This reader review was written and sent in by Damon Duree:
After three years with my 2002 British racing green MINI Cooper I decided I wanted to sell it and get a MINI Cooper S. This decision came about for a couple of reasons. The first was that I realized how fun the MCS really is after we bought an ’04 last May. I’m not a speed demon nor do autocross but I do drive hard zipping on and off freeway ramps so a stock MCS is plenty of fun for me. When I placed my order it was January of this year and the MCS automatic was just hitting the roads. There weren’t any demos to drive but the shifting paddles sound like fun. Shifting when you want to or letting the car do it for you when in traffic. I have to admit that the idea of not pushing the clutch in and out constantly in the congested Bay Area traffic was appealing. I ordered my Pepper white and black roof MCS with the red tartan cloth interior. I got a few other minor options and opted for the automatic.
I have lived with my new car for 8 weeks and 1900 miles and thought I would write about motoring with a MCS automatic since I’ve discovered a few characteristics about the transmission that I have not read about anywhere else. This review represents my personal experience and comparison to our ’04 MCS with a manual 6-speed. I am hoping to give a little more insight into the quirks of how the transmission works in the three modes, “DRIVE” “SPORT DRIVE” and “MANUAL”.
The shifter has a cool looking button on the front of the shift knob that you squeeze to move the selector out of “Park”. The button works pretty well. The corresponding letter appears under to odometer reading with “P, R, N, D” and “SD” for “SPORT DRIVE”. In “MANUAL MODE”, M1, M2 all the way to M6 appear showing you which gear you are in.
Reverse and neutral are like any other car, so let’s put the car in “D” for “DRIVE” and be off. It is pretty amazing the first time you step on the gas, as the car is quite lively. As Gabe wrote in the MotoringFile review, the grin starts immediately. The shifts feel smooth and quick. It drives like most any other car with an automatic. If you are not in a hurry and driving leisurely then stepping lightly on the accelerator gives you polite shifts at the appropriate times. If you want to sprint away from a traffic light the car will do so nicely even in “D”, just press a little further down on the gas pedal and you’re off. Amazingly, you can get a good squeal from the tires off the line if you stomp down on the pedal. As it accelerates there is a pretty good pull but you can tell that you are being cheated by the early up shifts, especially if you are used to letting the 6-speed tach touch the red before shifting. In “D” the upshifts occur around 5500 rpm if your aggressive with the accelerator pedal, earlier if you are not. The transmission doesn’t down shift until it has too when slowing down so there isn’t much engine breaking in this mode. You always get passing gear when you push the pedal to the floor past the “kick-down” notch and this means you can easily end up tearing away in 1st or 2nd gear if you step down too far on the pedal.
You can up shift and down shift using the paddles while in “DRIVE”. The car will stay in the gear you have selected for about 30 seconds or as long as you are accelerating then it reverts back to “DRIVE”. This comes in handy if you want to select a more appropriate gear to pass or change lanes and be ready. The down side with six gears in an automatic is if you’re in 6th and you need the the car to accelerate the transmission can be a little slow in down shifting to 4th or 3rd when using your foot on the pedal. With the paddles you can put it in the gear you want and it will stay there long enough for you to make your move, only reverting back to “DRIVE” when your done. I also find this handy if I want a little engine breaking getting off the highway. I can down shift with the paddles, slow down and then the car goes back to “D” on its own and I’m back to an automatic.
If you’re feeling a little sporty (and who doesn’t in the MCS) you slide the shift selector to the right into “SPORT DRIVE”. Now you have a car that feels more like a MCS. The shifts are crisper and the timing is different. The transmission holds the gears longer before up shifting or down shifting. Put your foot into it and the tach goes to red line before shifting. However, unlike a manual 6-speed where you can coax a little extra oomph by venturing into the red before the cut-off kicks in, the automatic just touches the red and then shifts.
The car is fun in “D” but in “SD” it is really fun. The acceleration is great and the shift timing feels natural. The car seems to jump into the appropriate gear and be ready to pull away. In “SD” it doesn’t up shift when I take my foot off the gas or I pick up speed going downhill as it does in “D” so you can let off the gas going into a corner and not find the car has up-shifted when you want to accelerate out of the corner. While “SD” is where the car shines, there is one downside about “SPORT DRIVE” that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere. It becomes a 5- speed transmission. In “SD” the car does not shift into 6th gear. At first I thought there was a problem and I called the dealer. They confirmed that in “SD” the transmission only goes as far as 5th. I wasn’t expecting this and it doesn’t tell you anywhere in the owner’s manual. I believe the BMWs with SMG transmissions are set up the same way in that you don’t get 6th in sport mode. That said, “SPORT DRIVE” is much more aggressive then “DRIVE” and makes for a very fun automatic.
“MANUAL MODE” can be even more fun than “SD”. To get into “MANUAL MODE” you have two options once you have moved the selector over to “SD”. You can pull back on the shift selector to up shift or push forward to down shift. Once you move the selector to shift you are now in “MANUAL MODE”. While there’s no need to squeeze the selector button but while holding the selector you can’t help but interact with the button. With your hand in this position while pulling back to up shift the “give” from the button doesn’t give you a firm feeling of holding the selector. I’ve found it more comfortable to put my palm on the back of the selector with my fore and index fingers over the top holding it more like a baseball. This keeps me from interacting with the button and gives a much more positive hold on the selector.
Of corse all this can be avoided by using the paddles. Pull either one to up shift or push forward on the thumb tabs that are just above the steering wheel spoke to downshift. It all feels very natural and is quite fun. The shifts are quick with just a hair of a delay while up shifting. There doesn’t seem to be as much as of a delay when down shifting. You can shift to your hearts content and the car responds nicely. However I have discovered some odd characteristics of the “MANUAL MODE” that I wasn’t expecting. I don’t know why but I assumed that in the “MANUAL MODE” I would have complete control over the transmission. This is only half true. For instance, if you’re motoring in “M” and you press down on the accelerator past the kick-down notch the transmission will kick down into passing gear. Passing gear will be whatever gear is the lowest without over revving the motor. If you kick it down into passing gear while in “MANUAL MODE” it doesn’t shift back to the gear you were in previously. It simply leaves you in that gear. The first time this happened I was in 4th and stomped down on the pedal, the car jumped to 2nd and took off. Not realizing this was going to happen I took my foot off the pedal but the car stayed in 2nd gear revving away at 6000 rpms. I have since caught on and plan accordingly. If you are going to step on it hard it’s going to downshift for you so be prepared to up shift with a paddle or the selector to get back to the gear you were in or to choose another gear.
The other little “helping hand” in the “MANUAL MODE” is that the car up shifts for you when you reach red line on the tach. As I mentioned above, if you just put your foot to the floor the car will kick down into the appropriate passing gear, accelerate and up shift through all the gears when it reaches red line. It won’t up shift as long as you don’t get to red line but if you do you’re in the next gear. The down side is if you want the fun of shifting with the paddles you have to do it BEFORE you reach the red line. I find if I want to have some spirited driving fun and keep my foot to the floor while paddle shifting I can miss some of the fun because the car beats me to the punch and up shifts before I hit the paddle. So even though it is called “MANUAL MODE” it isn’t completely a manual experience.
So how does the new ’05 6-speed automatic compare to the ’04 6-speed manual? I’d have to say that the 6-speed manual is the nicer car to drive. It is pure and the clutch and shifter are so smooth and positive. Shifting through the gears is pleasure and actually much smoother than the automatic because the latter has sharp shifts than you can feel. The 6-speed is fluid and has a nice pull in any gear. Even though it isn’t a rocket it always has that little bit of gusto and zeal that makes it feel like it is rarin’ to go. The automatic is plenty fun but it does feel slightly harnessed in comparison. It also doesn’t sound quite as pure and this is actually the most disappointing aspect. I don’t know why but the 6-speed has more of a true sports car sound but the automatic sounds more like an econo-box with a rental-car sort of whine. Granted, you do still get a good burble when you let off the accelerator with the automatic but you have to be in “SPORT DRIVE” or “MANUAL” and in the upper rpms just like the 6-speed manual.
To sum it up I’d have to say I am very happy with the ’05 but if I had to choose and only keep one it would be the 6-speed. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from buying an automatic who needs it, however it may be almost too complex for it’s own good. Because of that, it makes for a different driving experience, one that I’m still trying to get the hang of.