MotoringFile Review: 2005 MCS Automatic

Few things have garnered as much debate as the new for 2005 optional automatic transmission for the Cooper S. Quite a few MINI enthusiasts have expressed outrage at the idea of an automatic transmission in the MCS and believe the reputation of the car will be suffer from it. Yet, there are those with physical limitations, long commutes, or who simply don’t know how to drive a manual that have welcomed the new option and praised MINI for finally bringing it to market. Needless to say the debate as raged on for months with no end in sight for those most opinionated.

Despite all the debates and opinions, the MCSa will be out on the streets of the US in large numbers within months. In fact, more than one Motoring Advisor I talked with was seeing about 75% of all recent MCS orders equipped with the automatic. What’s more, he was seeing a shift in the customers that were coming in to specifically ask about the MCSa. The type of customer that simply wanted the fastest and most expensive MINI equipped with a transmission they could finally drive. Certainly it’s all enough to get the diehard manual fans out there up in arms.

However, with this review I wanted to try to put all this debate aside and focus on one simple question. How does it drive?

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I finally got my chance last Saturday when I found myself sitting in a 2005 MINI Cooper S Convertible Automatic in the parking lot of Knauz MINI. It seems MINIUSA is a little slow in getting press cars out so I took it upon myself to get a hold of a machine as soon as I could. While I’m still hoping to do a longer term test on the car, I wanted to get a first drive published as soon as possible. And the timing couldn’t have been better. The car came off the truck, went in to get detailed, and a few hours later the keys were in my hands. And all on a mild (for Chicago) Saturday in February no less. BTW – A big thanks to David Olenick for helping to set everything up.

The car had a great spec; dark blue leather with orange stitching, chrome trim in and out, and the exterior was finished in Pure Silver. All well and good but the star of this show was that Aisin 6-speed automatic that sat under my right hand.

Actually the diameter of the shift knob itself is a little smaller than one might expect. It doesn’t feel nearly as comfortable to hold has the manual shifter. It almost feels like it was designed for use by small hands or, at least, certainly not mine. Further, the clicking mechanism that allows for moving the shifter from gear to gear wasn’t particularly easy to use at first. It also has a nasty habit of pinching fingers if you’re not used to it.

As I went to start the car my left foot instinctively reached for the clutch pedal… it would appear old habits die hard. So I threw the gear lever into Drive mode (referred to as D or full automatic mode from here on out) and pulled away slowly. As I was pulling away I tried hard to forget all of the debate that this car has generated. However, I have to admit that it was all a little disconcerting. Here I was, in a MINI Cooper S and I’m idling away from a stop. As I pressed on the accelerator I realized how normal the car felt to me for the first time.

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It didn’t take long to realize the distinct differences between the three operating modes. D seemed to be meant for laid-back motoring. SD for more of a sporting comfort type of drive, and manual mode for some interactive fun.

I started out in the standard D mode. In general, I found this mode to be about what one would expect a modern automatic to feel like. The shifts were smooth, silent and certainly guaranteed to never spill a drop of a latte or wake a sleeping passenger.

SportDrive (or SD) mode gives you more determined acceleration with the transmission changing the gears typically at higher shift points than the standard auto mode. Kickdowns were maybe just a bit snappier, and like the standard mode, occurred just when you’d expect them. While they weren’t nearly as fast as what you’d get reaching for third yourself, there wasn’t a lot of hunting for the right gear like some automatic transmissions. However, with both full automatic modes, I couldn’t help but feel some of the charm had been stripped from the car.

But the real fun, and where this transmission finally comes to life, is in manual mode.

Shifting is about as fast as any manually controlled automatic I’ve ever driven. Shifts (in either direction) generally seemed to happen about .50 – .75 of a second after a click of the paddles. Certainly, an expertly driven manual or sequential transmission can be shifted much quicker. Of course with the auto in manual mode you won’t ever have to worry about being slow or fast. They just click off, without drama, the same way every time. Knowing that, you’re able to keep both hands on the wheel and focus on the road ahead clicking off subsequent shifts with your fingers and thumbs. Certainly an attractive feature to some drivers out there.

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By the 20 minute mark I was totally comfortable with the mechanics of the paddles on the steering wheel. So much so that I never used the gear selector on the shifter. MINI designers did an expert job shaping the steering wheel controls and movements as my fingers and thumbs fell on them like I’d used the transmission for years. I managed to push and pull the paddles without fail and quickly forget all about the differing paddle placement in BMW’s SMG M3 (where each paddle only upshifts or downshifts). While that placement may be superior during performance-oriented driving, the MINI’s two-paddle, four-function design is surely a bit more foolproof in day to day motoring.

I was so taken by the manual mode on this transmission that I never had the desire to switch back to automatic mode. While it may not create the same sense of satisfaction as a well engineered manual, it does give you the ability to be involved. And sure, shifts may not be quick enough to mimic a sequential box like the SMG. But they are quick enough for the transmission to avoid the disconnected feeling some manually controlled autos are saddled with.

That being said the car did feel slower than it’s manual counterpart. MINI’s own stats back that up. First and foremost, the 0-60 time increases by .6 seconds with the automatic. Top speed also decreases from 137 mph to 134 mph. Further, the MCSa weighs in at almost 50lbs more than the standard MCS. While they’re numbers that you might not feel on public roads, you may notice the difference at the track.

Another big difference between the two is the lack of an optional, factory limited slip differential with the MCSa. It has also been noted that the automatic lacks the signature 2005 MCS exhaust popping that so many people seem to love. While that’s true 95% of time, I found that when you go from 3rd to 2nd at moderate revs you can still hear a hint of it. Of course for those feel the need to make up for these deficiencies, JCW will indeed be releasing a Works Kit specifically designed for the MCSa later this spring.

In a sense, broad-based conclusions are hard to make in a case like this. For me I was happy to find that the transmission, in manual mode, doesn’t suck the life out of the MCS as I was worried it might. While I missed the tactile feedback and precise control that one gets with the standard Getrag, the auto (in manual mode) is quite lively and does an decent job keeping you involved in the process of driving. While it doesn’t possess the purity (or the fun for that matter) of the manual, I still managed to walk away from the test with a smile on my face. Come to think of it, it was somewhat similar to the grin I had when I test drove the MINI for the first time.

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