Sunday, 10 April 2016

We've been a 2-mini family for more than a week now.

I've not really talked about Chris's car much so far, not least because although I have already driven it a few hundred miles, it was all on the day we collected it, and we drove from Slough near London to Worcester via Birmingham for a funeral, and was a little distracted.

Minis are funny things, because they all look 'the same' and they all share driving characteristics (firm, direct ride, direct steering, feel like you're going faster than you really are) but despite that they aren't all the same. This particular convertible is a second generation version, while the countryman is much closer to the 3rd generation launched last year (being a completely new design for 2011) in terms of interior and driver information despite this one being a year younger than mine. With the countryman, Mini did really well creating a fairly tall version of the small car that still retained handling characteristics (which were a big part of the reason I bought it) but it's been fascinating driving the original concept vehicle.

So what's it like to drive?

Every car is a compromise. When I started to answer my question the first words I wrote were small, fun, easy, but that's a very incomplete picture, and sometimes not even true. It IS those things, but we picked the 'S' version - presumably intended to imply sport - which includes bigger wheels and low profile tyres, 2L Diesel engine, better headlights and some pretty trim that makes no practical difference, and those have affected driving characteristics quite a bit.

So the wheel & tyre combination makes a firm ride much more sensitive to a bad road surface, and compared to the softly sprung beetle, the poorly repaired country lanes round here make for a bumpy ride at times. When we test drove various cars, the standard 16" wheel and taller tyre combination made for a surprisingly compliant ride. Chris's answer about how she liked it after her first drive around here were "it's bumpy". To me, this is just about a worthwhile trade off, with the improvement in handling and feedback making the car feel confident and capable of handling much more than a couple in their 50s are likely to throw at it most of the time. All the cliches apply: goes round corners on rails, go-kart handling etc, but it also makes for a car that's entirely within it's limits at the motorway speed limit, and not feeling at all marginal like some I've driven over the years.

The bigger engine is nice too, because it makes for relatively effortless power in a small, slippery bodyshell, and economy is as good or better than my Countryman despite that having a smaller engine. Last weekend I followed a Honda Civic Type R briefly, and although that car would pull away from the mini (as it should) the difference wasn't enormous, and it was speed limits that made me let him go, more than the performance difference. It's also nice to have a car that's completely unfussy about power delivery, and provided it's doing more than tickover engine speeds, it just gets on with the job of going faster when you ask it to. Of course the downside of this in combination with the good handling is that one could easily end up travelling at speed limit + 50% without even being aware of how fast you were going from the lack of effort to get to and drive at that speed. Brakes seem better than my car (though the discs appear the same size) so it looks like they've got that sorted too.

And so to lights.

The S models come with a xenon HID headlight system instead of the conventional halogen bulbs fitted to every other car we've owned. I've long had mixed feelings about conventional headlights: they were good in the Peugeot 406 we had and OK in the 307, but in the beetle they were very weak: poorly focussed and lacking brightness. Chris had an occasion recently where she was badly dazzled by oncoming traffic, and it caused her to lose her sense of where the road was. On Wednesday last week I followed her back from Bicester after dark, and not once on the country lanes did she use main beam, not because she forgot, but because it wasn't needed. This is a really good upgrade.

I mentioned small. Advice I'd read online suggested that if you wanted to take passengers in the back seats then it would be best if they didn't have legs. There is a little less space behind the front seats - maybe an inch or so - than the beetle had, and few inches less than the new beetle (which is a bigger car generally) but I've had several 20-30min sessions in both this and the beetle, and it's no worse. Getting out of the back feels just a little harder, but that's probably because the car is also lower, by at least a couple of inches. It's curious how that plays out, because with the top down, the mini is almost EXACTLY the same height to the top of the doors as the beetle was, but apparently with seats lower in the cockpit. The plus side is that with the roof off there is far less buffeting for the driver, to the point that we've not bothered to buy a wind deflector - an absolute essential for top-down driving with the beetle at speed. Inside, the roof doesn't feel low at all (Randall - you might feel different ;-) but one is aware of other vehicles feeling taller than usual.

In other respects the car isn't functionally much smaller than the beetle. The boot has a similarly impractical size opening, and the space available is useful but a little lower than before. The cabin has storage space arranged differently, but is no less practical again - swings and roundabouts, as the phrase goes - although it is narrower than the beetle too.

So overall I think it was a good purchase, all compromises and trade-offs considered. Hopefully it will serve well for another 8 or so years like the beetle did.

p.s. There's a 'sport' button slightly to the left of the gearshift. I have pressed it once, briefly, then reset it. My understanding is that it makes the engine more responsive and the steering heavier, but that was still on day 1, and I was working my way back from Worcester on country roads and didn't really feel much like playing then. I may report more later.

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