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A Mini Cooper S Makes a Terrible Road-Trip Car, in Case You're Wondering

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author photo by Eric Brandt March 2018

About three years ago, my wife traded in her 2002 Dodge Neon SXT for a 2008 Mini Cooper S. Specifically, a Mini Clubman -- or "R55," if you want to say it the cool way. Ever since I first rode in the car, I just ... didn't like it. I couldn't quite put my finger on why. Maybe it was the lousy ride quality or the absurd instrumentation -- or maybe it just wasn't my style.

A few weeks ago, I drove the Mini a longer distance than I've ever driven it before. I took it from my home in Northeast Wisconsin to Chicago and back, which ended up being a total of about 400 miles. It was a truly miserable drive.

First, let's talk specifics. The R55 Clubman is a stretched-out version of the R56 Mini Hatch. It has a third suicide door called the "club door" on the passenger side and two barn doors on the back, which -- in the most technical sense possible -- makes it a 5-door wagon. Being the S model, it's powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter inline four engine called the N14 (which is bad, but we'll get to that later). This one, in particular, is equipped with a 6-speed automatic transmission, which is one of the reasons I've never liked the car. I'm not a manual purist, but a Mini is just one of those cars that makes a lot more sense with a stick.

The engine is spritely, and it's pretty fun in quick jaunts -- but being a BMW product, it's unreliable and it's expensive to fix. But on the occasion that it works, it's great! This car had its turbocharger and high-pressure fuel pump replaced on factory-extended warranties for those particular parts when the car only had about 50,000 miles. It was nice that Mini picked up the bill, but the fact that those two pretty major components failed at only 50,000 miles makes it hard for me to trust the car in general.

Now, let's get to this trip of mine. Let me start by saying I know the Mini R55 wasn't made to be a long-distance highway cruiser and it's decidedly a city car. A Mercury Grand Marquis, this is not. Now that that disclaimer is out of the way, I still must say: This is a truly terrible road-trip car. And 400 miles hardly counts as a road trip!

The trip started out fine. I've done plenty of highway driving in the Mini, but never on this scale -- and it didn't take very long for the trip to get very uncomfortable, with a jarring ride and excessive road noise. The leatherette seats aren't great, and the overall ride quality is downright horrible. The suspension is firm and sporty, and the car is quite planted in a quick corner -- but at the cost of discomfort for most of the time you're driving. And this is the long-wheelbase version, which should theoretically have a better ride. I can't imagine how rough the ride is in a Mini Cooper S Hatchback of the same vintage with a wheelbase that's three inches shorter. Part of me wonders if the "S" stands for "spinal realignment," because that's what you need after driving this a couple hundred miles.

Now, let's talk instrumentation. I don't know if you've ever been in a Mini from the BMW era, but they have these ridiculous speedometers in the middle of the dash the size of a dinner plate. That little orange ring inside the speedometer tells you how many candy corns of fuel you have left. Right in front of the driver is a reasonably sized analog tachometer with a little screen inside that can display a digital speedometer, which makes the giant circle in the middle a completely useless waste of space.

The stereo is one of the least intuitive I've ever used in a car -- and after three years, I still haven't gotten used to it. I still accidentally change the channel when I try to adjust the volume because the tuner knob is where the volume knob should be. Speaking of volume adjustment, the steering wheel audio and cruise controls have identical plus and minus buttons on either side of the wheel. I can't tell you how many times on this trip I tried adjusting the cruise control and Beck just got louder without the car going any faster. Oh, and of course it has the infamous BMW-style turn signals that don't stay clicked up or down that everyone hates -- and I still have no idea how to operate the windshield wipers properly.

Then there's the styling. One of the reasons I was okay with my wife getting this car is because this Mini is overwhelmingly cute. It's got that cute face with the round headlights, the characteristic boxy profile, and little Union Jacks on the mirrors that Mini calls "Black Jacks." Although my record has shown that I have no problem driving ugly or uncool cars, I'm just a little uncomfortable driving a car as tremendously "cute" as this particular Pepper White Mini. I've never considered myself insecure ... except when I'm behind the wheel of this adorable little car.

I know all of these gripes are pretty minor -- but they all add up to make for a pretty darn unpleasant long-distance drive. The Mini is just fine as a city car, and the styling is cute -- if that's what you're into. But I can't recommend driving it more than a couple dozen miles at a time.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
A Mini Cooper S Makes a Terrible Road-Trip Car, in Case You're Wondering - Autotrader