Friday, December 26, 2008

Shifting Gears in a MINI Cooper

Not surprisingly, there is a right way and a wrong way to shift gears to keep your MINI Cooper engine at peak power. Assuming you have a manual transmission, let’s start with your gear shift and the correct way to change gears. While you’re sitting in the MINI Cooper, push in the clutch and then move the gear shift through the gears.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the gearshift seems to be pushing against your hand as you move the lever through the gears. This is because the gearshift is spring-loaded—it has two springs pushing it towards the center “gate” of the gearbox. This is done to make it easier for you to make a clean shift and know where you are, provided you do it properly.

Properly means that you shouldn’t grip the lever as if it were a baseball or bat. Instead, all you need to do is cup your hand around the lever and nudge it in the proper direction. You use the heel and outside of your palm to push it up into first, and use the outside and base of the fingers to pull it down into second while pulling it towards you against the spring.

To move it up into third take advantage of the spring by simply nudging the shift straight up; the spring will push it out of the one-two channel and into the three-four channel. You can use the inside of your fingers to pull it straight down into fourth without exerting any sideways motion.

Mini Cooper Forum

When you’re ready to shift into fifth, you use the heel of your hand and base of your thumb to nudge the lever up while pushing over against the spring. From fifth to sixth, you use the inside of your first finger to push the lever away from you against the spring, and the crook of your fingers to pull it down.
Incidentally, most of the shifting can be done with a simple finger and wrist motion. If your arm is moving from the elbow or shoulder, you’re using way too much force. And remember, you’re just nudging the lever into place; you shouldn’t be slamming it in. All that’s necessary is that the movement from gear to gear be crisp and definite.

Slamming won’t get the job done any quicker. Your shift needn’t be slow, but excessive speed is just going to cause you to miss shifts. Under nearly all circumstances, you never want to slam the shifter into the next gear. All this does is cause unnecessary wear on the springs and gears without appreciably speeding up the gear change.

Here’s another tip about that gear shift. Casually resting your hand on the gearshift while driving or sitting at the stop light is also a no-no. It may look cool, but that constant pressure will wear against the springs and gears and eventually cause gearbox problems. Unless you are actually making a shift, your hand belongs on the steering wheel, anyhow.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Taking to the Track in a MINI Cooper

In many of the street-driving schools conducted at regular race tracks, the curriculum often includes the opportunity to drive some “hot laps” on the track. Also, in most regions of the country, clubs and organizations sponsor track days where you can get out on the track in your MINI Cooper.
At these track-driving opportunities, you’ll be put in the novice group, so you don’t need to worry about having your doors blown off by some hot-shoe in a track racer. But you will have the opportunity not only to work on your basic car control skills, but also to drive a little faster—maybe even over highway speed limits here and there—and work on some advanced driving skills. Here are some tips on the skills you can work on.

Torque, Power and Gearing
As you watch the races on Speed Channel, or in person at a road-racing track, you’ll notice the wonderful change in the engines’ song as the drivers slow down for corners and then accelerate out. What you’re hearing, of course, is the driver downshifting the car before the corner, and then upshifting as the car gathers speed out of the corner. What’s this all about?
What it’s about is always keeping the car’s engine at its strongest power point when you need pick-up. In an automobile, that relationship is measured not by horsepower, but rather by “torque.”
In technical terms, torque is the twisting power exerted by the engine crankshaft as it rotates. In simple terms, torque is the power to get the car to go faster. It’s that push you feel in the small of your back as you get on the throttle and start to accelerate.
Car designers often point out that while owners argue about which car has the most horsepower, the measure that matters more is the torque of the engine, since it is the torque that gets the car to start off from a stop and go faster when needed, such as when passing.
If you’ve ever looked at the plots of engine torque shown in the car tests in the automobile magazines, you’ve noticed that as the engine speed (“rpm” in gearspeak short-hand, which stands for revolutions per minute) rises, the torque increases, but only up to a point. At some point, as the engine speed continues to increase, the torque levels off, and then begins to decline.
For example, in stock condition, the MINI Cooper S produces about 135 pound-feet of torque at 2500 rpm. Torque rises rapidly with engine speed, reaching about 150 pound-feet at 3500 rpm, then more slowly until it peaks at 155 pound-feet at 4500 rpm. At that point, as rpm continues to increase, torque declines gradually to 120 pound feet at 7000 rpm.
What this means in practical terms, is that when driving your MINI, you want to have the engine running between 3500 and 4500 rpm at those times when you need greatest responsiveness and pick-up, such as when passing another car on the highway or pulling away after executing a pass on the track.
If you don’t upshift as you accelerate down the straight, or failed to downshift when entering a tight corner, you’ll find yourself on one side or the other of peak torque just when you need the additional pick-up. That’s why shifting gears is important. For best acceleration, you want to keep the engine revs in the range where the engine is generating the greatest torque.
By the way, downshifting is never used in high-performance driving to slow the car and it shouldn’t be used that way on the street, either; that’s what the brakes are for. (The one exception is in highway driving on long descents down steep hills. There it can be a good idea to downshift to a lower gear and use the engine compression to slow you down. That way you keep the brakes from overheating in case you need them before you get to the bottom of the hill. However, that is a different matter than spirited backroad or track driving.)
Similarly, as the car accelerates, the good driver doesn’t want to push the engine past its physical limits, so as they accelerate they shift up to a higher gear. That way the engine is producing as much power as necessary, but at the lowest possible engine speed.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What about Crisis Situations in a MINI Cooper

All of this smoothness we emphasized earlier is a good thing when you’re in control of your car and there are no surprises. But what happens when something goes wrong on the road up ahead and you have no choice but to respond in a hurry? Good question. Our discussion of weight transfer will help explain what to do in different types of crisis situations.
Panic Braking and ABS
Let’s talk first about the modern braking system that is standard equipment on your MINI Cooper and nearly every other new car on the road. Your MINI Cooper is equipped with an anti-lock braking system (an ABS system). This system is designed to allow you to hit the brakes hard in a situation where you absolutely, positively, must stop as quickly as possible, but without the problems of the old days where the brakes locked up and the car started to skid.
The system is pretty easy to explain, though the mechanics behind it would be impossible without modern electronics. Say you come around a corner and a child suddenly darts out into the street chasing a ball. You jump on the brakes as hard as you can. As you would expect, one or more of the wheels reaches the point where the contact between the brake pads and the brakes is stronger than the contact between the tire and the road and the wheel stops spinning and starts to skid.
In the old days, your instructor would have told you that you should immediately release and re-apply the brakes, so that the skidding tire could start to turn and go back to its job of helping the car slow down. However, with the new ABS system, the car can do the job better than you do.
As the wheel starts to skid, sensors in the wheels notice that one wheel has stopped while the other wheels are still turning. The sensor passes this information to the brake system computer, which causes it to go into anti-lock mode. At that point, the computer causes the brake cylinders to start to pulse, alternately pushing and releasing the brakes. This pulsing allows the skidding tire to start to spin, doing exactly what you would do, but much more quickly. With the pulsing brakes, the car can come to a straightline stop very effectively, much better than you could manage.
Why are we telling you this right now? We’re going to bet that, unless you’ve already had this situation happen to you, you’ve never actually experienced the operation of an ABS system. If you haven’t, we’ll also bet that the first time that brake pedal starts pulsing on its own, you’re going to panic and let of the brake pedal, so that the system stops working.
We recommend that you try out your ABS system as soon as possible. Find a large parking lot that is empty at some point during the week, or a backcountry road with no traffic. When you’re sure no one is around, hit the brakes hard. You don’t need to be going very fast to get the full effect. Take the car up to about 25 mph and stomp on the brake pedal, then hold your foot down.
Don’t panic when the brake pedal starts kicking back against your foot. What you’re feeling is the pulsing of the brake system, pushing and releasing the brakes for you. While you keep your foot on the brakes, the car will come to a stop. It won’t feel pretty, but it will work better than you could manage on your own; we’ll guarantee that.
The key thing is that, in a crisis stop (we won’t call it a panic stop, because as a very good driver you won’t panic, now that you know what to do) you get your foot on the brakes hard and keep it there until the car comes to a stop.
Panic Braking and Turning
But what happens if the obstacle is right in front of you, or you’re coming around a corner when you have to make the stop? A very good feature of the ABS system is that it will bring you to a smooth stop, while allowing you to continue to turn.
When we mentioned the problem of turning and braking above, we noted that the weight transfer off the steering wheels could cause the car to plow, or skid. However, when the ABS system activates, it helps restore the ability of the wheels to steer the car out of trouble. That is, it will do that as long as you can manage to remember to keep your foot firmly on the brake while you steer around the obstacle.
The first time or two you try this trick, you’ll probably have trouble with it. It is tough to remember to keep your eyes up and looking at where you want the car to go, turning the wheel to follow your eyes, while at the same time the ABS system is pounding back on your foot on the brake pedal. Try to find an opportunity to try this a few times in that vacant parking lot or deserted road to see what it’s like.
As you practice it, and if you have to actually do it in a crisis situation, just keep telling yourself: “Stomp, stay, steer.” Stomp on the brake pedal, stay on the brake pedal, and steer around the problem. Easier said than done, but with a little practice you should be prepared for problems down the road.
Steering Around Problems
Slamming on your brakes may not always be the best solution to a crisis situation. In particular, a variety of different events can occur on the highway that require a different response. You won’t brake, with or without turning; instead you’re going to steer around the problem.
The most typical situation is one where the car in front of you suddenly changes lanes to avoid that old tire casing or deep pothole that you didn’t see until they moved out of the way. Or as you’re driving along, something gets loose from the truck ahead and falls into your lane. Either way, at highway speed you aren’t going to have enough distance to stop before running into the junk.
Instead, what you need to do instead is to rapidly change lanes, most often without even taking slowing down. Even at highway speeds, a MINI (and most other cars, as a matter of fact) are stable enough to make a quick lane change without seriously losing equilibrium.
All you need to do is check quickly on both sides of you to pick the lane into which you’re going to turn, then give the wheel a definite and strong turn in that direction and then back again to straighten yourself out in the new lane. Incidentally, always being sure that you space on one side of you or the other is an important defensive driving technique, so you can execute this maneuver.
Keeping some escape space on at least one side of you is also the reason why you want to avoid getting stuck in the middle of a clump of cars when highway driving. By simply backing off a little, you can usually disengage yourself from these pods of accidents waiting to happen and get yourself a nice safe little empty bubble in which to drive.
This technique of accident-avoidance will require a little practice before you will be confident of your ability to pull it off, which is why nearly all basic safe driving skills courses teach it, using multiple lanes and stop lights. to allow you the chance to improve your reaction time and practice your high speed lane-change skills.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Smoothness counts in a MINI Cooper

When you have an opportunity to ride with a very good driver, you’re bound to be impressed with how smoothly they drive, especially in the transitions from acceleration to braking, and into and out of turns. We didn’t say these transitions were done slowly; we said they should be done smoothly. In advanced driving classes, the instructor will be telling you to “roll on to” the brake and “roll on to” the accelerator.

To develop that smoothness yourself, as you drive pretend that there is a cup sitting on the dashboard, filled to the brim with water. Try to make your transitions and the consequent weight transfers as smooth as possible so that not a drop splashes out of your imaginary cup as you accelerate, brake, and turn.

At the very least, your passengers will enjoy the ride much more if they’re not being thrown around, and we guarantee your smoothness will make you a better driver, staying safer on the streets and becoming faster on the track.

Did we mention that the position of your head also matters in how well you drive your MINI around the corners? That may seem silly, but in fact most driving instructors can tell a lot about how well a student is driving just by looking at the direction of their head. This all comes back to the point made in the last chapter. To drive well, you must look and think way ahead of where you are.

When you’re driving into, through, and out of a corner, you should be looking as far ahead as you can see. It’s a proven principle that the car will go where you are looking. If you’re looking straight down the racing stripes on your hood, you are unconsciously going to be steering in that direction as well.

So as you come up to the corner, look around the corner as far as you can see. When you start to exit the corner, instead of looking straight ahead at the curbing ahead of you, you should be looking as far past the exit and down the road as you can see. This focus ahead gives your arms and hands the information they need to steer your car around the corner efficiently.

Focusing ahead also insures that should an obstacle appear by surprise as you round the corner, you’ll have as much time as possible to react to it. Keep your head up and your vision focused far ahead and your speed into and out of the corner will be improved, not to mention your safety.