One sunny autumn afternoon when I was about 13, my dad and I were out collecting canned goods door to door as part of a Thanksgiving charity drive. We strolled house to house, our paper grocery bags filling with dusty boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese and squatty little neglected cans of tuna. The sun was getting low in the sky and as we entered yet another cull de sac, I saw something I’d never seen before.
“What the heck is that?” I asked, pointing toward an open garage across the street.
“Ooh! That’s a Mini, son. C’mon, you won’t see one of these every day.” My dad replied.
Twenty yards from us was an open one-car garage with a faded blue classic Mini Cooper inside. In the dim light of the garage, I could just make out its squatty little stance and Union Jack roof graphic. I’ve inherited a big soft spot for british motors, as my dad is the original owner of a 1969 MGb GT. Dad talked to the owner about one thing or another, but I was transfixed by this groovy little car and wondered what the hell it was doing in northwest Louisiana. As we left, I was nothing but questions. I was sad to learn that emission standards and bumper height regulations meant that the Mini was only imported for a few years. Still, I was determined that someday I’d simply have to own one.
Flash forward. I’m done with school, working in advertising and design, and the CP+B branded MINI had captivated me even beyond the classic. Here was this car that by my calculations was a near mythical blend of efficiency, style, sport and cheek. What was more, I could just afford one. I’d done a nice long test drive in Kansas City and my mind was thoroughly made up. Unfortunately, I was up against a deadline.
It was 2006, and the car I’d fallen in love with was soon going to drastically change [I strongly felt] for the worse. The R53, Frank Stephenson’s Rover initiated, BMW polished masterpiece was being fiddled with by the bean counters at BMW. The design language of the new car, the R56, seemed to have a bizarre German accent and there were mechanical changes that seemed to go against common sense and good character. The raw roar of the supercharger was to be replaced by the whispy buzz of a twin-scroll turbo. The bulletproof iron block was now a fragile lump of aluminum. More alarmingly, BMW had opted for on-demand electric oil and water pump systems which just seemed like disaster waiting to happen. Then I looked at the interior changes. No. No. No! What the #@$% were they doing to my dream car? That tore it. If I was going to own a MINI, it was R53 or bust.
Long story short, I did some wrangling and managed to order my car — one of the last few hundred R53 MINIs built at Oxford — a dark silver Cooper S with a light silver roof and mirror caps, silver on silver anthracite interior, Premium/Sport/Cold packages, and 17″ rims. Todd Pearson hooked me up with a full custom front end with silver bonnet stripes and a silver hood scoop to match the roof. Gorgeous! I was in love. Not only was it a magnificent looking car, it was more powerful than I’d ever expected and cornered like nothing I’d ever experienced. No buyer’s remorse here. No sir.
Three years later, here I am. In August I come to the end of my three year MINI Select financing term and I have basically two options.
1. Refinance the balloon payment and keep the car.
2. Trade in/sell my MINI and buy/lease something else.
Three years ago when I bought the car, #2 was not an option. I was going to keep this car for 40 years, just like my dad has kept his MG. That was still the plan up until this last Thursday. Last Thursday I had what turned out to be a short in my dash wiring that gave me a false ABS/flat tire warning. Simultaneously, the thermostat housing catastrophically failed and the car nearly overheated. If I hadn’t been watching the gauges because of the ABS warning, I may not have noticed the temperature needle shoot skyward. Thankfully I did notice and shut the car off just as that light came on and avoided doing any damage to the engine.
A call to MINI Roadside Assistance and 90 minutes later, I received the fob to an R56 Cooper loaner car. I’ve had these Cooper loaners before and frankly, they’re dangerous. They’re dangerous because they’re so much more comfortable than my R53. Every time I drive one, I kinda want one. I ended up keeping this loaner for four days while Motorwerks mended my MINI. What was supposed to be only a strictly platonic business arrangement turned into a torrid affair. I fell in love with that confounded Cooper, on/off oil pump, automatic transmission and all.
Not only did this mean that I needed to swallow quarts of my own bile from the comment sections of Motoringfile, but it meant that I needed to seriously reconsider my entire approach to car ownership. Am I willing to part with MY car for something better? Was I keeping my car for the right reasons? Is it even remotely practical or even possible to keep a 2006 MINI running for 40 years? It’s a pretty big brain shift going from “keep it forever” to “drive something else for the next three years or so and then change again.” What’s more, I am tempted hard by the Cooper, not just the Cooper S. The Cooper is so appealing in its little quirky way. The mileage is fan-frakking-tastic, the looks have really grown on me, it’d mean a much lower car payment than I make now, and bottom line: it’s a profoundly more comfortable car. I fit in it better and the ride quality is worlds better.
So yesterday, as I returned my loaner car and picked up my repaired MINI, I stopped by the sales department. They were kind enough to let me demo first a 2009 Cooper, then a 2009 Cooper S, both with manual transmissions. If I made a move away from my MINI, I really just can’t see myself driving anything else but another MINI.
In the Cooper, I worked my way through a small urban area, then zipped up and down 35W for a while. The Cooper actually reminds me a lot of my Vespa Grantourismo. The power is there, as is the speed, but it’s not a brute. It’s swift, but delicately so. When you really know the car, you can wring lots of speed out of it, but not by simply mashing on the pedal. In a lot of ways, the R56 Cooper feels about as powerful and quick as my R53 Cooper S, just minus the torquey power-on-demand I get from my supercharger. The Cooper is an extremely easy car to drive mated to the Getrag 6-speed manual gearbox, and especially so in town. “I could have a really good time in this car.” I thought to myself.
Next I drove the Cooper S on the same route. I’d previously driven an R56 Cooper S on a short demo in 2007 and frankly wasn’t impressed with it. It felt numb and seemed to lack that uncivilized, raw power I could get from my R53. Now that I’m much more used to the R56 platform, I was able to unleash the S for the turbocharged monster that it really is.
Wow! What had I done? Why did I drive this car? I should have known better.
The R56 MCS isn’t simply a little quicker than my R53. There’s a world of difference. The overboost, the giant swell of torque, the rally car growl and the comfortable sharpness of the handling were beyond a simple improvement compared to my R53. At one point I was going state prison fast as the car and I slingshot down the onramp and blurred past traffic. I wasn’t actually trying to go that fast, I just wanted to punch it and see what would happen. Wow. Did I say wow? Wow. Now I’m conflicted. Do I drive the dancer or the monster? I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.
Throughout this process, I’ve been rethinking my whole outlook on cars and my outlook on “stuff” in general. I think that many of us perceive that what we drive can say a lot about who we are if we want it to. A car or a bike or a scooter or how we dress — these are all statements we make about ourselves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When those things define us — define who we are — rather than the other way around, then that isn’t healthy, of course, and it’s an easy thing to fall into. We are always communicating something, whether we want to or not. The Prius owner often has as much to say in their purchase as the Hummer driver. They’re just saying different things. For a lot of people, they’re driving a car that says “I don’t care what I drive so long as I get there.” That’s a statement too, and a good one. And really, most people are just driving and don’t give a second’s thought about their car, their clothes, or their 401(k). That’s alright too, and healthy in its own way.
Being unemployed for several months this year put a lot of these sorts of PR notions into sharp perspective for me. What do I really stand for? What are my priorities? What am I communicating to other people intentionally and unintentionally? It’s easy to get all image conscience, but that isn’t the point. In reality, very few people will ever give a crap what I’m driving, and I’m not going to make my buying decisions based on those perceptions really at all. I just know they’re there and want to make sure that what I’m communicating about myself is above all else authentic.
I think the biggest lesson I learned from being unemployed was the value of enough. There is a profound freedom in having only the things your really need and a few of the things you really want. There is comfort in actually living within one’s means. My wife and I recently moved into a smaller apartment. Our previous place was simply more space than we needed and more expense than was worth paying. So we downgraded. We dropped two bedrooms, 1-1/2 baths, 500 square feet, and we absolutely love our new place. It’s just right for us and our mutts. In a lot of ways, I’m thinking that a change to the R56 Cooper might also be just the ticket. Then again, that Cooper S is one beautiful monster.
I’ve got until July or so to figure out this car conundrum. Do I hang on to my car — a car I really do love in spite of its subtle faults? Do I keep my monthly payments roughly the same and drive a beastly Cooper S? Do I save money, embrace “enough” and cruise ’round in a Cooper? Do I depart from MINI all together and lease a Honda Insight or a Jetta TDi? It’s amazing the emotional attachments we make to something as silly as a car, yet here I am, utterly conflicted. This is a fun problem to have, that’s for sure. Definitely a first world problem.
My car vs. Cooper vs. Cooper S vs. ???
Time will tell.
I completely feel your pain. And, in regards to the Cooper, completely feel your joy.
Over the past year I’ve had the chance to put the R56 MCS and R55 through it’s paces in a more spirited manner. Closed course, parking with cones, World Famous F1 tracks.
I love my little R50. I really do. I like that, should the need arise, I can drop into 3rd at 75MPH and scream by anything in my way. I like how I can smoke the guys in MCS’s on the tracks through the turns and watch the disbelief in their eyes.
That being said, this past weekend in an R56 Cabrio, screaming through corners at Silverstone circuit at over 60MPH, I again fell in love. It was composed, no drama and damn fast!
The drama was fun. I think it’s time for some refinement.
Me? My next car will be an R56 in MCS form. I’m only still trying to nail down the color.
You could always check out the Kia Soul. They have cute commercials ;)
That is the word, db. The R56 is refined in all the right ways. If I’m really honest with myself, 90% of my longing for the R56 is comfort. I’d never miss the rough ride of my R53, even on radial tires, and definitely wouldn’t miss the way my right knee hits the down tube on the center stack. Good sense tells me I ought to get the Cooper or a hybrid something, but the Cooper S is just such a fun little car.
The other part of the equation is geography and the reality of when and what I’m driving. My MINI has in many ways been relegated to being my winter car and my get around transportation. I do all my “for fun” driving on my Vespa. I commute in the MINI in the winter, but that’s hardly sporting driving. Then when the weather is nice, I’d rather zip around on my Vespa. So I keep asking myself, “do I really need a fun car?” Maybe I should hold off and get the MINI SAV when it comes out — make use of the AWD in the winters here. Or maybe I should just move to Napa.
It didn’t help that today I got back from lunch and got a bunch of “nice car!” from folks at the new office. I’m half tempted to put a good wax on ol’ Winston, post it on CL for a smidge over book and see what happens.
Yeah and if ads are to be believed, the best laptop for my money is a PC. I don’t think so. ;-)
The R56 MCS is not a monster – the JCW is a monster. The MCS is just a brute. But it will get very good gas milage if you can restrain yourself.
I went through the same questions when I got my car. By the time I put the options I cared about on the Cooper to get me where the base MCS was – larger wheels, upgraded suspension, sports seats – the cost difference was a small leap. So I got a stripped MCS.
We’re at a similar crossroads – although our R53 is a year older. Having just come out of maintenance and warranty the current cost of ownership (and maintenance) is a bit scary. Dealer service is now out of the question due to extreme cost which means finding a reputable European car mechanic if we keep the car…
The other issue we have is that I think we need something just a little larger. The MINI doesn’t get used as much for the family drives as we want just a little more room to stretch out which means that we put 17,000 miles on the Escape Hybrid in just a year…
The contenders – Ford Fusion Hybrid, Cooper S Clubman, Audi A3, Jetta tdi, and Golf GTI. With the Nissan Cube as the wildcard… The A3 has been eliminated due to price with the Clubman at the upper limit of the price range.
We drove the Fusion Hybrid, it’s not bad if you want a plain wrapper sedan. No excitement at all. Drove the Cube and eliminated it as underpowered and cheap feeling. Next up was the Jetta tdi – not a bad car at all, handled well, decent pickup, a little on the hard side but no worse than an R50 or R53. Finally drove the 4 door GTI – it’s a fun hatch. We drove the auto with the flappy paddle gearbox and it was a serious contender to the MINI. Plus it’s about 3 to 4 thousand cheaper than the Clubman… However the 40MPGs of the tdi is very attractive.
The VW’s are very tempting. A bit larger and cheaper but still fun. The wife was more interested in the GTI than the Jetta tdi and I think the tdi would be a hard sell.
But then there’s the Clubman. I like it – wife however loathes the B pillars although she’d probably be ok with Hot Chocolate and Black. But it’s also not a great car for getting The Boy to school. At least with a 4 door The Boy can let himself out of the car – not so with a MINI. Plus it’s pricey. I’m also intrigued by the new Mayfair, but there’s still a lot of questions I have about it like if I can get it configured with all the options I want and how much the Mayfair package will add to the price. Since it doesn’t resolve the space issue the Mayfair would be almost exclusively my car… Not a bad thing though… Not only that, but I’m not completely sure I’m ready to move out of the MINI community.
I am coming to the same conclusion, lavadera. The MCS is a better value for the money. The Cooper wins on cheek and ridiculous mileage, but the Cooper S is just so much fun. I’ve got one spec’d to within $1k of what I paid for my car back in 2006, so the payment ought to be pretty much the same.
I feel ya, Radiationman.
I didn’t mention it in my write up, but I also drove the Clubman that day. It felt like just what it is — a MINI with a big ass. I love the look of it, but I really didn’t like the way it drove. I really do wish the MINI SAV was available for demo, as that car in diesel form would be pretty sweet, I think. I want to go drive the Jetta TDi as there are some pretty good lease deals on that car and the mileage is fantastic. MPG really is a big factor, but value is what I’m most concerned about. As in 2006, MINI really does seem to be giving me more for my money.
Thanks for providing great info on some scooters (off-topic, I know) that I’ve been strongly considering. I come from a motorcycling background: my learner was a 1960s Honda Dream (dearly miss that bike) that me and my best friend co-owned and used as a scrambler at his cabin until we were 15. Then a ’82 Honda CM400t that made a great, cheap city runabout. My next bike? A ’99 Suzuki GSXR750R (crashed twice) that was more bike that I could ever deal with, but damn was it fun and addictive. Next up, my poor-man’s Ducati, a ’98 Honda Superhawk… outrageous torque, and the 90 degree V-twin sang an exquisite song. Now I’ve come practically full circle.
I want a scooter. The economy and “no time to ride” has grounded me. Plus, numerous trips to Europe in the past 5 years has solidified my reasoning to own a scooter (AND a diesel car, more on that later). Hell, recently Dave Harrington preached the good word on one of his podcasts about the beginnings of Vespa, about how they were completly and totally designed with function and form in a balance, maybe function taking a little more. My reasons to own a scoot are, first and foremost as an inner city commuting tool, and secondly, as a fun parkway cruiser, possibly a light tourer. I thought about a small dualsport bike, but the ease-of-use of a cvt and a step through (or partial step through…Blur!) configuration for commuting is a “no brainer”. The funny thing is, I’ve always wanted a scooter since I first started riding.
So recently I’ve started shopping. I testrode a Buddy 125: quick, as in “wow, I’m doing 60 on this little thing??” but the handling felt sketchy, and they look good on the showroom floor but I don’t think they age well. Then I tested a SYM HD200: Wow. Now that is an “all business” commuting scoot, and it felt super solid, extremely quick off the line. I believe SYM is the sleeper brand of the past couple years, if only Carter Bros. would advertise. Then the Blur came to mind. I’ve seen a few around and I wouldn’t have to finance anything. The only thing is power. Will I be happy with a 150, 2 valve, air/oil cooled? Or should I keep saving and throw down cash for a Kymco Yager 200i in the spring? Or just go all the way and finance a Vespa GTS250ie or 300 Super? The attractive things about the Blur is that I have the cash for one right now, and in the next year I need to replace my car anyways, AND it would be my first scooter (what took me so long?) so if I screw up, I won’t be that upset with myself (versus dropping/crashing a brand new, financed GTS). All I know is that if Genuine decides to bring this fabled GMAX 220i (IF it has the same rear suspension design, and hopefully be liquid cooled) I will sign my life away.
Ok, back to cars. You should get a Jetta TDI. When I mentioned my numerous trips to Europe, every time I went I rented a diesel Ford Focus. Why? Because I used the same rental company and they always had good, clean cars, and gave me a better deal than anyone else. The Focus was the right price for the right sized car. Also, the Focus over in Europe is a different car than here, better quality and looks in my opinion. On my last trip, I rented a new, white, 5 door Focus diesel hatchback. There was a heat wave through Hungary and Romania and temperatures were usually in the upper 90s all the way to 103-104, in the shade. The whole time I drove that car I had the A/C blasting, it didn’t have cruise and even if it did I rarely had it in 4th or 5th gear (Europe, love those twisties!). I calculated an average of 48 mpg, with mixed city and highway driving. The little Focus was deceptively spacious on the interior (I love hatchbacks), went like a rocket on the highways (thanks to a perfectly tuned TDCi engine), and had that signature torque that only a diesel can give you. Driving diesels are really different… almost like when I bought my Superhawk. I had to ride it differently, keeping the engine’s rpm down to depend on the torque rather than sheer horsepower. With the Focus, from a stop, even on a slight incline, I could let out the clutch pedal and the clutch would grab–without any throttle! Tractor/trailer drivers do this all the time. The car would do it in 2nd gear too, if the ground was flat. Again, in Europe passing was a frequent affair, and this car came to life on the faster roads and highways and it just flew. If the dumb-dumbs at Ford would make such a car available in the U.S. I would buy one in a heart beat.
Sorry for being long-winded. If I can track down a decent Blur pretty soon, maybe we can ride?
Wow, Sean, there’s a lot to respond to there. Excellent! Thanks for stopping by.
I’ll address the last things first and work my way back. You may or may not have seen this post where I explain my decision to go ahead and keep my MINI rather than purchasing anything else. The Jetta was definitely high on my list and when my wife’s Scion xD lease is up we’re hoping there are even more diesel options for the US market.
As for scooters, the Buddy is certainly worth a second look, especially in its Blackjack form. The BJ (oh my!) has both upgraded brakes and an upgraded suspension that definitely improve its handling. Coming from a motorcycle background, what you’re experiencing as handling shortcomings may simply be the more darty nature of 10″ wheels. You might just need to get used to it. Believe me, they do corner just fine, although the stock front suspension is definitely lacking. As for aging, my wife has a Buddy 125 that’s doing just fine and I have a friend who rode her Buddy 22,000 miles across the country and you wouldn’t be able to really tell an age difference between hers or my wife’s. They seem insubstantial, but they really are well built little bikes. What’s more the body panels are CHEAP!
You are correct, however, that SYM is the fantastic sleeper brand of our market. The fit, finish and paintwork alone set them head and shoulders above the other asian scooter manufacturers. Add to that ceramic-coated cylinders and other key features and they really are the group to beat right now. I was tempted hard by their CityCom 300i when last I was scooter shopping. I ended up going with a Vespa GT200L because I wanted something I fit on a bit better and something that was more scooter than motorcycle. I understand the appeal and the utility of the recent trend toward larger-wheel scooters, but they’re just not my style. I’ll get an actual motorcycle if I want that kind of feel. The 12″ wheels on my Vespa GT are that perfect mix, in my opinion, of scooter maneuverability and lighter front end feel with just enough stability to keep it from feeling scary on the highway. So as such, I can definitely recommend the current generation of the Vespa GTs and GTs Super, although I am partial to the lighter GT200L. It’s simpler, a good bit lighter, and only 4 mph slower.
As for the Blur, if you fit on it and can find one, I really can’t recommend that bike highly enough. In case you haven’t poured through the archives, I used to own a Blur 150. The Blur will make you feel like a better rider than you actually are. It’s so poised, so stable, yet so flickable and the brakes are seriously unbelievable. I only really sold it because I am too big for it. I would highly, highly recommend you go look at and if possible ride a Blur before you buy anything else. If you can comfortably fit on it, it’s a fantastic scooter. If you drop 9.5g rollers in the variator, I don’t think you’d be disappointed in the power at all so long as you have realistic expectations. It’s not a touring bike, but it’s just an eager little monster below 60 mph — making it a perfect little street attack bike.
That said, if you’re really more interested in parkway rides and even some light distance, then Vespa really might be the best way to go. Mine is just worlds more comfortable than any of the other bikes I’ve owned or ridden. Yet, it’s still an authentic scooter experience. It’s not trying to be all things to all people — simply a very capable piece of italian motoring tradition. Depending on your build, don’t overlook the Vespa S or Vespa LX-150. They’re considerably less money than the GT series Vespas but still very capable and comfortable.
Whatever you end up getting, let’s definitely ride! Also, even if you don’t have your bike in the next two weeks, you should attend Rattle My Bones coming up here weekend after next.
I’m grateful for the input! You’ve just sold me on the Blur. Really, it’s what I want and can afford right now. I think it would be a good starter scoot/gateway drug for me. Actually, your review and other posts about the Blur and scooters in general had a lot to do with my decision…so thank you. I definately plan to go to RMB, maybe even on 2 wheels, we’ll see.