Switching it up
I was encouraged by the fact that I was going to be in the countryside for the majority of my time with the Mini. Not because I was looking forward to the tight turns and roundabouts that would show off the 4-door’s tight suspension, not because there was anything wrong with the expansive greenhouse that allows you to see better out of this car than most which feature larger than life C-pillars, and not even because the “D” in “Cooper D” stands for “Diesel” and the fuel mileage would be amazing without the start/stop common in cities. No, I was relieved that my time with the Mini would be in the small towns of Kiddeminster and Halesowen UK because this would be my first time driving on the wrong side of the road.
Let’s get this out of the way immediately. I know that a decent portion of the world drives on the left hand side of the road, but the automobile was invented in Germany and America and they both drive on the right (also, correct) side of the road, so there.
But here I was, looking into the “driver’s” side with the wheel and pedals clearly attached to the right-hand side of the car in the back of an Enterprise Rent-A-Car in downtown Birmingham. Despite my never-ending moaning about the complete lack of manual transmissions in US rental lots, I had opted for an automatic as well. Shut up. I drive a manual almost every day of my life, but I was so concerned about focusing on keeping the car on the left side of the road and fighting all of the instincts that I had honed over 2 decades of driving
aggressively like a fine citizen that I did not want to have to teach my left hand to shift away for first gear. That’s not natural for me and I could see it leading to a lot of paperwork between me and my insurance agency that the nominal fee I paid for damage protection wasn’t going to cover.
Cast away your spark plugs!
I have to say, first off, that I dug that little Mini’s engine. The kick of the diesel with the torques everywhere was probably one of my favorite aspects of the car. After I calmed down a little getting out of Birmingham, the highways turned into mostly 4-lane roads with lots of roundabouts to shoot out of with a press of the throttle. The little puttering picked up and off we went! I know that diesels are 50% of the fleet in Europe, but in the US they’re almost non-existent, so I’ve driven very few. The reactiveness and instant power makes me want one.
Know what else makes me want one? Check this out!
That’s right! Over 50 mpg! I normally get about half that in my daily driven Miata, so this was a big deal for me. Granted, I drive the little roadster a bit harder because I’m calibrated for it, but I can’t imagine that once I was acclimated to the Mini that it would be too detrimental to the economy. The automatic Start/Stop feature also helped, I’m sure, though it was a bit disconcerting the first time I came to a stop and the engine died. I figured it out, don’t worry.
The Mini has a look that I don’t know what BMW is going to do with. It is clearly retro and retro typically backs you into a corner (see: Ford Thunderbird, Chrysler PT Cruiser, VW Beetle), but some companies can overcome it. The Mini hasn’t significantly changed its look in a VERY long time. But, there are certainly worse things than driving a classically British-looking car in the classically British-looking countryside.
The interior is paradoxically full of little gadgets and at the same time very basic. Circles are everywhere. I felt like I was sitting in a black plastic glass of champagne. There are also LED’s lighting up all kinds of places like door handles, the ignition toggle and, for some reason, two little do-nothing lights on the dome. More on those monstrosities later. Aesthetically, I really dug the toggle switches. They were fun to use, but that seemed to be the extent of their usefulness. They were a bit troublesome in practice because they don’t really provide feedback. If you flip them, they don’t stay in that position but rather pop back into center, so you don’t know if you’ve done anything unless you’re looking directly at the thing that you’re trying to affect. God help you if you don’t know what the toggle switch does. Been there. Wasn’t fun. For a long time. But that was common for a lot of the controls. The turn signal stalk didn’t give a lot of feedback and the windshield wiper stalk was based solely on whether it stayed on. It was just vague and frustrating but would probably be fine with time.
Seats and driving position were comfortable with sturdy, race-inspired seats that held my ribs and hips securely. The wheel was a little low and forward for ingress and egress, but I assume that people smarter than me would figure out, after 3 days with a vehicle, that a quick adjustment would allow you to get it into driving v. getting in/out modes. I am not that smart. Pedal feel is great with feedback that is steady. Same goes for steering. I didn’t feel dead spots. Overall, I have almost nothing but praise for the actual driving aspects of the car!
There are also some niceties where it is clear that Mini put in some time. Little things like the variegated thread in the exposed seat stitching, the thickness of the steering wheel and the carbon fiber-esqe dash inserts showed an attention to detain that harken back to the more hard scrabble days when the brand was a racing contender.
I really enjoyed the performance, the feel, the handling and the fuel economy of the Cooper D! Mini got everything that is basic in the car correct. However…
I feel so British!
Things that can eat a dick
Alright. Hear me out, because this is a list of things that I was screaming about, primarily (exclusively) to myself, that may or may not have to do with the car, but the Mini was part of it and we’re not getting separate lawyers for this trial. So here goes.
This was my first time driving in the UK. That being the case, I think I did pretty well in that I didn’t hit anything. I only came close to hitting something twice; those right turns are tough to adapt to when you’re used to apexing curbs turning right and there’s a car driving toward you when you normally have open road. But there are a few things that really pissed me off.
- Navigation system – Mini seems to have adopted the BMW iDrive little knob thing in the center console. I hated it. Spinning that damned knob to try and get to “L” from “A” only to find that the street I was looking for didn’t exist in the system caused more than a few curse words to emit from my lips as I was sitting for over 30 minutes trying to get back to London from my office in the West Midlands. Eventually, it took my laptop and mobile phone to figure out where I needed to return my Cooper D in the middle of London. So thanks for nothing, navigation system! Eat a dick.
- United Kingdom addresses. I don’t know how they work and I never really figured it out. Sure, I got to where I was going, but that was primarily through sheer chance that Wayz knew what I was talking about. There’s a street number, then a street, then a town, then something else which shows up, Britian! That’s common sense. I don’t know how your address system works. Eat a dick.
- Landslides – The only reason I had to drive to London rather than taking a Virgin train from Birmingham was because, bless my luck, the night before I was heading back to the capitol, there was a storm which shut down lines, the lines I needed, and left me with the options of staying where I was or driving back. I guess you can’t do much about that, so… I’m sorry for your loss.
- Dome lights – Here’s why I hate those fucking toggle switches: no feedback. At some point during my driving, I had turned on the overhead lighting. Problem was, I had no idea how. None of the toggles were pushed forward and there are 4 switches above my head and two buttons. This didn’t really have a negative effect on my driving except that I would glance up and they would be on and I would think to myself, “Why the fuck are those still on?” and it would take my focus off of staying on the left side of the road. Eventually I found the switch after stopping at a rest area and fiddling with them while I was supposed to be paying attention to a conference call with co-workers. It was at this time that I found out you can customize your LED lighting to about 1000 different Pantone colors. I ended up on “Hatred Red” because that was what I was feeling. Eat a dick, toggle switches without set positions.
- Driving in London – I’ve ridden dirt bikes up nearly-vertical hill faces. I’ve gone 4-wide into the old, blind turn 8 at Thunderhill. But I’ve never been more stressed out than I was driving in London. Luckily, my route only took me through the side streets with lots of right-hand turns and through extremely populated districts. Ugh.
- Wayz – This is my GPS app of choice and the only one that could find the location to return my rental car, so I want to be fair. But seriously, you could have helped a little, Wayz! Why did you choose the day that I have to drive through half a country and through one of the most walked/biked towns to stop giving audio direction?! Oh, and before you say, “did you check the settings?”, yeah, I fuckin’ checked ALL the settings. I know that American Voice Jane was paying attention but giving me the silent treatment because as I was standing at a urinal in a service station, she told me to “Now turn left.” I may have been a little stressed out because certain lanes switch to turn only lanes with little warning (want to know how I found out?) and the lack of direction caused me to get lost a couple of times. I ended up returning the Mini exactly 3 minutes before the Enterprise closed. Oh, tangent! Put your rental centers somewhere people can get to, Enterprise! Back on track, but not under the tracks like that damn Enterprise office on a one-way street that doesn’t show up on GPS, I tried everything to get American Voice Jane to talk to me, even asking if American Voice Amy would step in. No dice. Silence unless I was walking into a rest stop because I drank too much Tango. Eat a bag of dicks, Wayz.
Overall, I really enjoyed the Mini D! I wish that I would have been more confident in driving on the wrong side of the road to have pushed it a little harder and had more fun. God, I felt British!