Thursday, May 26, 2011


I've always been a car guy.  I've been fascinated/obsessed with cars since I was a young boy, and that hasn't ever really eased up.  My love for bikes and riding is actually possibly less than that for cars and driving, at least when we're talking about material things.  I'll admit I don't seem to have as much to say about cars, though.

I've owned a bunch of cars.  The first one I bought new was a 1989 VW Golf.  It cost me $8680, if I recall correctly, and was a fun car within its limits, which were not all that high.  It had good steering, a loud stereo and the best air conditioning a car ever had, but tiny little brakes, narrow tires and low limits.  It wasn't what you might call a spirited beast, lacking all of the great suspension tuning its sibling the GTI benefitted from, and certainly these days, the power was nothing to write home about.

Though they've gotten nicer since, none of my other cars have been much more inspiring, really.  Despite my penchant for having fun behiond the wheel, the Golf was followed by long stints in an Accord and my current ride, a Mazda3 sedan.  Sprinkled in there were a pristine-but-dull 1986 Toyota MR2; a ratty, terrifying and yet thrilling Suzuki Swift GT; a Mazda Protege with the Miata engine, and my least favorite (despite being the most expensive), a 2000 VW Passat GLX with leather, wood and all kinds of (fragile) electronics.

The Accord benefitted greatly from aftermarket brake pads, a strut tower brace to stiffen up the unibody, fat aftermarket sway bars, Koni Sport adjustable shocks, as well as sticky summer tires.  It actually wasn't a bad driver after all of that work, which I introduced over time as I replaced worn out parts.  And the Mazda has similarly benefitted from better brake pads, shocks and tires.

The Mazda is actually a pretty fun car to drive, despite being prematurely rusty.  It doesn't mind being driven hard, and is fun to throw around, with steering that's way more responsive than most cars out there.  And it's rarely broken, though at the moment it needs a few thousand dollars worth of replacement parts, or will before the end of the year.  Actually, let me be more honest -- for the price, the Mazda is a shockingly competent driver.  I get into a sport utility and am forced to wonder what people are thinking when they choose something like that over something like the Mazda.

With this car, I had something of a revelation about cars.  Unlike the custodial obligation I felt toward that pricey Passat, I immediately washed my hands of any concern for the Mazda's well-being.  I bought this car to drive the hell out of it (both in intensity and miles), and not worry about it.  That's what I've been doing, and it's been very liberating, really.  I don't care where I park it, I don't worry about dents and dings, and it doesn't bother me when I do something stupid with it, like clip a boulder mid-corner, blowing a shock and bubbling a tire.  Except for the cash out.

The car has also been a good reminder that while cars benefit from some stuff, they don't need a ton of stuff to be satisfying.  Meaning, I don't need leather, power seats, traction control, heated seats, and heated power-retracting mirrors to have a good time.  On the contrary -- I have more fun without all that fragile stuff on board!  I'll take the decent stereo, the power windows, steering, brakes, ABS and keyless entry, though, for sure.  I'm not one to suffer.

The thing is, though, the Mazda lacks a little something called cachet.  It's a totally anonymous little car that nobody looks at or gets excited about -- it doesn't pull the ladies, as they say, and it doesn't say much about me!  And though I've told myself those things don't really matter, the car guy in me has often let his eyes wander over nicer hardware with more than a touch of envy.

So when my friend Allyson told me she was going to sell her Mini, I asked if I could borrow it for a week or so, to see if I could make it make some sense for me.  Minis have plenty of cachet, despite being priced in the reach of regular people, and they're really very cute, if small.  I'll get to the punch line first, so I can concentrate on the good stuff -- the car makes no sense for me right now.  But man, what a fun car!

It's a 2008 Mini Cooper.  Not a lot of power, but it has the sports package and the premium package, plus a few other bits in the mix.  So it has enough stuff in it to make it really liveable, and it has some goodies bolted to it that make it more of a driver's car than the base Cooper would otherwise be.  It's been sitting in a storage garage for the last 14 months undriven, and was driven only a couple of times in the 6 months prior to that.

Dynamically, it's a fantastic ride.  The steering has much more heft than my Mazda, and it guides the car with more precision than anything I've ever driven.  The chassis lets me place the car wherever I want, without anything untoward happening -- even in mid-corner corrections.  And the thing is just so nimble!  A quick flick lets me blast around potholes and other obstacles without slowing up the pace.  On/off-ramps are nothing short of thrilling, because the car exhibits little roll and lets me carry ridiculous speed through to the tollbooth.  It's really a joy to drive, even with modest power levels, and it's built like a tank -- much more substantial than my Mazda.

It's too small, though.  I need a car with four doors to accommodate the girls (watching poor Ava struggle with the heavy doors to extricate herself from the back seat is enough to make me rule the car out), and though I can pack a week's worth of our groceries in the trunk, a trip to BJs with the girls isn't going to work.  Which is a pity, really, because I can't think of anything else wrong with it.

Well, that's not true.  BMW let the Mini team go a little off the deep end with the dash design and switchgear. And really, who decided the turn signal stalk needed to be reinvented?  Any of those kinds of annoyances disappear on a drive, though, replaced by a giant grin and praise to anyone who will listen.  Or if I'm on my bluetooth, a play-by-play of the car's awesomeness.

Unfortunately, I can't adopt it, but I am going to help send it of into its next life.  Anyone want to buy a Mini?

All for now,



John Ellsworth said...

So I swapped the tires on the Mini front to rear on Monday. Two cool things. First, the whole side of the car will get up in the air if you jack it high enough from the front jacking point -- enough to change both tires that is. And second, the rear trailing arms on this car are gorgeous aluminum castings. Here's a photo of a trailing arm from an R56 compared to the R53. The pretty one is the one on Allyson's car. Interestingly, they're a direct swap if someone with the older car cared to spend $700 for the pair...

John Ellsworth said...

Here's the link: