Saturday
Jan022016

The upgrades have begun - and one involves walnut shells...

This car was never going to stay standard for long. Even before I bought the Mini I had an idea of what I wanted to do to it. To be clear, I'm not looking to replicate a car from Need for Speed or a Fast and Furious film here, I just want to give my Mini a unique character and make it mine. I also enjoy tinkering, so I get as much enjoyment from cracking the toolkit out and fitting the parts as I do from enjoying the extra performance.

AEM air intake system

The first change I made was the addition of a cold air induction system by AEM, which uses the bonnet scoop (that hole above the front badge) to feed air into the engine more aggressively than normal, helping the car to breathe better and produce more power.

It was a fairly simple procedure. I ordered the kit from Lohen, a Mini specialist, and it took me a couple of hours to get it all installed. Removing old parts was easy enough and the included instructions (plus a YouTube tutorial published by AEM) made fitting the new parts simple. The kit included an air filter cone (the red thing in the photo), a box for it to sit in, the large pipe running down the right side, an AEM branded heat shield to fit over the car's turbocharger, and a funnel which directs air through the bonnet scoop and into the air box.

AEM claim the kit can give an extra 20 horsepower to the 170 the car came with. I'm not sure the increase is quite as dramatic as that, but it certainly makes a difference. Acceleration is stronger from lower revs, making the car feel sharper and more eager to get going. The larger air intake also produces a sucking noise as you accelerate and a hiss when you lift off. It's a long way from The Fast and The Furious, thankfully, but gives the car a subtle but interesting new soundtrack.

I paid £340 for the intake kit, but at the time of writing Lohen's sale had taken the price down to £289. Just make sure you check if your car has a MAF sensor or not. Mine doesn't, which meant I had to add an extra housing to the kit, bumping the price up by £20.

A blast of walnut shells

Next up was a trip to TWG Automotive, a Mini and BMW specialist in Camerley, for what's known as a decoking. The N14 and N18 engines of the second-generation R56 Mini has a habit of building up carbon deposits inside. On higher mileage cars - mine has 85,000 on the clock - this results in decreased performance and a sluggish reaction when you accelerate. Decoking sees the engine's innards blasted with walnet shell dust, cleaning it all out and giving back the car's original performance.

The difference was immediately obvious, giving the Cooper S sharper and more positive acceleration with less hesitation than before. There's also the peace of mind knowing eight years of carbon deposits have been blasted away. TWG charges £180 for its decoking service, which takes around four hours. As my car was due a brake fluid change, this was done at the same time for an extra £40.

John Cooper Works

As my car has the optional John Cooper Works bumpers and door sills, I wanted to get a pair of front and rear JCW badges to complete the look. Purists will argue this is wrong, because the car isn't a true JCW, as could be bought new with several other changes, not just the body. But sod that, I like the badges so I bought a £20 pair off eBay for the front grille and boot, and stuck them on.

And finally...

While most people spent New Year's Eve buying last minute champagne, I was heading up the M1 to collect an exhaust I'd bought on eBay from Durham. I hadn't planned to buy a John Cooper Works exhaust, because they are rare and expensive, but then this backbox came up for £160 I couldn't resist. It was bought a year ago for £445 and has done 10,000 miles, but looks pretty much as new.

For now it's taking up my boot and back seats, but once it's fitted - a £20 job, once I can get it booked into the local garage - it'll give my car a nice new soundtrack and more aggressive look from the rear. There will be more popping and burbling, and it'll sound lovely.

Last of all, here's a quick video I took with a GoPro driving down from Holm Moss and into Huddersfield. Unfortunately, the suction mount failed so I'll need to buy a new (better) one soon.

Tuesday
Nov032015

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.

 

Tuesday
Nov032015

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?