Our MINI just hit the 30,000-mile mark and is going as strong as ever. The whole staff has fallen in love with the diminutive asphalt carver and we can't imagine life without it.
We recently put some track miles on the car at Streets of Willow. Despite having our reservations, we found the car to be as good, if not better, on the track as on the street. The sticky Dunlops keep the car planted and worked all day long with less wear than anticipated. The car is surprisingly neutral with a touch of on-throttle understeer. At the limit, the torque steer we fight on the street seems to disappear completely on the track. It was tough to get the rear end loose, but the MINI never did anything unpredictable either. For the track novice, this may be the perfect car.
On our day at Willow the temperature was in the mid 90s and we had concerns of overheating. With two sections of the track in triple-digit speeds, it never became an issue. We never noticed a loss of power and not even a hint of overheating. Canyon running in this kind of heat may be a different story. Some of our favorite canyons are so tight that you hardly see 65 mph and never for much longer than a few seconds. Constant second-gear pulls without enough cooling air may cause problems, but it's something we haven't experienced as of yet.
Not long after our track day, we learned that NM Engineering was launching a new line of products for the MINI R56. At the time of writing, only a handful of product had hit shelves. We decided to try out its new intake system, which uses a cotton mesh filter and includes the inlet pipe, unlike some other kits on the market. The guys at NM figured that the optimum position for the MAF sensor was right after the filter and before the elbow. This gives a more precise reading, as the intake air is closer to laminar flow before it hits the sensor. The kit is extremely high quality. The shroud is constructed of laser-cut stainless steel, the intake pipe is thin-wall powdercoated aluminum and all the joints are silicone. Even the studs for mounting the shroud are impressive, machined from a single piece of stainless that's welded to the shroud.
We also used NM springs to lower our car roughly an inch and half; spring rates are about 20 percent stiffer in the rear and 16 percent stiffer in front. We used the stock dampers as no aftermarket companies offer an option at press time. During installation the factory bump stops were shortened to maintain suspension travel.
The lowered ride height gives the MINI a more aggressive stance and puts its center of gravity a little lower to the ground. We have noticed less roll during cornering which allows the car to better utilize its tires. We also feel more confident. With the super sticky tires and mostly factory suspension, we almost felt like we could get it up on two wheels if we tried hard enough. With the lower height it feels more settled, and the slightly stiffer rear rates make it just a little more neutral. In the near future, NM will make a rear sway bar available for completely neutral MINI handling, even on-throttle. And apparently this is just the beginning for the company, with a cat-back exhaust and down-pipe likely ready by the time you read this. They will support Cooper S, Clubman and Cabrio versions of the new-generation cars. The company also plans on having a software flash available, which will soon be followed by a K04 turbo upgrade that will give even the John Cooper Works cars something to think about.
We still have a few minor complaints. The traffic avoidance system is still giving us headaches. It doesn't have access to traffic conditions on surface streets, so we find ourselves being routed through war zones just to avoid an accident on the freeway. The problem is it takes far longer to deal with all the congestion on the street than it would just to be patient on the freeway.
Fuel economy is still in the 27 mpg range around town, which is phenomenal for a car with this much performance. We suspect our lower car will achieve better mileage, but don't have enough data yet to make a conclusive judgment. The car has been completely reliable, save a broken hood release cable. We had it replaced during a scheduled service, yet it still feels rather stiff.
The staff has already decided our next long-term MINI should be a Clubman S. Until that time, however, we'll keep enjoying our R56. It has been a long time, since we have had so much fun with a car that's so reasonable and so efficient.