Monday, December 1, 2014

Zipping, Zooming & EZ Parking with MINI Cooper


There’s one description for the MINI Cooper Hardtop that you won’t hear me using anymore – “It’s cute!” 
After doing lots of zipping – and the occasional zooming – around in a spiffed-up version of the four-seat coupe for a good part of a week, I can absolutely conclude that “cute” does not do this charmingly adept bit of refined automotive engineering any justice. And justice IS what it deserves after being saddled with such a chic, trendy, bountifully adorable image.
From the moment I engaged the 2014 model year test car’s 6-speed automatic transmission, wound my way through the office parking lot and accelerated onto Route 2A, I could feel a transformation of consciousness. This was not merely the darling little, go-kart-like runabout I was led to believe, and the kind of fun I was about to have would have little to do with the cheery smiles I’d get in the supermarket parking lot. This car has some serious on-road skills.
It takes very little time behind the wheel to recognize that the MINI Cooper Hardtop is extremely responsive to driver input. As effortless as it is to turn the steering wheel, it still feels like something you’re directing and not some remote mechanical/electrical activity. Why is that good? Two words: confidence and control.
The twisty roads through Concord by Walden Pond never gave me reason to feel the car might get away from me. If I wanted to go tightly through a turn, the car obliged precisely and willingly. And when it came time to ramp it up onto Interstate 95, the turbocharged 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine provided plenty of thrust, offering 134 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. That may not sound like much, but given the car’s small dimensions and consequent 2675-pound low weight, the MINI Cooper Hardtop as tested can accelerate to 60 miles-per-hour in about 7.3 seconds (the uprated Cooper S is even better at 6.4 seconds with its turbo 2-liter engine).
Surprisingly, I never felt threatened by the multitude of semi-trailers, heavy duty pickups and bulky SUVs that shared the highway. Despite its size, the MINI Hardtop inspired more confidence among these giants of the road than I felt in either the Fiat 500 or the Volkswagen Beetle, as much as I enjoyed those rivals for their own merits.
But perhaps one of the most unexpected realizations about the MINI Hardtop is how much of a city car it can be. There’s lots to be said about the practicality of having a small car if you live in the city. But small is really not enough if it means sacrificing style, comfort and drivability for the sake of a blip in fuel efficiency and being able to squeeze into a tight parking spot. The MINI Hardtop has it both ways.
A Speedwell Blue plaid pattern
embellishes the floor mats and door sills.
There are millions of ways to factory customize the MINI Cooper Hardtop – it’s one of the brand’s hallmarks. The tested model was decked out in a Speedwell Blue plaid pattern embellishing the side mirrors, door scuttles, floor mats, door sills and removable sunscreens for the rear windows. It also came with several optional packages including a $1500 Sport Package with LED headlights, 17-inch wheels and sport seats, a $1750 Premium Package with a panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control and a harman/kardon® premium sound system, and a $600 Cold Weather Package that includes heated front seats.
For urban New England drivers, the Cold Weather Package might be the only necessity from that list but there is one additional option that will prove itself invaluable wherever finding city street parking is most challenging.
Park Assistant may seem like a novelty at first glance, and spending $1000 for the package after everything else may stress some budgets. But, even if only for sparing the annoyance of figuring out if a parallel parking space is big enough for the car, this option is a worthy time saver. It does more, though. After sizing up a potential parking spot and determining it’s big enough, the system takes over and steers the car into it. This is definitely a value-added feature for anyone who lives or works in the city.
Altogether, the extras on the test car (including Park Assistant) boosted the base MSRP from $19,950 to $33,095 (the 2015 Mini Cooper Hardtop gets a $750 bump up in base price but is essentially unchanged except for some minor shuffling of feature content).
Complaints were few to be found. Most notably, the headlight beam has a purplish/blue halo that can be an occasional distraction, and the mouse-like console controller for the MINI Connected infotainment system is awkwardly placed, being especially difficult to use comfortably when the center armrest is in position. But the system itself is quite sophisticated and generally easy to navigate, making short-work of connecting a Bluetooth® enabled smartphone.
Sport mode engaged.
Government fuel efficiency ratings put the MINI Cooper Hardtop in the sweet spot for gasoline-powered subcompacts, giving the current model a 40 highway/ 29 city rating when equipped with the standard 6-speed manual transmission. The test car earned a rating of 39 highway/ 28 city, but real-life achievements will surely be affected by how often the driver switches from normal Mid driving mode to either the Sport or the Green modes. Each mode automatically adjusts settings for engine, steering and transmission adding another dimension to the fun (I’m saving cute for the puppies) experience.

This story first appeared in the Boston Sunday Globe, Nov. 2, 2014.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2015 Chrysler 200 Sets New Benchmarks


WHAT’S NEW: For 2015, the Chrysler 200 is completely redesigned and now offered as a 5-passenger sedan only.

Call it casual elegance or affordable luxury, but either way, the 2015 Chrysler 200 steps up the mid-size sedan driving experience with a whole new set of benchmarks that showcase the brand’s updated design language and state-of-the-art technology. Trims include the base LX, uprated Limited, sporty 200S and premium 200C.

The graceful new exterior styling is highlighted by integrated grille and headlight elements, creating a fluid look that extends along the sides. Standard equipment includes fully automatic projector beam halogen headlights, power side mirrors and LED taillights. The 200S model replaces the standard chrome trim with gloss black and adds integrated dual exhausts.

Rotary Shift Dial and Uconnect 8.4-inch Touchscreen
The well-crafted interior features a low-profile state-of-the-art electronic rotary shift dial enabling a unique pass-through storage space beneath. For driver convenience, the standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel incorporates audio and cruise controls. Tech savvy options include a 7-inch LED instrument cluster display that provides important vehicle information such as speed and real-time fuel economy, and the Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen multimedia command center with hands-free voice command and smartphone app integration.

Engine choices start with a 184 horsepower 2.4-liter inline-four. Optional on the 200S and 200C is a 295 horsepower 3.6-liter V6. Both engines are mated to an all-new 9-speed automatic transmission. Front wheel drive is standard, while V6 equipped models can be equipped with all-wheel-drive. An optional sport mode with paddle shifters provides a more spirited driving experience.

Here are the highest and lowest estimates for fuel economy:
Highest: 23 City / 36 Highway (2.4L)
Lowest: 18 City / 29 Highway (3.6L, AWD)

Standard safety features on the 2015 200 include an electronic park brake with SafeHold, which secures the vehicle if the driver opens the door and unlatches the seat belt while in gear. Optional ParkSense Parallel/Perpendicular Park Assist guides the driver into parking spaces.

The 200 is backed by a 3-year, 36,000-mile basic warranty and a 5-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

Offering a premium-level motoring experience in a value-packed mid-size sedan, the all-new 2015 Chrysler 200 sets a new standard for affordable elegance.

2015 Chrysler 200 Mid-Size Sedan
  • Completely Redesigned For 2015
  • Fully Automatic Projector Beam Halogen Headlights, Power Side Mirrors, LED Taillights; 200S: Gloss Black Trim, Integrated Dual Exhausts
  • Electronic Rotary Shift Dial, Pass-Through Storage Space, Tilt / Telescoping Steering Wheel w/ Audio & Cruise Controls; Optional: 7-inch LED Instrument Cluster Display, Uconnect 8.4-inch Touchscreen Multimedia Command Center
  • 2.4L I-4, 184-hp, 173 lb-ft of torque (9-AUTO, FWD)
    3.6L V6, 295-hp, 262 lb-ft of torque (9-AUTO, FWD / AWD)
  • Electronic Park Brake w/ SafeHold; Optional: ParkSense Parallel / Perpendicular Park Assist
  • Basic: 3 Years / 36,000 Miles; Powertrain: 5 Years / 100,000 Miles
  • Well-Crafted, Affordable, Elegant