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

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. Find a Mini Clubman for sale

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Eric Brandt
Eric Brandt is an author specializing in Oversteer content, new car reviews, and finding the best car, truck, and SUV deals each month. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Eric can often be found exploring the north woods on his 1983 Honda Gold Wing when the weather allows it. Father of four, husband of one, and unapologetic minivan enthusiast. Eric mastered driving stick by having a 3-cylinder Chevy... Read More about Eric Brandt

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  1. i have a mini s 2015 and i have never loved a car as much . long trips are a pleasure of course mine was a stick . previous favorite cars  69 volvo p1800 a 2002 audi  a 77 trans am , a 89  buick raider  (toughest car ever made)  a 2005 jeep  wrangler  was the most idea i ever had .. this guy needs an old caddy he wants a boat not a car 

  2. I read your articles regularly, but I both agree and disagree with this one. I own a 2011 MINI Cooper Hardtop, and love the car to death. Yes the ride is very harsh, the controls can be annoying, there is not much storage, the sun-visors are totally useless, and it has reliability issues. Mine has the N18 engine which is miles better than the N14 which is essentially a boat anchor. That’s what you’re buying with many cars from England though. I love British cars, I own six of them, but they are horrific engineers. However, I have done four of the famous MINI Takes the States rallies, in which I drove of 5,000 miles each time, and it what made me fall in love with the car. The community or as we call it “our support group” is amazing, the cars are a riot to drive, they can be seriously quick, they are as you say, wonderful in the city, and yes, it is cute, but we prefer to call them mean. Yeah yeah yeah, that sounds worse, but go drive a John Cooper Works on a twisty road and you’ll understand. 

  3. Interesting to hear so much criticism for a Mini. No so-called journalists had the guts to say anything negative about the brand. Not at least here in Japan. 

  4. Sure a MINI won’t be as nice as a larger car for a long road trip, but I would say that whether or not a MINI is terrible road trip car is dependent on the individual taking the trip and that specific car. 

    I owned a 2006 MINI Cooper S Convertible for 10+ years and put 207,000 miles on it during it’s fairly reliable time in my garage. At one point, I was doing 35k miles a year on interstate (granted Southern US interstates not the North’s version of “roads”) and I thoroughly enjoyed my time behind the wheel. This was especially true after driving economy and compact class rentals of the same era.
    Anyway, I guess all I’m saying is that compared to other 2008 small cars I would bet that MINI is probably as good as or better as a road trip car. Also, I found that the Lounge leather interior cars are much more comfortable due the expensive seats. 
    Still, I’ve never liked the R56 era interior as much as the earlier R53 or later F56 interiors. 
  5. Did that MINI still have the original runflat tires? I ask because that was a major complaint on the MINI forums when I owned a Cooper S a few years ago. A lot of us swapped out the runflats for “normal” tires, and the ride improved considerably. The wife and I took the MINI on a couple of long road trips, and even she liked it. My MINI was a very good one, and I liked it a lot, but the Ford Fiesta ST came along and persuaded me to trade.

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