Crashing Through the English Countryside in a Mini Cooper S
There are still Minis in England. Not the ones we’ve have had here since BMW decided to reboot the brand with 21st-century versions of the car (a lineup Autos Cheat Sheet happens to like very much). I’m talking about the original car, the 1959 to 2000 model, the one from The Italian Job, that was owned by Paul McCartney and Steve McQueen, dominated the Monte Carlo Rallys of the 1960s, and that Mr. Bean drove from his easy chair. More than 1.5 million of the 5.3 million built stayed in Merry Olde, and today, you can still see them in and around London, dwarfed by modern Vauxhalls and Renaults. Just spotting one parked on the street as a daily driver is more than enough to make an American gearhead green with car envy.
“I need to drive one,” you think. “I really need to make this happen.” Coming from a country where even the smallest and simplest cars are likely to come with an automatic, and the idea of a Ford Focus as a midsize car is ludicrous, the idea of driving the quintessential Brit car on the wrong side of the road and shifting with the wrong hand sounds like a perverse thrill. To me, the best car to do it for the first time isn’t some priceless Aston Martin or rolling sculpture of a Jaguar (though I wouldn’t say no to either); it has to be the classic Mini.
And… I didn’t get to drive one. But Mini was kind enough to give me a five-door Mini Cooper S, some directions, and a two-hour route from the company’s factory in Oxford to the picturesque village of Henley-on-Themes. It was a route full of roundabouts, narrow streets, ancient villages, and lush countryside. In short, it was perfect for a Mini, even a brand new one. And the best part is, it didn’t even rain.
After recently putting a three-cylinder Clubman through its paces in the states, I was looking forward to seeing what a Cooper S could do with its bigger engine and six-speed manual transmission. Even with an automatic, the Clubman felt plenty peppy (especially in sport mode), but the 55 horsepower that separates the three- and four-cylinder cars (134 versus 189 horses) was hard to forget about. From here, I’ll try to avoid the tired Mini clichés (something something go-kart like, something something wheels at the corners) and just sum it up like this: The five-door Cooper S is fun. A lot of fun.
When Mini’s people said the drive would be an “authentic British driving experience,” they weren’t kidding. Setting out with another autos scribe, we pulled out into busy Friday afternoon rush hour traffic, and almost immediately hit a dreaded roundabout. On a spectrum of the logical, tried-and-true four-way intersection to rage-inducing New Jersey-style jug handle, the roundabout ranks somewhere in the middle, but the first one you encounter is harrowing nonetheless.
After that, it was into the countryside, with endless rolling hills dotted with cottages twice as old as our country, where sheep, old farmers in caps and wellies, and ancient Citroën 2CVs still roam freely. The Mini’s handsome, soft-touch dash is a great viewpoint to enjoy the vista from, and you realize that its big, central infotainment system and column-mounted instrument cluster make it easy to build export models on the same line as domestic ones. Even with different safety and emissions laws for different countries, it’s cool to realize that home market Minis aren’t much different from the ones we get in the states.
Solid build quality is one of the few areas where Mini’s BMW ownership really comes through. Other than that, it’s the perfect Brit. Inside and out, the Cooper S feels substantial; in most ways, it feels more premium than you’d expect from a car with a $25K base. And the “big” 2.0-liter turbo four was more than enough to keep things fun through the Midlands. Sure, the 228-horse John Cooper Works slots above it, but unlike the three-banger in the Clubman I tested, the engine felt well-matched to the car and really didn’t leave me wanting for anything. It was probably because it was my first time driving an RHD car, but the gearbox took a little getting used to. While Mini’s six-speeds are considered to be pretty precise, first to second is a long throw, and with reverse right next to first and no lockout, I accidentally pulled away from a stop in third a couple of times. It could’ve been worse — I could’ve punched it into reverse at a stop — but it was embarrassing nonetheless.
As expected, the car delivered handling reminiscent of a certain type of small, gas-powered recreational vehicle I won’t name here, and never showed any hesitation in tight corners (and there were many). Plus, its brakes were great at stopping the car before we missed too many turns.
That isn’t to say we didn’t get lost. We did. Very lost, in fact. There aren’t any street signs to clutter the English countryside, and a couple of sight-seeing American auto journos aren’t the best at following a detailed (and very German) point-to-point list. It led to a few adventures — some good, some bad.
Somehow, entirely through fault of our own, the trusty A4041 seemed to get harder and harder to follow. Maybe it was the roundabouts, forks, or hairpin turns, but eventually, we kept skipping on and off the beaten path, where we found that the hard shoulders on tiny English roads are, well, hard. Adjusting to RHD is deceptively difficult, and on narrow roads, even more so. I learned to look out over the Cooper’s right fender and check my driver’s side view mirror constantly for the lines until I got comfortable with it. As for the left-side mirror…
Coming around a sharp bend into a town called Didcot, I hit the brakes hard when all traffic in the left lane was stopped. Taking a deep breath, I realized that these cars weren’t waiting for the right-of-way, they were parked. As a car went around me, I pulled out to follow. He sped up, and as soon as he cleared, an Audi A7 — big car on these little roads — sped through coming in head-on. There was about 15 feet of daylight on my left, and I darted for it, fully utilizing the Cooper’s small, gas-powered recreational vehicle I won’t name here-like handling, when…
My Cooper’s left mirror met the mirror of a black 2003 Renault Clio, my mirror cap flying up left and over the cars, and mirror glass flying out right, meeting the A4041 in the rudest way possible. The A7 escaped unharmed. I hope he got to where he needed to go.
The Clio was fine; the owner didn’t even want to get out of his car to look. The mirror cap was too, popping back on with nary a scratch. The mirror itself was toast though, spider-cracked, and with it went any confidence I had as a guy who gets paid to drive cars and write about them, especially while driving with another guy who gets paid to drive cars and write about them.
It was my fault, and I was angry at myself. Worse, what would Mini say? This was worse than getting into a fender-bender in Dad’s car as a teenager — Dad never flew me out to England in business class and put me up in hotels before handing me the keys. Suddenly dreading the next couple hours, I eased us out of Didcot and around another bend when we came upon the cause of the whole goddamned mess.
It was two girls, teenaged, sitting atop two donkeys in the road. Behind them were about a dozen other people, standing with matching T-shirts and waving picket signs. VILLAGE PARKING HELL, some said. DIDCOT ISN’T A PARKING LOT, said others. There, under an uncommonly big, bright, blue British sky, in the shadow of the infamous Didcot Power Station (whose workers’ parking habits, I’m assuming, they were protesting) was the reason for my fender-bender and professional de-pantsing. British irony. If you ever wanted to know where The Goon Show and Monty Python got their unique brand of humor from, spend some time in the Midlands. England ’tis indeed a silly place.
We continued to get more lost, and with no map (our Cooper didn’t have Nav), no cell service, and dwindling phone batteries, began to get worried. Finally, we reached some high ground, which turned out to be a place called Christmas Commons. There was a music festival nearby, where music from a band that sounded like The Exploited — hell, it probably was The Exploited — bounced off the hillside as we passed a farmer’s field full of Volkswagen vans, tents, and kindergarten-aged kids buzzing around in tie-dye shirts. From there, it was just 12 miles back through some small villages, back to civilization and the poetic Thames river, and on to our final destination in Henley. Just 12 miles. Strange country, this.
We pulled in, and all I got for the broken mirror was a laugh and a clap on the back. Like all vacation stories, it quickly became little more than an anecdote to tell over dinner — well, and something to write about here. As for the Cooper S, it was fine. Better than fine, actually. It was charming, spirited, and hard to say goodbye to, even if it was probably happy to be rid of me. It’s easily one of the most unique five-door hatches on the market, and it was refreshing to see that we get the same Cooper S the British keep for themselves. It isn’t like the old days (OK, the ’90s) when BMW kept its good stuff across the pond. Driving the Cooper S was enough to make me stop aching to drive a classic Mini (at least temporarily, that’ll be for another trip), and gave me one of the most memorable driving experiences I’ve ever had. If you’re in the market for a five-door hatch and can manage to keep both mirrors on it, you’re likely in for years of adventures with a Mini.