Bimmer Lite - December 2007
It's all about soul
by Marc Biunno (aka Bimmer Lite)
Reprinted courtesy of Marc Biunno and Roundel Magazine
“What does 'juxtapose' mean, Mr. Biunno?” It's the first week of school and the eighth graders are settling into their student roles as they feel out their ten month cage that some would call a classroom. The class turns its attention to the wall-sized, black on white and white on black representation of the term. After a discussion about what it could mean, the students decide that it might make sense to place contrasting items next to each other in order to glean more from both. In the automotive community, isn't it the juxtaposition of vehicles that pushes us towards specific marques? This is obvious to you and me, but I leave it out of the conversation for now for fear of really scaring the children. Rule number one this early in the year: don't scare the children.
Billy Joel is surprisingly accurate in his famous song about soul. In the Mini community, it's hard to deny the soul of the group or the souls of the automobiles the group drives. You could even say part of the appeal of the Mini is its apparent difference between it and the rest of the cars on the road, namely, its personality. Driving a Mini doesn't feel like driving a Civic. And now Mini enthusiasts have the R56 to compare to the original R53. Because of the generosity of a local Mini performance shop, I was able to drive a modified R56 for a few days and put my classroom mural (and mantra) to work.
Helix Motorsports in Philadelphia is a different sort of place, one that forces you to think about what the experience of maintaining and upgrading a car would be like if there were more around like it. Helix was one of the first North American Mini shops in business when they imported an R53 in 2001. I was in a jam, needed some work done for a track day, and Eric, Helix's owner and main mechanic, offered me his R56 test car as a loaner. A loaner!? Sign me up...
That loaner car would make my students proud as it represents a vast difference from the R53. Visually, the cars introduce themselves in different ways. Where the R53 is diminutive yet stout, the R56 is taller and has an all around larger presence. It doesn't say “Hi, I'm a Mini” as much as “Hi, my name is Mini, but what's in a name anyway?” Now, I'm nitpicking here since most casual observers will swear the two cars look exactly alike, but those observers would be formally wrong. Thanks to some law changes in Europe, the bumpers are higher, and therefore so is the belt-line, all of which makes the car look much more like a normal car.
Looks only tell part of the tale; driving provides the real fodder for comparison. I thought I knew what to expect with Eric's R56 since I test-drove one when they first came out. At the time I wanted to experience what the buzz was about as much as I wanted ammo against this new-fangled Mini. I'm a guilty traditionalist. Granted, Eric's R56 was tweaked with a DME programmer, a coilover suspension, a short-shift kit, and an exhaust, but really, how different could it be?
A little. I could immediately tell the difference in the suspension. Where the stock R56 (non-sport suspension) felt floaty and more like a 3 series, this suspension meant business. It was firm without being too jarring but didn't communicate as flawlessly as a well set-up R53. The power, which is the real center piece of the R56, was as impressive as it had been on my first test drive. Is it an M3 beater? Nope, but it's quick enough with plenty of usable power to make anyone happy. Is it enough to make me want one of these cars? Nope.
In contrast, driving an R53 is less about forward acceleration and more about lateral agility. You feel all of the bumps, hear all of the creaks, and end up where you point the steering wheel immediately. It doesn't actually feel like a go-kart as the ads say, but it doesn't feel like you're driving a couch, either. The car is adept at making your hands and butt feel like they're attached to the road, for better or worse. Where the R56 seems to float along in comparison, the R53 takes detailed note of everything it runs over and then lectures you on it a split-second later. The R53 communicates fluently in the road language BMW owners have come to love.
In general, the R56 is a softer, more user-friendly package that will attract buyers in larger numbers than the R53 did. The exhaust doesn't pop, the turbo doesn't whine, and the dash doesn't rattle. It has a “sport” button, which to me intimates that the car is less sporty when the button isn't pushed. I don't like the philosophy behind that. For drivers who like jarring, involving rides, the R56 is a bit boring. It outshines the R53 on paper, but the car lacks the intangible something that makes the R53 a bona fide driver's car. It feels different to drive because it is. It's better and worse all at the same time. To me, it lacks soul of a car that I appreciate so much.
And there is the point that separates car enthusiasts: You either believe cars have souls or you don't. You either think there's an actual connection between you and your car or you don't. To me, the R56 is has a different presence and more refined road manners compared to the R53 - these are aspects of the car that I don't appreciate while others surely will.
Sometimes a juxtaposition only yields gray area, such as soul and connection between humans and machines. But that's just fine with me because I'll take my cars with soul and without mass appeal.