Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Tale of Two MINIs

What could be better than time with a sporty, fuel efficient MINI? A week with two MINIs! I recently tested the new-for-2009 Cooper Convertible and revisited the Cooper Hardtop as well.

The first new MINI convertible debuted for 2005 and sold 179,000 copies before the 2009 model arrived. In the interim, the Hardtop was redone for 2007, and although it looked similar, much was changed inside and out. A new engine found its way under the stubby hood. The Clubman extended-wheelbase model debuted for 2008.

For 2009, the Convertible finally joins the Coupe and Clubman on the revised platform. That means it gets the more upright nose, with additional crush space for pedestrian safety—a nod to European laws. The taillamps are wider, too. Significantly, the new droptop now has the updated interior, with the eight-inch-wide speedometer at dash center, the overstuffed-looking controls, and more substantial look.

While the previous generation featured permanently fixed roll bars behind the seats, the new version hides a one-piece roll bar below. It pops up only if sensors detect the car’s about to tip over. This is unlikely—the MINI Convertible gets five stars in the U.S. Government Rollover test. The hidden roll bar makes for a cleaner profile, a more expansive view, and opens up additional storage space.

The rear seats fold individually, permitting more cargo carrying capacity than before. Granted, it’s a lot less than the Hardtop, but you can put small suitcases and your grocery items in there without a problem when you drop the tiny tailgate.

MINIs use a French 1.6-liter inline four. With dual overhead camshafts and full variable valve management, in standard trim it puts out 118 horsepower, good for 0 – 60 acceleration of 9.8 seconds in the Convertible. The S model, with twin-scroll turbocharger and direct fuel injection, drops that time to 7.4 seconds. The John Cooper Works versions are even quicker.

Fuel economy isn’t usually associated with sports cars, but the MINI Convertible is rated at 25 City and 34 Highway. I averaged 26.8 mpg. The EPA Green Vehicle Guide gives the car an Air Pollution score of 7 and Greenhouse Gas score of 8—fine numbers.

The Convertible is easy to open. The electrohydraulic mechanism raises or lowers the durable cloth top in just 15 seconds with the touch of a button. You can do it at up to 20 miles per hour, too. The front section pulls back electrically like a sunroof, offering a unique opportunity for semi-open-air motoring.

Typical of MINI’s sense of humor, left of the column-mounted tachometer is the “openometer,” which measures the time that the roof is open. This amusing gadget records up to seven hours of it with its needle and lights.

My Horizon Blue Metallic Convertible, with Hot Chocolate brown top, is a perfect example of how you can upgrade a MINI to suit your tastes. Starting at a base price of $23,900, the grand total, with destination charges, came to $32,050. The Leather Lounge Hot Chocolate interior added $2,000. The Cold Weather Package ($500) heated the seats and the mirrors and washer jets too. The Premium Package ($1,250) chromed the interior and exterior trim, upgraded to full climate control, and more.

The STEPTRONIC automatic transmission ($1,250) provided paddles on the wheel for quick shifts. It’s certainly a fun way to have the convenience of an automatic with the control of a manual.

Further options, at $500 apiece, included Dynamic Traction Control, which uses the car’s computer system to keep you safely on the road, and Park Distance Control, which protects your car while backing up. It’s handy because the folded top blocks the lower part of your rear view.

In contrast, the Nightfire Red MINI Hardtop I drove later in the week was close to the basic, sweet car. Its few options included $500 for the metallic paint, $750 for an upgrade to 16-inch alloy wheels, and a few more bucks for heated sport seats, a multi-function steering wheel, and black bonnet stripes.

Thanks to lighter weight than the convertible and a six-speed manual, the Hardtop earned a stellar 32.1 mpg. I had loads of fun driving it and used the greater carrying capacity. The price, including everything, came to $21,550, $10,500 less than the Convertible. MINIs start at $18,550.

MINI recently commemorated two milestones. The first was a celebration of 50 years since the brand debuted on May 8, 1959. 5.3 million original, tiny Minis were sold and enjoyed worldwide.The second event occurred a month later, when a Chili Red 2009 MINI Clubman rolled off the Oxford assembly line, marking 1.5 million new MINIs since production began in 2001. That same plant produced the original Mini in 1959.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Honda Fit is Perfect for Today

Right in the middle of Consumer Reports’ Cash for Clunkers recommended car list sits the Honda Fit. The smallest Honda offered in the U.S., it may be the ideal car for a world of constrained resources and uncertain employment.

New for 2009, the Fit follows the same formula as its predecessor: Small on the outside, large on the inside. Taking up a surprisingly small piece of driveway, my Milano Red test car made short work of everything from passengers to groceries to string basses. The “Magic” split rear seat flips down to create 57.3 cubic feet of cargo space. Or, pull up the lower cushion and have a car-wide space behind the front seats.

It’s the Fit’s pod shape that makes it so impressive. The car looks a bit like a giant pumpkin or a sharp-edged ball. The windshield tapers down almost to the nose—there’s hardly any hood. Generous windows in the front pillars enhance visibility. The side window line rises up dramatically, ending in a chopped-off hatch. This car is much larger and more usable than the original Honda Civic hatches that debuted in the early 1970s.

Despite its role as the entry-level Honda, the Fit is not just basic transportation. Air conditioning and power windows, locks and mirrors are standard. Current and average fuel economy information displays appear on the dash. A 160-watt four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with AUX plug is there too. They’ve even added a passenger visor vanity mirror, which was noticeably lacking in the previous-generation model I tested two years ago.

If you want more features, order the Sport model. It flaunts more than a dozen upgrades. Inside, you get remote entry and security system, leather wrapped steering wheel with illuminated controls, map lights, cruise control, and two extra speakers for the audio system. Outside, “sportiness” comes with an underbody kit, 16-inch alloy wheels, chrome headlight bezels and exhaust tips and a rear roof spoiler.

Both standard and Sport use an upgraded 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels. Horsepower jumps from 109 in the old model to 117 today, with 106 lb.-ft. of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but you can order a five-speed automatic.
Even with the automatic, my test car felt perky and delivered 33.4 miles per gallon. EPA figures are 27 City, 33 Highway; Green Vehicle numbers are a laudable 7 for Air Pollution and 8 for Greenhouse Gas scores.

For such a small car, the Fit carries four people very comfortably. A high ceiling inside helps. The molded seats are comfortable without being especially luxurious.

The interior features Honda’s busy styling, with plenty of varying surfaces and fanciful curves. It feels substantial and the fit and finish are typical Honda excellent.

The Fit earns a five-star, top-level rating for frontal crash for driver and passenger and five stars for side crash for the front seat (four stars for rear). That’s thanks to the Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure. ACE also provides extra rigidity to the Fit and helps minimize the potential for under-ride or over-ride, which can occur during head-on or offset-frontal impacts with a significantly larger or smaller vehicle. Of course there are plenty of airbags—six in all.

Active safety includes an anti-lock braking system (ABS) with Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD) and brake assist, front seat belts with automatic tensioning systems, and driver and front passenger Active Head Restraints. These features used to be available only in more expensive vehicles, but the technology has percolated down to everyone’s cars now. That’s good.

You can order Vehicle Stability Assist™ (VSA®) on the Fit Sport, and my tester had it. An electronic stability control system, VSA works with the ABS and Traction Control System (TCS) to keep you from oversteering or understeering in a turn. The system carefully brakes one or more wheels independently to help the driver keep the vehicle on the intended travel path.

It won’t cost you much to get into a Fit. Prices begin at $15,460, including destination charges. The Fit Sport jumps $1,510, and an automatic transmission will add $800 or $850 to that. My Fit Sport with a navigation system and VSA came to $19,630.

Beyond all this, with its electric rack-and-pinion steering system and firm suspension, the Fit is actually enjoyable to drive. Car magazines routinely rate it tops in its class for fun against competitors from Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and others. Especially at its price point, that means something, and you’ll be safe too. There’s even talk of a hybrid version. Watch this space for details.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Catch My Green Vehicle Posts on Gas 2.0

After a four-month lapse I'm back. I've still been writing a new car story every week. I promise to put up the best ones here. I've also started posting stories on the Gas 2.0 blog. Here are my first three, on the MINI E all-electric car, BioFuel Oasis, a full-service biodiesel station in Berkeley, and Luscious Garage in San Francisco:




Thanks, and I'll be back soon--I promise!