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LIBERATION

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Fri, May 21, 2010

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

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SMALL IS THE NEW BLACK Words and pictures by Roy Nakano Once upon a time, people bought SUVs with the hope of imparting a sense of freedom from the shackles of driving. SUVs, after all, are off-road vehicles, and it was comforting to know that you can go off the asphalt at a moment’s notice and climb that side of the hill to your right. The most prestigious SUVs were also large—a visual statement of success for the high-riding driver-owner.

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And then one day the gas prices went north. All of a sudden, the machines that were supposed to impart a sense of freedom did the opposite. Owning large SUVs became a pain at the pump. The largest of the SUVs became symbols of excess. And in the real world, few owners ever took their SUVs off road. They had a hard enough time maneuvering lane changes in their oversized and visibility-challenged vehicles. Within a span of a decade, large SUVs went from automotive liberator to automotive oppressor. Today, small is the new black. Small takes up less space on the highways. Small usually equates to better gas mileage. It almost always equates to being able to maneuver in situations not open to much larger vehicles.

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When it comes to vehicles with a semblance of room in the back seat, you can’t get much smaller than the MINI in the USA. How small is it? The MINI is four inches narrower than the Volkswagen Golf. It’s over 29 inches inches shorter than the Toyota Prius, and over 31 inches shorter than the Honda Civic Hybrid. Hybrids have been all the rage these past few years. But the most fuel efficient of these are not exactly the most fun cars to drive; nor are they very maneuverable on the road—at least not sport sedan maneuverable.

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In contrast, the MINI is highly maneuverable and lots of fun to drive. Its light weight, low center of gravity, short wheelbase, and quick turning ratio impart a sensation not unlike a go-kart. This is even true for the 37-mpg base MINI Cooper, but it is particularly true for the turbocharged and sport suspension-equipped MINI Cooper S. Our test car is fitted with the optional 6-speed Steptronic automatic transmission, which comes with manual overriding paddle shifters on the steering wheel and an effective sport mode. This transmission (in Sport mode) proves to be particularly well-suited in high-density traffic—allowing the MINI Cooper S a heightened degree of responsiveness, while keeping the driver free from the manual transmission blues that usually plays during rush hour traffic.

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Speaking of rush-hour traffic, this Steptronic-equipped MINI Cooper S is surprisingly well-suited for tooling around in rush-hour traffic. It’s compact dimensions and responsiveness—coupled with great visibility all around—encourages you to make lane changes and passes that you wouldn’t dare do with larger, less-responsive transportation. This is not to say that the car is without its faults. The interior sound levels in the MINI are pretty high. And that sport suspension is great for cornering, but when it comes to ride comfort—well, let’s just say that you’ll never mistake the ride for a Lexus LS 460L. Moreover, the run-flat tires add to both the high noise levels and the sense that one can feel every imperfection in the road. Both of these vices, however, can also play out as virtues. Both contribute to a sensation that the MINI is going faster than it really is. Not that the MINI Cooper S is a slow car (it's not), but it’s a large part of the reason that makes the Cooper so fun to drive. After all, what fun is there in a car that goes 140 mph but feels like it’s only going 40? The Cooper S will do 140 mph, by the way.

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Compared to most small cars, the interior of the MINI is nicely upscale, with handsome-looking leatherette seats, violet blue lighting effects, and chrome hardware in strategic locations. Detracting from the overall look, however, are these silver-painted plastic pieces on the dashboard and steering wheel that look like something Mattel Toys will sell. You can option the car with a better interior, but the silver plastic is still there. (Editor's note, the 2011 MINI, due out in September 2010, replaces the silver-painted pieces with upgraded pieces in piano black.) What about room? Yes, it’s small—particular by American standards. On the other hand, the MINI will fit four adults—provided they are five-nine or shorter, and the front occupants don't mind moving the seat up a little. Remember, European families tool around in cars this size and think nothing of it. And if those in front are over-six feet tall? Then you best reserve the rear for kids. When all is said and done, however, many of us can probably get by fine with smaller cars than we presently own. If everyone drove cars this size, the streets and highways would be far less congested. What about reliability? The MINI Cooper holds the distinction of being one of the few cars in Consumer Reports survey where owner satisfaction is very high, yet reliability is average. And so it is with MINI Cooper owners: They would rather live with a very interesting car with average reliability than a boring but very reliable car 365 days a year. Such is the price of liberation.

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SUMMARY JUDGMENT You can spend a lot more and not have nearly as much fun. For more information about MINI products, go to miniusa.com

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SPECIFICATIONS Name of vehicle: 2010 MINI Cooper S Price: $22,300 $23,800, as tested (includes Steptronic automatic transmission, Bluetooth/USB/MP3/iPod integration)* * The option list for a MINI Cooper S can take you as high as $38,000. Resist the temptation, as the over goodness of the car is present without all the options. EPA fuel economy ratings: 26 city/34 highway miles per gallon Engine: 1.6-liter DOHC 16-valve, twin-scroll turbocharged and intercooled, gasoline direct-injection four-in-line Horsepower: 172 at 5500 rpm Torque: 177 pound-feet at 1600 rpm Transmission: 6-speed Steptronic automatic with overdrive, sequential shifting (allows the driver to choose between automanual or full automatic shift modes), sport modes, and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters Drive configuration: Front-wheel drive Steering: Variable power-assisted rack and pinion (35.1 ft turning circle) Suspension Independent front struts with coil springs, shocks and anti-roll bar Independent multi-link rear with coil springs, shocks and anti-roll bar Brakes: Four-wheel power-assisted discs with ABS (anti-lock brake system) and DSC (dynamic stability control) Wheels and tires: 16-inch silver alloy S-winder wheels P195/55VR16.0BSW run flat performance tires Dimensions Length: 146.2 inches Width: 66.3 inches Height: 55.4 inches Curb weight: 2679 pounds Warranty (months/miles) Bumper to Bumper: 48/50,000 Major Components: 48/50,000 Rust Through: 144/unlimited Roadside Assistance: 48/unlimited Maintenance: 36/36,000 NHTSA safety rating Frontal crash: four stars (driver & passenger) Side crash: five stars (front seat) & four star (rear seat) Rollover: five stars Performance 0-60 mph: 6.7 seconds 1/4-mile elapsed time: 15.0 seconds Top speed: 142/139 mph (M/AT) Review source: LA Car purchase

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