Rather than suffering the common fate of being a retro flash in the pan, BMW's new Mini Coopers hold their looks well, even after five years on the road. With body styling virtually unchanged from the original 2001 launch model, the 2006 Mini Cooper S still evokes a happy feeling each time it passes. Even when inside the car, there is an urge to shout "Look at me, I'm in a Mini" to other drivers. And of course, they are all jealous of the pseudo-'60s lines and German engineering.
The retro look also extends to the interior, with a tachometer on the steering column and an oversize speedometer in the center of the dash. And while this arrangement is more cosmetic than practical, the 2006 Mini Cooper S's onboard computer makes up for some of the problems. Harman Kardon's audio system sounds really good in the Mini, although its MP3 support is wanting. Our test car didn't come with navigation, but it is available as an option. Some other tech options, such as Bluetooth, are dealer installs. The 1.6-liter engine gives the 2006 Mini Cooper S decent get-up-and-go and offers usable power even at higher speeds. But the supercharger leads to occasional hesitation at launch. All the gears in the six-speed manual are useful, from the lower three for city driving to the upper three on the highway. The manual gearbox is so much fun to use and makes up such an important part of the Mini driving experience that we can't imagine anyone ordering the optional automatic. The wheel placement--out on the far corners of the car--delivers excellent handling, adding to the all-around experience.
The 2006 Mini Cooper S's base price is $20,600, an entirely reasonable amount for this unique, sporty little car. Our test car came with Convenience ($400), Premium ($1,400), and Sport packages ($1,400). Other options included a limited-slip differential ($500), a Harman Kardon audio system ($550), Royal Gray metallic paint ($450), and leather seats ($1,700). The total price, with these and other options, was $27,950--venturing into pricey for a small-engine coupe.
The interior of the 2006 Mini Cooper S is initially a pretty good place to be. The roof is high enough to accommodate taller drivers, and in addition to the usual adjustments, the front seats have a unique jack lever that raises and lowers their height. Shorter drivers can leave the telephone books at home. The backseats are very usable for a coupe and can be folded down to increase cargo space substantially. Our test car had the English Panther Black Leather option, which felt nice on the seats. However, though the seats are perforated for ventilation, we noticed uncomfortable heat buildup after a couple of hours of wheel time.
Driving enthusiasts will appreciate the steering column-mounted tach in conjunction with the six-speed manual. The combination makes it fun to try pushing the revs in different gears and optimizing shift time. An oversize center-mounted speedometer, although traditional and cool-looking, requires the driver to glance away from straight ahead when cops appear in the rearview mirror. With all the driving fun to be had, it's easy to forget the car's actual speed. Fortunately, a small LED in the tach shows information from the onboard computer. A button cycles through speed, average and current miles per gallon, trip miles, and other information. Leaving it on the speed option is a good strategy to avoid having to look over to the center dash.
The oversize speedometer tops the stack, which includes stereo, climate control, and plastic toggle switches.
The center stack, which should delight IT professionals with its rack-mount style, holds the stereo system, the climate-control system, and a row of toggle switches. We had the premium Harman Kardon eight-speaker sound system, whose audio quality completely justifies its price as an option. It produced an even, rich sound, without painful bass or treble, even when turned up loud.
In theory, the stereo's volume-adjustment feature compensates for car speed by increasing the sound level in relation to increased engine noise, but we still found it necessary to turn it up on the freeway. Buttons in the steering wheel offer basic control, such as volume. The single-CD player handles MP3 discs but doesn't read ID3-tag information. Worse yet, there is no folder navigation, making it necessary to keep hitting Skip to find a song, which can get very tedious with an MP3 CD packed full of hundreds of tracks. Dealer installs include an iPod adapter, an auxiliary input, a six-CD changer, Sirius Satellite Radio, and a more powerful amplifier and speaker setup. At only $40 for the option, Mini should at least make the auxiliary input standard.
The 2006 Mini Cooper S's climate-control system on the center stack isn't particularly advanced, but it does have a one-of-a-kind control interface, with the temperature-set display occupying the center of a dial. A row of toggle switches--for things such as power windows and traction control--sit at the bottom of the stack. The switches look slick and retro but unfortunately are made of plastic. We wanted that satisfying click, which can be achieved only with a metal toggle. A metal-and-rubber cup holder tacked to the side of the stack completely ruins the interior looks of the car. We found this protrusion not only ugly but also constantly in the way of the glove box and the stereo. On the other hand, we also found it useful for anything larger than a 12-ounce can, which is all that the cup holders under the stack can hold. Please, Mini, at least make it possible to remove this cup holder when we don't need it.
We weren't able to test out the Bluetooth cell phone integration, which is available only as a dealer install. Pictures of this option from the Mini Web site make it look poorly integrated, as any dealer install is likely to be. On the flip side, an OEM Bluetooth system is likely to be compatible with more phones and use the latest technology, as opposed to anything designed in the original 2001 launch model.
Our test car's Premium package included an onboard computer (a useful option) and a panoramic sunroof, which we didn't care for--it runs all the way back over the rear seats, which don't see much use in coupes, so all that glass goes to waste.
At 1.6 liters, the 2006 Mini Cooper's four-cylinder engine isn't particularly big, but in the S model, it also has a supercharger and an intercooler, which gives it 168 horsepower. Given the car's small size, this power plant pushes it along nicely. Combined with the six-speed manual, we even found good acceleration at high speeds, going from 70mph to 80mph. But one of the prices to be paid for having the supercharger is the engine's occasional hesitation to build up revs from idle. We found it necessary to listen to the engine at every launch to make sure the revs were high enough to shift gears.
The shifter for the six-speed gearbox is a large part of what makes this car so much fun.
The six-speed gearbox is a key reason the 2006 Mini Cooper S is such fun to drive, particularly because the car drops into each gear with the precision and smoothness characteristic of European engineering. All the gears are useful, with second and third perfect for city maneuvers, while fourth through sixth easily take the car from the freeway on-ramp into the fast lane. For those who enjoy stick-shift driving, the ability to downshift from sixth to fifth when approaching slower traffic will satisfy.
Wide wheel placement, in combination with MacPherson struts in front and multilink suspension in the rear, contribute significantly to the 2006 Mini Cooper S's ability to zip around corners. The car also has traction control as standard to help out when things get dicey. A limited-slip differential is optional; for some reason, it isn't part of the Sport package. We found the handling very responsive, with no understeer or oversteer. At a prior event, one of our writers had this car on the track at Laguna Seca and reported his best lap time, compared with splits in a variety of other cars.
EPA mileage on the 2006 Mini Cooper S is 25mpg in the city and 32mpg on the highway, but we observed only 24.2mpg over a mix of city and highway driving. However, this lower number may well be attributable to our fascination with the tach and attempts at high revs and fast launches. The Mini also gets emissions ratings of LEV and Bin 9, which aren't particularly good for a car this size.
Safety tech on the 2006 Mini Cooper S includes its standard traction control and antilock brakes, which also use electronic brake-force distribution. The Mini has a system called corner brake control, which detects when the brakes are applied during cornering and pumps extra braking force to the outside front wheel. This system keeps oversteer under control. The Sport package, with which our test model was equipped, includes a stability program that further enhances the car's handling. Another of the Sport package's safety features are xenon headlights.
Xenon headlights, part of the Sport package, do a good job of lighting up the road.
The driver and front passenger in the Mini get front-mounted air bags, along with seat-mounted side air bags, and the NHTSA gives the car four stars for front- and side-crash ratings, as well as for rollover safety.
The 2006 Mini Cooper S's warranty includes three years/36,000 miles on a full-maintenance program and four years/50,000 miles with limited coverage. Owners also get four years/50,000 miles under Mini's roadside-assistance program.