If the MINI Cooper S has a fatal flaw, it's cuteness. Say all you want about superchargers, power-to-weight ratios, or low polar moments of inertia, there isn't a red-blooded performance nut in the world who can maintain their sense of internal combustion bravado when nine-year-old girls squeal at the mere sight of their car.
The first, most important step in hot-rodding a MINI has nothing to do with performance, it has to do with perception. It's time to take a die grinder to the MINI's cuteness, and the quickest way to do that, as we learned with Project Silvia, is flat black paint.
Shaking the rattle can on a decade-old Nissan is one thing, but even we couldn't bust Krylon on a brand-new MINI. The MINI's deep sense of Germanic quality demands professional flat black. We started with the cheapest, shoddiest chain paint stores we could find. Flat black, after all, is the easiest color to spray, so any monkey with an air compressor and a paint booth should be able to handle it.
Turns out the concept of flat black is much harder to deal with than the actual execution. One blank stare after another left no question as to the toxic effects of life in a spray booth. Just asking for a nonshiny color was hard enough, but we insisted on fancy requests. We wanted metallic flat black. The contradiction stopped every hydrocarbon-stunted paint jockey dead in his tracks.
The idea for the paint came from the Yamaha R1, a bike which, in black-and-silver livery, is the two-wheeled incarnation of evil. A fine, nearly pearlescent metallic undertone to the bike's fairings elevate its flat black finish from the air of stop-gap cheapitude dripping from our Silvia to an artistic expression that makes you question the very concept of gloss.
Imagine our delight when we finally found a painter who understood that. Nathan Simmons, owner of Custom and Classic in Pasadena, Calif., clearly uses proper ventilation. Not only did he know exactly what we were babbling about with our metallic flat black, he was full of ideas for other radical finishes he was ready to try, like rough-sanded flat silver that resembles bare metal. Maybe when the Silvia's Bondo tumor is cured...
Meanwhile, metallic flat black it is. Simmons custom mixed our metallic black, finishing it off with a clearcoat doped liberally with dulling agent. Being a rare request, the exact amount of dulling agent was in question. Our finish ended up fairly semi-gloss; not exactly the R1 finish we were looking for, but menacing nonetheless. Parked next to our rattle-can black, it's several shades blacker, and the semi-gloss replaces the declarations of cuteness with semi-disgusted questions about our paint problems. Perfect. Anyone with an automotive soul, on the other hand, understands immediately.
Chrome presented the next problem. The door handles, fuel filler door and headlight surrounds are glaring anachronisms on a flat black MINI. We suggested gloss black trim, but Simmons had a more profound vision. He thoroughly cleaned the chrome bits without any sanding, then dusted them with gloss black, sans primer, leaving a transparent, black/chrome effect that caps off the MINI's stunning blackness perfectly.
Without sanding or primer, the black chrome finish is delicate. Over the last nine months of daily use, the blunt nose of the MINI has picked up its fair share of chips, but the only big paint problem happened during the application of vinyl. The silver hood stripes we added for the MINI's short date with carpet-based stardom were temporarily draped across the black-chrome grille. Even though the grille was wet, the vinyl grabbed the paint harder than the paint grabbed the chrome, and when the offending flap of hood stripe was removed, the paint came with it. We had to touch up the resulting inch-long chrome spot with a permanent marker. Classy. Aside from the vinyl incident, the black chrome has held up surprisingly well.
Naturally, despite legal and practical issues, the MINI's evil transformation would be incomplete without a dark window tint. Backing up at night is nearly impossible, and the first time Officer Salty decides to start throwing books, the tint will have to come off. Meanwhile, our MINI looks pissed.
Nearly as profound as the paint is the size and visual impact of our rolling stock. On the chrome freeways of L.A., our 15-inch wheels, which look more like 13-inchers thanks to their two-piece forged construction, pack more bling than all the dubs in Snoop Dogg's garage. Our secret is the power of rightness. Small wheels look right on a MINI. That's why they call it a MINI. A MINI, be it the minimalistic original or the uptown BMW remake, should be consistent in its philosophy. The size and shape of the MINI suggest a miniature version of a normal car. The body is small, the engine is small (at least by American standards), and the wheels should be small. The optional factory 17-inch wheels make the MINI look like a $10 streetside caricature. Our 15-inch Racing Harts make it look like a MINI.
Both the base MINI Cooper and the supercharged Cooper S share the same brakes, and since the base Cooper comes with 15-inch wheels, we knew the 15-inch concept was at least feasible. The old-school spokes of Racing Hart's CP-F Tune R wheels don't leave much caliper room, however. In the 45mm offset we tried, the weld joining the wheel center and wheel rim rubbed on the caliper. A 5mm spacer and some longer wheel bolts did the trick, and the slight change in offset, surprisingly, has done little to upset the MINI's stunning steering feel.
We chose a 205/50-15 tire size to maximize our tire selection. Nearly every high-performance tire is available in this size, and the 50-series sidewall is just tall enough to fit the retro look of both the car and the wheel. With a rolling diameter of 23.1 inches, they're just a hair shorter than the 23.4-inch 195/55-16s. From the copious selection of tires, we chose the BFGoodrich g-Force KD, a tire that offers about as much grip as any non-R-compound tire can hope for, along with respectable treadwear and a conventional-looking tread pattern that fits right in with our all-consuming push for retro rightness.
All told, the 13-pound Racing Harts and 22-pound g-Force KD shaved 20 pounds of unsprung, rolling weight from the MINI. And a much-needed 20 pounds it was. Our MINI arrived weighing nearly 2,700 pounds, an embarassment of portliness considering its size. The Cooper S is blessed with healthy power and a superb suspension from the factory, but the burden of mass damps the car's effectiveness. We could start with more power, grip, and stopping power, but our quest for MINI rightness pointed toward curb weight. Physics is on our side here; lightness improves performance in every direction while adding a nimble sense of fitness that a brute-force approach can't offer.
The most offensive pounds are on the roof. A massive, two-panel glass sunroof that spans nearly the entire length of the car puts a shocking 53 pounds in the single worst place it could be. Ordering a Cooper S without a sunroof is the wisest path for those seeking the rightest and lightest of MINIs, but when life gives you lemons, well, carbon fiber is the best form of lemonade.
Carbon Trix is a small spin-off of the Mitsubishi-tuning Road/Race Engineering empire. Its carbon-fiber bits are mostly small (scoops, vents, gauge pods, etc.) and usually backed with fiberglass, but even fiberglass-backed carbon fiber is vastly lighter than the MINI's depleted uranium sunroof. Most importantly, Carbon Trix is a lean, mean company willing to build whatever goofy carbon-fiber things people want to buy. Like MINI sunroofs.
The MINI sunroof has two panels, with the front one on tracks and the rear one glued in place. Carbon Trix took a mold of the entire thing, smoothed out the seam between the two panels, and made a single-piece replacement panel. Aerodynamic forces on a panel that large can be huge, especially at triple-digit speeds, so we had them make the panel extra strong, at the expense of some weight. The panel is the same thickness as the stock glass, allowing it to sit on the stock seal.
Underneath, there are two large half-inch thick honeycomb sections, then one extra layer of fiberglass. The thickness added by the lightweight honeycomb makes the panel ludicrously strong. The thick fiberglass weighs about 7 pounds, and we mounted it to the 7-pound plastic frame that held the stock sunroof. We had the rear glass panel cut off by a glass shop, but using the stock frame let us use the stock seals and drain rails, which ensure whatever water does get past the sunroof doesn't end up on our heads. Total weight saved: 39 pounds. The panel has survived nine months of daily use, countless triple-digit excursions, and torrential downpours without a single problem.
That's 59 pounds so far. Let's keep going.
The bottom of the car offers two opportunities for weight savings. The exhaust, first of all, uses a resonator and two heavy mufflers. The whole system, post-catalyst, weighs a shocking 44 pounds. The convoluted three-muffler design is there partly to dodge the battery, which hangs down below the middle of the tiny trunk floor. If we could shrink the battery (35 pounds by itself) and the box it sits in, we could make the exhaust a straight shot out the back, saving both battery weight and exhaust weight. And if the exhaust were titanium...
Battery first. We used a miniscule Odyssey PC680 battery. The PC680 is available both with and without a heat-resistant steel sheath. If the battery is to be mounted in an engine compartment, or a hot metal box next to the exhaust system, the sheath should be used. With the sheath, the battery is 16 pounds, a 19-pound savings. The battery box was modified by Ziel Motorsports, importer of JIC exhaust and suspension bits. Sawing off the bottom of the box and bolting in a few of their interlocking aluminum panels puts a hump in the bottom of the box to make room for the exhaust.
Ziel then used our car to mock up what would eventually become a titanium JIC Bullet exhaust weighing a scant 10 pounds. That exhaust has only one muffler, however, and it's a small one, so the volume level makes it a race-only system. Our stainless-steel prototype exhaust uses the stock resonator, plus the small muffler, and is still quite loud without the tailpipe-plugging silencer. Without the silencer, the exhaust makes about 1 hp and 3 lb-ft of torque. With it, the system loses 4 hp, but keeps the torque gain untile 4000 rpm or so. The whole noise-vs.-power tradeoff goes against our normal philosophy of practical performance, but the 34-pound weight savings makes it hard to ignore. In total, we saved 112 pounds.
The stock MINI suspension is amazing. Take good geometry cribbed from the BMW 3 Series, add impressive damping and uncommon balance and you have something that doesn't really need changing. Except, of course, that it would look better if it were lower. Unsure how low we would need to go to make the small wheels look right in the car's SEMA show debut, we needed adjustable coil-overs to give us some flexibility. Some of the first available were from Spax, so we called MINI Madness and got a set.
The Spax dampers are slightly shorter than stock both front and rear. Fully extended, the Spax front strut is just more than 1.5 inches shorter than stock, and with about an inch less travel, (about 4 inches of strut travel vs. 5 inches stock), it ends up with about a half-inch of extra compression travel.
In the rear, it's a similar story. The whole shock is just more than 1.5 inches shorter, but the travel is only shorter by a half inch (about 3.75 inches at the shock, vs. 4.25 stock), leaving an extra inch of compression travel. This extra compression travel is critical if you want to get away with a lowered ride height on real streets with bumps. We were surprised, however, to see that the Spax strut shaft was slightly smaller in diameter than the stock unit.
On the road, the Spax suspension feels surprisingly comfortable with the adjusters left soft. It's quite supple over bumps, actually riding better than stock in most situations. Crank them up about 15 clicks and the motion control is quite good, though it seems to bounce slightly on small ripples. The lower height is also begging for some anti-roll bars.
With the Spax coil-overs and g-Force KDs, skidpad grip jumped from .86g to .92, and the slalom speed improved from 69.1 mph to 71.9. It's hard to say how much of that is from the tires, however. Overall, this suspension seems better suited to cruising the town than attacking the track.
With 15-inch wheels, our braking options are limited. The MINI's stock brakes aren't bad, offering 60-mph stopping distances of 123 feet, even with the rock-hard stock tires. The pedal feel, though, is a little mushy, and they're prone to overheating during hard driving. Lightening the car will help the overheating issue slightly, but we needed more. With no room for bigger, cooler-running brakes, the most effective way to reduce brake fade is to use pads designed to operate at the high temperatures we're stuck with.
To this end, we installed Porterfield R4S pads from MINI Madness. The R4Ss are an aggressive street compound, meaning they're still effective on the first, cold stop, but are suitable for the high temperatures of the track. The downsides are a huge amount of brake dust and occasional squealing. The squealing was incessant for the first month of street use, but it mysteriously disappeared after that.
For the pedal's squishiness, we tried simply replacing the stock brake lines with braided steel Goodridge lines from Rogue Engineering. We do this on nearly every project car, and it's effective and worthwhile every time. This time, however, we've been confounded by a tiny bubble hiding somewhere in the system. Despite bleeding the brakes three times, we've yet to dislodge the stubborn little bugger. The easily compressed bubble has made the brake pedal feel even softer.
This isn't the first time a bubble has done this to us, and like before, we're confident we will prevail. Meanwhile, it has prevented us from flogging the brakes as violently as we did with the stock pads, so a full evaluation of our upgrades will have to wait until we've purged that little son of a bitch.
Finally, a SEMA show tradition. First Project Celica GT-S, then Project Matrix, and now the MINI have used the exact same pair of Sparco Milano seats. In those three years, the Sparcos have held up exceptionally well, with the only damage being a broken backrest adjuster knob damaged during one of the many installations.
In the MINI, the improvement from the new seats is profound. Where the stock seats offered minimal lateral support for cornering and had a strange and uncomfortable backrest shape for long drives, the Milanos manage to improve both road trip comfort and support for hard driving. Saving weight should be the crowning achievement for these seats, but unfortunately, if you include the weight of the hefty Wedge Engineering brackets needed to bolt the seats to the car, they actually add a total of 3 pounds to the car. They also eliminate the torso airbags built into the stock seats, which turns on the airbag warning light. The other four airbags (two front and two side curtain) should still work, but if there's a system malfunction, the light is already on, so there's no way to know.
Project MINI is leaner and meaner now, but it still packs enough residual cuteness that only a serious dose of speed will make us feel good about driving it. Small steps first, we'll try a few intakes, many of which have rather large power claims. Then we'll replace the stock clutch, which is slipping already, and the profoundly heavy dual-mass flywheel. None of this offers the true escape from cuteness that twin-charging would, however. That's right, twin, as in a turbo and a supercharger. It's a plan so ambitious that even we, bastions of optimism that we are, don't seriously think will succeed, but once the idea was tabled, it was simply too good to ignore. We will try. n