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MotoringFile Review: 2005 MCS Automatic

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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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Written By: Gabe

  • Livingston Hinckley

    Interesting to see this thread… I just tried a MCSa and found the auto downshifting to be unacceptable. Riding at 35-40 mph and pushing as if to pass resulted in lots of thrashing about, over-revving and hunting for the next shift. This was easily repeatable, but the dealer didn’t even offer a comment on it. The paddle shifting was easy to become used to, and it will even switch to full auto if you don’t use it as you should… Still not the pleasure of the stick MCS we’ve driven since 2002. I loooked at it for a second car for my wife’s heavy traffic commute to NYC, but this is not what we want in a Mini – just doesn’t feel the same.

  • Luke

    Um… The review here was nice and all but didn’t really talk much about driving in Auto.

    I’m looking for a new car and don’t need the S, in terms of HP, as I don’t ever plan on going over 80 — When can one ever go over 75 legally?

    But I do need that extra boost in acceleration for making left turns, passing traffic, getting up hills, etc.

    The basic Cooper would be fine but I don’t drive stick… My left hand is for eating and drinking, not fiddling with a stick. And while it wouldn’t be that big of an issue, it sure is in stop and go traffic and steep hills.

    What I have to ask is: How is the automatic S compared to the automatic basic? The basic in auto is extremely sluggish and slow, the S auto is more quick and has more go from the start. Can anyone who actually drove, drove the automatic S confirm whether or not it has the power and acceleration to distinguish it from the automatic basic or other automatic cars in the class?

  • http://motoringfile.com Gabe

    First off I think you need to re-read the article. Secondly if you really believe that your left hand is for eating and drinking (while driving) I think you might be happier with a beetle or a PT Cruiser instead of a MINI.

  • Luke

    I don’t need to re-read it. You didn’t give much detail regarding the car in Automatic mode or comparing it to the auto base cooper. You went off on a tangent with the auto transmission in manual mode.. Not helpful to me.

    As for the PT Cruiser, it’s plain ugly… And Chrysler = Old people cars. And the Beatle is claustraphoic inside, not to mention that it’s VW and I’ll never get another VW after our last experiance with them. Another note is that neither of the two cars offer the small size or visibility of the Mini.

  • Akeeah

    Gabe,

    In your article you say –

    “In fact, more than one Motoring Advisor I talked with was seeing about 75% of all recent MCS orders equipped with the automatic.”

    Do you know what the sale fiqures are for MCSa and MCS?

    Thanks

  • Ralph

    Stevie C writes:

    In my opinion, if you can’t drive a manual you don’t deserve a performance sports car.

    if your reason for getting an auto is because you suffer from long commutes, you don’t need a sports car, I love changing gears! Or if you simply can’t drive a manual – learn!

    ======================================

    Steve comments are the kind arrogance and snobbish attitude that bugs me. I see so much of these attitudes on other Mini Websites and from other unique car owners. What gives Steve(and others) the right to write and say that if I can’t drive a manual then I (and others) don’t “deserve” a performance sports car?

    How arrogant! How elitist

    In my opinion these kinds of comments are ignorant. Sorry that’s the way I see it. Just because he wants to drive a Manual he thinks everyone else should or has to.

    Well I live in a City that has hundreds of hills (very steep) with stop signs at the top and people who like stop right on your bumper. I don’t want to be shifting constantly and possible roll backs. THAT’S MY CHOICE!

    I have a 2004 MC (non S) with CVT. I like it. Drives very well in SD mode and in full auto in the city is great.

    If I and others want a CVT for a MC or a MCS in long commutes, short commutes, up hill, down hill, whatever the reason and Mini makes one then that’s my choice and I have a right to buy one.

    When Steve and others with similar attitudes run Mini Cooper then they can make the decision whether to offer only Manuals.

  • zig

    90% of car sales in the US are for cars with AUTOMATICS. F-speeds are for geezers. Get with the program…if they are good enough for formula 1…

    Can’t wait to get my cooper S Auto.

  • Jace

    I agree- CVTs are becoming the way of the future. Although I can see why some purists prefer the fun of a manual. It’d be interesting if the cost of installing manual transmission + clutch ended up becoming an OPTION!

  • Roby

    It is a shame that the Auto version of this car is not a better design quality. Audi managed to design an automatic that shifts faster than the manual (e.g. the DSG on the Audo A3), and gives the driver MORE performance for the extra cash outlay. You might think BMW could design a better automatic for a great sports car such as the MCS. Maybe we need to wait for the announcement for the MCS 2007+ model to see if BMW can improve their offerings for this MCSa.

    in the meantime – I’ll have to order the Manual version MCS.

  • Pingback: MotoringFile » Archive » MF Podcast Review: Cooper S Automatic

  • Salvador

    Or if you simply can’t drive a manual – learn!

    For nine years I drove an automatic. I always lusted for a precise, fun manual transmission car of my own. Life never brought one to me unfortunately. So I said screw it! I went to MINI of Concord and bought an ’06 Cooper S with the JCW kit on it already. I traded in my auto 3 series and was now in a posisition that I HAD to learn stick, and guess what? I learned. I got it home myself the first day and have since devoted all my effort to really refining the craft of using a manual transmission. There was a very nice MCSa on the lot that was a bit less expensive than my car. But why would anyone want it? A MINI is to DRIVE! Not to ride in. I drove auto for nine years and after 5 days of stick the only way I’ll ever go back to an automatic is if I am forced to. If you want a fun car w/ an automatic, buy a 3 series (not an E90 though, boycott Bangle). Leave the real driving to those who actually enjoy it. MCSa IS FOR POSERS.

  • Jay

    Oh Salvadore, you come off like a two-year old.

    As long as people have a choice, let them make their own minds up.

  • Oorial

    Well, I own an MCSa, and guess what, Mr. Salvador, I actually do get to DRIVE it. The secret is in the paddle shifters that enable me to override the auto on key stretches of road where it really matters and where one would actually want to “drive” the car. I live in Pittsburgh (very hilly terrain, similar to say, San Fran or Seattle) and I typically tend to use the shifters either when starting from a red light to “blow by” unsuspecting SUVs, or on hairpin bends that are accompanied by simultaneous changes in grade. Rest of the time (read boring straights) I just let the auto do its “thang” and enjoy the scenery. In a nutshell between D, SD, and the paddle shifters, I have a real fun time.

    So, as Jay says, live and let live — in the meantime, I hope you do enjoy your MCS.

  • Jae

    I personally own a 2005 MCSa and I love it. Living just 15 minutes away from Los Angeles and the freeway traffic being ridiculous I just couldn’t picture myself stuck with a stick for the life of the car. As you said the shifting is a little slower than on the manuals but pop it into SD mode and it’ll rocket it’s way out.

    One thing that I do wanna mention is about the “popping” or the back fire that the factory added to many stick shift MCS’s and surprise surprise!!! mine has the back fire despite being an automatic. After asking the dealer about this they said that the factory doesn’t put in the back firing into MCSa’s about 98% of the time. They say I was the “lucky” one since the dealer can’t put that option in even if the customer asks for it.

    So as a lucky MCSa owner with the “popping” I am extremely happy with an automatic MCS. For those of you MCSa owner without the “popping”… drool cuz it’s a sweet sound to here.

  • Jae
    If you want a fun car w/ an automatic, buy a 3 series (not an E90 though, boycott Bangle). Leave the real driving to those who actually enjoy it. MCSa IS FOR POSERS.

    Salvador… I don’t even know what to say about this “crap” your saying. It’s your opinion so I’m not gonna grill you for it but there are people in this world who have driven manuals and are sick of constantly attending to it in horrible freeway traffic that takes 3 hours for a usual 30 minute commute, like myself.

    And according to the dealers admitting that 75% of MCS owner opt for the automatic surely says you as a manual driver is the “poser.”

    Such an ignorant mindset. tsk tsk tsk

  • http://www.motoringfile.com/ Gabe

    Choice is all fine and good but I can’t see how someone can call a manual owner/driver a poser.

  • Nacho

    Gabe: As always, a very good review. I’ve just ordered a R56 MCSa, do you expect to review the model soon and post some hints for us ?

    Many thanks from Spain


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