MINI Canada’s “MINI Challenge” Comparison

Sent in my MF reader Andrie Chichak

A while back White Roof Radio mentioned that MINI Canada had some 3D animations on their web site and were giving away the 3D glasses, so I signed up, got my glasses and found out that being colour blind does not help at all. Later I get the following message in my email:

Dear Andrei, >You and a guest have been selected to buckle up and take The MINI Challenge. This is an exclusive opportunity to experience MINI and its competitors in a unique environment under the direction of professional driving instructors.

Test the Next Generation MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper S against the VW Rabbit, Mazda3 GS, VW GTI and Audi A3. By driving these vehicles through the same controlled course, you will be able to judge for yourself which vehicles perform the best. Location: Race City Speedway

Well, how are you supposed to turn that down? I’ve heard about things like this before where you get stuck in the passenger seat with a “professional” driver and there is a salesman in the back seat telling you about easy financing terms. Not this time, we got to play with someone else’s cars.

Let me begin by coming clean, my daily driver is an early ’99 VW Golf. There, I’ve said it. I have a ’62 Mini Traveller, but it hasn’t been on the road for 16 years, and my long distance car is a ’97 Volvo 850 wagon. One of my brothers is a wrench for VW, the other collects classic Minis, my Mom has a ’05 Cooper automatic with a total of 5000km after 2 years. I didn’t come with any preconceived notions as to who was going to come out on top.

The contenders:

In the featherweight class:
2007 R56 Cooper 1.6L 4 cylinder 6 speed automatic (116HP/114 lb. ft.)
Volkswagen Rabbit 2.5 5 Cylinder (150HP/170 lb. ft.) 6 speed automatic
Mazda 3 2.0L 4 Cylinder (148HP/135 lb. ft.) 4 speed automatic

In the heavyweight class:
2007 R56 Cooper ‘S Turbo 1.6L 4 cylinder 6 speed manual (172HP/177 lb. ft.)
Audi A3 2.0L Turbo 6 speed automatic (200HP/207 lb. ft)
Volkswagen GTI 2.0L Turbo 6 speed automatic (200HP/207 lb. ft.)

My brother-in-law and I arrived at Race City Speedway in Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Canada’s largest racing complex with ½ mile banked oval, ¼ mile drag strip, and 4km road course) where the little MINI signs led us to a big tarp tent just off of the pits.

This would be the hospitality tent with young, good looking, lifestyle representatives helping us fill in the obligatory questionnaires, offer us coffee and water, and look at the latest Sony offerings.

They are showing off a pepper white R52 Cooper ‘S convertible and a Checkmate packaged R56 Cooper ‘S – YUCK the checkerboard dash panels are way too shiny. We break taboos by opening the hoods (bonnets) to reveal those yucky mechanical bits, bwa ha ha ha.

To partake, you must sit through a 25 minute introduction and a tech talk by MINI’s senior driving instructor. He gave an abbreviated history of the Mini, overview of the technical specs of the MINIs and an explanation of what to look for when buying any car (narrow down your choices to the top three then arrange to drive them all the same day). He also gave an explanation as to why you should look at the torque and weight specs instead of the horsepower specs when comparing vehicles.

Finally, he gave an overview of the competitors and why they were chosen. They chose two vehicles in each class that were best sellers with similar specs at a similar price point. They could have chosen more, but we only had 2 hours to play.

He introduces the driving instructors, they are all professional race drivers, mostly from Quebec, one from Belgium, and one from England. This could be good.

For the day they provided four MINIs; a British Racing Green ‘S with a 6 speed manual, leather seats (smells great), and those awful horseshoe wheels (flame spoke my butt!), two pepper white automatics one Cooper and one ‘S, and a mellow yellow Cooper automatic.

The course was set up at the end of the front straight of the road race track and took the form of a “worst of everyday driving” slalom. You got a chance to zip in and out of traffic (watch out for the cones), avoid small child on a bike (a cone rides out into traffic), do fast lane changes (that damn cone tried to cut me off), accelerate heavily (get that cone), and do panic stops (that cone just jumped out in front of me).

From the start box, go straight into a 50km/hr series of offset gates, into a 45 km/hr slalom, a 40 km/hr left/right child avoidance maneuver, long right sweeper into an abrupt left lane change, 50km/hr ABS panic stop while steering through a right lane change, a 15km/hr low speed tight S section leading into a 80km/hr drag into the ABS testing stop box (remembering to put in the clutch or else the French-Canadian instructors will laugh on your lapel).

The speeds were meant to be maximums, but they didn’t seem too worried if you knew what you were doing (nobody got sent home early).

The Cooper automatic was hard pressed to get up to speed, the suspension was willing but the engine was weak. The hardest problem with the ‘S was keeping the speed down, it is easily as quick as the GTI and A3, though it has much easier to drive quickly.

Engine
The Audi and GTI share the same 2 litre turbo and when pressed they showed the same behavior – a very annoying throttle response, initially nothing, “one steamboat – two steamboat – three steamboat” then WOOSH!!!, back off slightly and you get HEAVY deceleration, touch the throttle and you get HEAVY acceleration. A very on/off feel. Not very inspiring.

The Rabbit was pretty forgettable. Good pull, but chained to the automatic, it couldn’t come out and play. Didn’t show well. The wall flower of the day.

The ‘S had minimal turbo lag, very good progressive power, and none of the on/off feel of the VWs.

The Mazda had enough power, not enough to get you in trouble (the suspension took care of that), but enough that we were told to keep the transmission in full automatic as it wouldn’t last long in sport mode (eeek).

The Cooper was … adequate. With the automatic it felt like something my mother would use to go shopping.

I really couldn’t get a good feel as to how fast the cars went in the tests as the course was quite tight and you really didn’t have much of a chance to look down at your speedo. The “keep it in second gear” rule did keep the speeds from getting into the brown trouser zone.

We finally decided that the passenger would watch the speedo as the driver accelerated towards the ABS test stop box.

Neither the Cooper or the Mazda 3 could reach 80K in the distance allocated, close but they only got to about 70kph. The ‘S, on the other hand, managed to get up to about 90 before hauling on the binders (with that great smell of rubber and brake pads mixed in). The GTI and Audi had no trouble getting up to speed, but it was definitely “go – wait – wait – wait – woooosh – on/off/on/off/on/off”.

Brakes
Most of the test was done without brakes except for the ABS test sections so I can only comment on the panic stops.

The VWs, Audi, and Mazda all had a tendency for the brake pedals go to the floor on panic stops. It was disturbing enough for us to ask to try the BRG ‘S again to make sure that it didn’t do it too (not that we wanted to go again, nooooo couldn’t be that), it didn’t. All cars had good brakes, no drama, I just hated the pedal on the floor feel.

Handling
The Audi felt like a much bigger car than the MINI and the slalom corners required a wider line and slower speed.

The Mazda was much worse than expected to the point it felt like the tyres were low on air or perhaps it was bigger than the Audi. My partner managed to not only clip a cone, but get it firmly wedged under the car.

The VWs were nice and tight, but the stars were the MINIs. Just look, steer, and keep feeding in the throttle until you get scared. Think 3 cones ahead because they come up fast.

Interior Styling
The NAV system on the Cooper makes the already large centre speedo into a disk the size of the original Mini’s wheels. Instead of having a needle radiating from the center of the disk, they have a pointer running around the outside. Not great for a peripheral glance to see what position the needle is in to give you an order-of-magnitude idea of your speed.

The Mazda dash was the most likely to be used in bad anime. I suppose the bad visibility of the angly tube design does keep the passenger from asking why you are going so slow.

The German cars were just…correct. Everything in its place and a place for everything. Little charm but no bad design either.

Exterior Styling
Mazda – non-descript, appliance like styling. Most ignorable.

GTI – Can’t say that I care for their new corporate grill. It may have some sort of technical cooling reasoning, but I find it heavy and too reminiscent of the Edsel. Ugly 5 hole wheels. Not my cup of meat.

Rabbit – Yup, it’s a Rabbit.

Audi – Pretty generic. Ugly grill.

MINIs – you would have to be a real fan-boy to notice the differences between the old MINI and the new.

Was it worth driving 2.5 hours each way to attend? Oh, yeah!

Would you do it again? Oh, yeah!

Would it change your mind about buying a MINI? I don’t think so. It would solidify the choices you already made or you would blow off the whole experience as being too far from reality to be representative.

What did you learn? I hate automatics! You get way more turns if you can drive a standard. The ‘S would make a bitchin’ slalom car. See the corner, be the corner.

What did you miss? There was so much to take in it was hard to remember it all. And I forgot to try the sport button.

Who won?

Featherweight
Tie between the Cooper and the Rabbit, with the decision given to the MINI for its great handling. Looser, the Mazda for slushy handling, offensive dash, lack of styling, and potentially fragile transmission.

Heavyweight
It would have to be the ‘S. Great engine, great suspension, and brakes that build confidence. Second place tie to the Audi and GTI depending if you want a highway stormer or a boy racer.