Setbacks sorted, the Cooper S starts to bring out the smiles

After leaving my car at the top of a cliffhanger so tall it could have played a part in The Italian Job, I can confirm that the low tyre pressures, wheel wobble and rumbling noise were all symptoms of loose wheel nuts. A relief, given I was convinced it would be something much more expensive, but still rather alarming…

Let me quickly explain just how loose these nuts were; I could turn them - all of the nuts on the front left wheel - easily with my fingers. Not just easily with a wrench, but with my fingers.

That’s really bad, and meant the left-front wheel - the only affected, and the one given a new tyre to get an MOT pass by the garage I bought it from - was wobbling around as I drove along. I tightened all four wheels with the wrench in the boot and went for a short drive, only to feel the same wheel come loose again. This time, with less care about causing damage by over-tightening, I jumped on the wrench until they were as tight as could be.

Sorted. No more vibrations, no more pulling to the left, and a quick top up of air at the local garage brought the pressures back up to normal too. To check my Mini was fully out of the woods - did I tell you there had been a warning light on next to the mileage since I bought it? - I booked it in for a service at a garage in Earlsfield. All fine, including the wheel nuts, the man said. The warning light is still on, but I’m assured that just needs switching off because it’s telling me the car needs a service when it’s already had one.

All fixed? Well, no. Not quite. That lovely panoramic sunroof, which opened just fine on the day I bought the day, no longer works. Flick the switch and it releases for a moment then retracts back into place. I tried a few times and, for fear of it getting stuck open, decided open windows or air-con would make do. A quick Google search revealed this as a common fault, but one which can cost around £1,000 for a BMW garage to put right. I think I’ll remain avec sunroof for the foreseeable.

Okay, so now are we all sorted?

 Why YES. Yes we are. The car has been running sweetly ever since and, finally, I have been able to enjoy owning it and driving a car which is a little more fun than your average runabout. It should be producing around 180 horsepower, and above about 3,500rpm the shove from the turbocharger is thoroughly addictive - as is the exhaust note, which sounds great without being too overbearing.

My car has the optional Sport button fitted, which turns down the power steering, sharpens the throttle response from the top of the pedal travel, and induces a lovely burble from the exhaust, complete with little pops and bangs when you lift off the accelerator. With Sport engaged, the steering isn’t really any more communicative, but by requiring more effort it makes driving the Cooper S feel more involving and rewarding.

However, it does exaggerate the car’s tendency to be knocked offline by bumps in the road. Other Cooper S owners tell me this is a trait of the rock-hard run-flat tyres the car is meant to use. Switch these for normal tyres at the next opportunity, I’m told, and driving over uneven roads will feel less like steering a dinghy through the choppy wake of an oil tanker.

Full of fear thatd I'd bought a donkey

I haven’t yet had chance to see what the S is truly capable of, but even at fairly mundane speeds the front end is one of the sharpest I’ve ever experienced. There isn’t a sniff of understeer and its eagerness to turn in never fails to put a grin on my face. The Mini’s love of pulling hard in second and third gears, mated with that sharp front end, means I look forward to the 10 minute drive across Wandsworth and Putney to Jess’ almost - I said almost, if you’re reading this - as much as I look forward to getting there.

After the first few days of car ownership filled me with dread and the fear that I’d bought a donkey, I’m now totally smitten by it.

But...there’s still some money left in the car fund, and it only took an evening of trawling through the forums before I was planning how to make it even better.



Buying a car - Not because I needed to, but because I wanted to

I’ve bought a car. This may sound fairly mundane to many, but I live in London and owning a car in London is a commitment not to be taken lightly. Honestly, I’d put money on there being successful marriages which have required left effort than owning a car in London. I live near Wimbledon; a green bit with normal-sized roads and Tube stations above ground, and it’s still an expensive pain.

It’s not even as if I needed the car to travel anywhere. I use public transport for work and two of my three housemates already owned cars when I bought mine. The third has one now too, and compounding this further is my rather jammy job. I’m fortunate enough to get paid to review cars. It’s not every week, but roughly one weekend in every four or five can be spent using a free car, which gets me around and takes me 200 miles north to see mine and my girlfriend’s families.

But the thing is, I really like cars. I like everything about them and I have since I started crawling around as a toddler, chasing the Scalextric my dad used as a catalyst for what quickly became a lifelong passion. I watch car programmes, I read car magazines, I post on car forums, I listen to car podcasts and I write about the bloody things almost every day of the week.

So when I discovered how much cheaper supermarket loans are than those from my bank, I had to put the wheels in motion (ha ha). Credit checked (and Experian promptly cancelled a day before the free month ended), loan approved, bank account flushed with cash. Let’s go shopping.

My favourite hobby as a young teen was to flick through a copy of AutoTrader, back when you could still buy it in print, and fantasise over what I might be able to afford if, somehow, I landed a weekend job and saved every penny. The teenage car purchase never happened, but thankfully Mum saw pity and stuck me on the insurance of her Vauxhall Corsa. Anyway, the 2015 equivalent is to get online, set a budget, add 20% with some man-maths, get an insurance quote and away we go.

I’d set my heart on a RenaultSport Clio 182 - basically a tarted up Clio with a 2-litre engine - and specifically the Trophy version, limited to just 500 examples. I was - and still am - convinced that the Clio Trophy is an appreciating asset. They are a comfortable £2,000 to £3,000 more than the regular 182, thanks to their rareness and trick front suspension. But spending £5,000 on a near-decade-old Clio was just too much of a gamble for my first ever car purchase. One for another, no doubt more expensive, day.

Clio idea parked (sorry), I went looking for a Mini. I’d recently reviewed the newest John Cooper Works Mini, the hottest of the bunch. It was a riot, but with a face only a mother could love and a price tag, after options, of over 30 grand. But dig into the classifieds and the previous generation, the R56, can be had for a fraction of this. The Cooper S from this R56 generation (sold from 2006 to 2013) was in my budget. I found a few potentials on Pistonheads, but having no current car insurance meant test driving any for sale privately would be a palava.

After a week of searching I found a tidy looking 2007 model with the John Cooper Works body and a few other niceties like sat-nav, air conditioning and a panoramic sunroof. I dragged my girlfriend, Jess, 90 minutes across London on a sodden Sunday afternoon to view the car, which I bought there and then. A couple of quick phone calls to sort the tax and insurance, and away we went.

Thirty minutes later and the car pinged loudly, telling the tyre pressures were low and that I must drive slowly to a garage to top them up. This was joined by a strong vibration through the steering wheel, which was pulling to the left, and a noise which sounded like a flat tyre. I went against all my own advice in buying the first car I saw - and from a dealer at that. Would this by low tyre pressures from being sat for a while? An unfortunate puncture? Or something much worse?