can be. Judgement: Miata. The Cooper’s is fun but the Miata’s is just perfect.

Handling: These two cars are very different though equally rambunctious beasts. The Miata will teach you how to drive with a capital D. Not just point it and push a pedal, but to truly drive. You’ll feel weight transfer and body roll and where grip is and isn’t. Mine had a tendency to understeer with weight on the front and hunker down and take off like a rocket with weight on the back. Throttling out of the apex of corners made the car come alive and I loved it for it. The Cooper doesn’t really care; it likes to be thrown into bends with reckless abandon and will try to lift the back inside wheel off the ground. Unless it’s wet; then the all-season runflats are no-season shit and all bets are off as to what it’ll do, but that won’t be an issue next week when proper summer performance rubber gets fitted. The Miata was sprung quite softly for a sportscar; the MINI isn’t really sprung. The best analogy I can make is that the Miata is Forza Motorsport 6; the Cooper is Mario Kart. Will I miss rear-wheel-drive powerslides and donuts in the winter? Yes, but I’ll be able to do mad World Rally handbrake skids instead. It’s difficult to compare because they’re so different in nature; and even more difficult to determine which is better when both give the same result: a big old silly grin. Judgment: life is too damned short to have something boring so either way I win.

That there is the important bit: that it isn’t boring. It’s different, a baton-pass, a gear shift. Moving from one brand of automotive rebellion to another. I like slow cars, fast cars, old cars, weird cars, beautiful cars, ugly cars. The only think I won’t suffer is a dull car. An autonomous car. The MINI Cooper, with three pedals and a stick in the middle, is my next last stand. So here’s to us.

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