Friday, August 05, 2005

DRIVEN: 2005 MINI Cooper S Convertible

Story and photos by Michael Banovsky

If your body isn’t getting certain nutrients, it’ll start throwing itself at all the things needed to get them. Pasty white people, like me, always get dragged into the heat at the first lick of summer to get burned – by our sun-craving bodies, no less. So saying I was looking forward to the 2005 Mini Cooper S Convertible is a sort of understatement. My body craved it.

First impressions confirmed that whenever zee-Germans decide to allow us some fun, it’s spoiled (deliberately) by something. In the Mini it’s the number of buttons, switches, and clicky-things all over the interior. I really only need four things: a door handle, window and headlight switches, and the button to start tanning.
When you take an artist’s sketch of a funky, retro-inspired interior and try to add BMW-levels of functionality, it just doesn’t work. The inside should be more Cooper than 7-Series, thanks.

The button to start tanning actually has two settings. The first acts like a sunroof and retracts the top just enough to burn your legs. The second setting is all SPF30. The sunroof setting, though, is a tad useless. I used it once under threatening skies and it turns the car into a vacuum bag for sucking in road grime.
Should I even mention the laughable rear seats?

But starting the little supercharged 1.6L inline 4-cylinder engine makes all of the criticism go away. It sounds awesome – and there’s even a bit of backfiring built in.

It’s the little-engine-that-could quality that I admire most. For example, when the hood is open and the engine revved, it shakes about and looks (if you squint enough) like a heart, beating away. Brilliant.

Launching this car is awesome. The clutch is tight and progressive, and the last car I drove with a floor-hinged accelerator was my father’s Porsche 914 2.0. But the Mini has power that the little Porsche only dreamed of. 0-100km/h comes up in 7.4 seconds – surely only because 1st gear is so short and requires a shift into 2nd.
With the traction control off – let me tell you – the front tires smoke like Bob Dylan.

But turning off the electronic nanny yields a nice surprise while cornering. I was skeptical of all the praise heaped upon the Mini’s chassis, but now I know it’s for real.

The car can be setup to under or oversteer, depending on the corner and driver skill. Lifting off mid-corner puts the rear of the car into a controllable slide. Yum. And don’t assume that these antics require hooligan-ish speeds. No, it’s just all fun, all of the time.

I was asking people during the week how much they thought the Mini cost and – you’re all wrong. With a base price of $36,500 plus the sport ($1800) and premium ($1,750) packages – and white bonnet stripes ($130) – the car rings in at $40,180. It’s a little much, really.

Besides, the people who will most likely buy the Mini will have to choose between it and time at a tanning salon – I couldn’t imagine an enthusiast could forgive the cowl shake. Just go out and buy the hatchback, with its better rigidity and performance.

After all, pasty white people like me are really craving speed and not sun.

DRIVEN: 2005 BMW 325i

By Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy BMW Canada

When automotive journalists – me included – bring out the word ‘iconic’ when referring to a particular model, it’s usually because they’ve run out of things to say, and mostly because everything has been said already.

For example, the BMW 3-series is iconic for the simple reason that it’s been on top of the compact luxury sport sedan category for well over 25 years now. Over four generations, the simple philosophy of entertaining four or six-cylinder engines matched to a nimble, responsive rear-wheel-drive chassis. It’s a philosophy that’s carried the company for decades now, and one that manufacturer after manufacturer has tried in vain to perfect.

Just how many car magazines have been sold with the words “So-and-so’s 3-series Fighter Inside”? Billions. Unfortunately, the only one to earn the title of “Best non-BMW Compact Luxury Sport Sedan” so far has been the Infiniti G35, which is a stupendous value and perfectly able car but is still missing some of the delicateness that the Bimmer offers.

So the launch of a brand-new 3-series is a vitally important, both for BMW’s image, and their bottom line. Thankfully, the German manufacturer is very much aware of the template to use, but as with most redesigns, is stretching the dimensions to suit our stretching waistlines.

The new E90 3-Series (the chassis code for all you Bimmer anoraks) is larger in every dimension than its E46 predecessor, but retains all the correct proportions – long wheelbase, short overhangs, bluff front and back, wide stance with wheels at the corners, etc. – that most immediately relate to the smallest BMW.

I have to admit that I was one of those calling for BMW’s chief designer Chris Bangle’s head when the handsome, understated and athletic 7-series was morphed into the massive, ‘flame-surfaced’, awkward behemoth that’s sold today. (Not even a mid-life facelift can help bring me back to the fold, but that’s another story.) And I have yet to meet anyone who upon viewing the current 5-series for the first time exclaimed “Oh, that’s absolutely gorgeous! I have to have one!” Usually it was something more like “Wow. That’s, um, different. Does it still drive well?”
Admittedly, the concave styling with a myriad of line intersects works very well on two-doors and roadsters. The Z4 is one of the most stunning roadsters ever – especially in a colour other than silver – and, in the sheet metal anyway, the 645Ci is sex on wheels.

So you can imagine my dread when thoughts of what the new 3-series would mutate into. Strangely, after having driven a 325i sedan for a week (coupe, convertible and touring/wagon arrive later) that perhaps Bangle hadn’t gone far enough.

At any rate, the 3-series adopts the 5-series style lights and front end, with the 6-series’ wide kidney-shaped grille. The three air intakes in the lower fascia with fog lights at the outer edges are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, but work well with the rest of the car’s design.

Thankfully, BMW resisted the droopy door line that makes the 5 and 7 look like they’re folding in the middle, and bold shoulder lines extend to the rear. Also, the ‘Bangle Butt’ from the 7-series is mercifully absent, while the rear taillights look more bloated than they should.

However, it’s not something that most folks will gripe about, and will all others before it, the new 3-series will get easier on the eyes as more and more hit the road.

Inside, the styling bears a strong resemblance to the Z4, with its stark dash and its cabin-wide swath of brushed aluminum. The sound system and HVAC controls are immediately recognizable to previous BMW owners, and as always, the ergonomics and materials are spot on. The seats deserve some praise for their comfort, support and adjustability – they were absolutely perfect.

For the technophiles, the complicated I-Drive system is available if you order the GPS-based navigation system, but was thankfully missing from our mid-level tester.
BMW’s naming nomenclature has been fairly easy to decipher over the years. The first digit always denotes the class (3, 5, 6, 7, etc.), while the last two are the engine size in litres, so a 330i is powered by a 3.0-liter straight six. However, there have been some exceptions to the rule, most notably with the earlier four-cylinder engines.

Well, get ready for another exception. While the new 330i retains the 3.0-liter straight six, this year pushing 255 hp @ 6,600 rpm and 220 lb-ft @ 2,750 rpm, the 325i also has a 3.0-liter straight six, albeit with only 215 hp and 185 lb-ft. The difference is all in the tuning, and the Double-VANOS variable intake and exhaust trickery that would take six pages on its own to describe.

At any rate, the lower-powered engine in our tester was hooked up to BMW’s excellent six-speed manual transmission, which comes standard on every 3-series. (An optional six-speed automatic is available across the line as well.)

With the usual 50/50 weight distribution, sticky tires and beefed up suspension and 17-inch wheels from the optional Sports Package ($2,800), the 325i is a hugely rewarding drive. Despite being heavier than before, the car still feels like it’s on its tiptoes, and can slice through traffic with ease. The steering communicates its intentions very well, and you’re not so isolated that you can’t feel what’s going on through your seat.

Our admittedly well equipped 325i tester starts at $39,900 – with the usual mountains of safety equipment like ABS, TCS, EBD, and a glut of airbags. Ours also came with the aforementioned sport package, the $4,300 Premium Package (glass sunroof, auto dimming mirror, electric seats, Harman/Kardon sound system), and another $800 for metallic paint for a price as tested of $47,800. Just for reference, the more powerful 330i starts at $47,500.

So BMW has hit another home run, but will the ticket price be too expensive to fill the seats? At this point, it seems that BMW can sell every car it builds, so given the successful redesign, the Bimmer icon will remain so.