In Progress Product Review

I made a couple of substantial purchases last week and people have been asking me what I think of the purchases so far. So in the interest of consumer information, your in-progress product reviews:

1. The Mini Cooper S Countryman All4: I may have got the sequence of that title mixed up, it’s a lot to get one’s brain around. We’ve been very pleased with it so far. It took both Krissy and I a day to get used to the new gear shift in it (it’s a six speed and has the reverse to the left of the other gears on the shift column rather than to the right) but once we did that it was smooth sailing from there. My understanding from reviewers is that MCSCA4 has a little less pep than other Mini models, due to its relatively larger size and weight (the latter largely thanks to the all-wheel drive), but since we’re coming to it from a base-level 1997 Suzuki Sidekick, we notice this not at all. We do notice that it’s pretty fast, pretty quick, and a lot of fun to drive.

The thing is also a bit like a TARDIS, in that it’s small on the outside but seems rather a bit larger on the inside (I understand other Mini models pull this one off, too). From the inside it feels like I’m driving a small SUV, and then I get out and look at the thing and go, oh, right. That’s a little weird. But it’s neither here nor there in terms of the driving.

There are some things to quibble about it. The “center rail” thing it does, in which things like cup holders and cell phone holders are clipped into a rail between the seats, is something I think works better on paper than it does in real life; I’m not especially impressed with its utility. Part of this may be due to the fact that the cell phone holder clip-in fell apart the first day we had the car, and anyway was too small for my Droid X, which now typically lives in one of the built-in cup holders near the dash. I’m also of the opinion that the plate-sized speedometer in the center of the dash is a bit of wasted real estate; the speed information is repeated in a small screen on the tachometer directly behind the steering wheel, and once I saw it was there, I never again looked at the analog one.

Finally, I’m not really in love with the fact that the car wants premium gas, which is a slightly larger gas price bite each time at the pump. Some other Mini owners online have told me that in their experience the premium gas thing is really more of a guideline than a rule, but you know, I think I kind of want to listen to the manufacturer on this one.

But these are relatively small quibbles, and in a larger sense the driving experience of the car is a very good one. And thanks to all the rain and mess that’s passed for weather this spring, we’ve already had reason to be happy we sprung for the all-wheel-drive version (note the mud at the wheel wells). Overall, we’re pleased with our purchase so far.

As an aside, I do have mild trepidation about sort of unwittingly wandering into the BMW food chain. Mini is currently owned by BMW, and so now we’ve been unintentionally punted into a higher and more seductive tranche of car care service. For example, when it’s time for the car’s routine maintenance (free for the first few years), some guy will come up from Cincinnati to take the car down to the dealership, leave a loaner, and then, when the car’s all tuned up, drive it back to us. We don’t have to do anything. That’s dangerous, man. This is how they eventually upsell you to a 7 series car. I plan to be strong and resist.

2. The Nikon D5100: I talked about the new camera a little when I posted the set of pictures I took with it at Penguicon, but to add to that I can say that in general I’ve been quite pleased with it. A lot of that is simply due to the fact that it’s just a better camera than my previous dSLR, the D70s, thanks to a better sensor (in terms of light sensitivity and detail) and better software inside the camera. This is not entirely unexpected since the D5100 is six years newer than the D70s, which is back a couple of generations at least in terms of digital photography technology.

To give you an example of what I’m talking about, see the two pictures above, of the same (mostly underlit) mess on my office table. The one on the left is taken with the D70s, the one on the right with the D5100, both without flash and set to “auto.” The pictures are cropped but otherwise untouched. You can see a substantially larger amount of noise in the D70s picture as well as far less photo definition. The color is also a bit off. Much of that can be addressed in Photoshop (or, honestly, by not taking underlit photos), but the nice thing about the new camera is that it means I have to do relatively less fiddling about to make pictures presentable, and that makes me happy.

That said, the D5100 comes with some consumer-oriented stuff I’m not likely to mess with all that much, like its “effects” menu, which allows one to specify certain effects in camera. That’s cute and all, but if I am going to fiddle with a photo, I’d prefer to do it in a full-featured photo suite and not in a relatively limited camera setting that just gives me what I get and I have to like it. There’s also the video setting which I haven’t really played with yet (no reason to so far), but which I am looking forward to trying. The idea of shooting 1080p video with a nice sensor and a decent piece of glass will make holiday video taking more inviting.

The only real complaint I have about the D5100 so far is that the battery life is a bit on the underwhelming side, but I have to see if that’s more to do with the way I’m using the camera than a native issue with the battery. We’ll find out.

So: Car and camera — so far so good. If that changes, I’ll be sure to let y’all know.

55 Comments on “In Progress Product Review”

  1. I must say that the first thing I thought when I saw this picture of the cars is that your garage is super pretty and clean! (I wonder what that says about me…)

  2. nice. those photos also make me curious how the remodeled office is working out for you, a few months (I think?) in. it’s *kind of* a new product still. as I recall, you’d gotten a smaller desk in hopes of not leaving too much clutter on it ;)

  3. i felt similarly about my regular Coop that you do about the new one, as you say. it really *does* feel a lot bigger on the inside. not only that, but i’ve hauled cargo that people couldn’t believe i fit in there.

    i spotted one of these new guys whilst on vacation last month.i kinda like it.

  4. Regarding the premium gas in the Mini, every modern car has knock sensors that will compensate for lower fuel grades, at the cost of reduced power and/or fuel economy. That said, premium gas is probably still your best bet–especially if you like the power and fuel economy as it is–with one exception: in the winter, it’s probably worth it to drop down a grade of fuel, since lower-octane fuel is actually more combustible, which helps when everything is freezing cold. Generally the extra power in the winter is also not particularly useful. It certainly won’t hurt the car.

  5. Thanks for the product reviews, always cool. What about the lawn mower? How does Krissy like the Toro Titan? (apologies if I missed it, I know you had a picture of her on it a couple of weeks ago)

  6. On the premium fuel thing, it may be due to the fact that regular is being phased out in Europe. Regular and premium have been priced the same here in Germany for like 2 years now. The fuel companies don’t want to make it anymore and it took a whole lot of simmering anger from the consumers and the automobile clubs for them to keep it on offer this long.

  7. David O is bang-on about the premium gas. Folks who want to not use it can indeed put in regular and the computer brain will compensate to prevent the damage that knocking will do. However it means inferior gas mileage as a result of unburned gas, which is not only crap for your pocket in the short run but could as well have repercussions for the car in the long run – you shouldn’t be pumping more unburned gas through the exhaust. It may be harder on the pipes or catalytic converter. It’s for sure worse for the world.

  8. My wife has been using the mid-grade in her Clubman and we haven’t noticed a mileage difference or knocking. And I completely agree about the giant speedometer, I wish they had used more space for the audio display.

    As a side note her dealership is not as nice as yours, she actually has to take it there :)

  9. The bit of playing around with video on my D7000 that I have done has left me unimpressed. Worth a try if it is what you have in you hands and what you can see calls for video NOW, but any sort of dedicated video camera is better for nearly anything IMO.

  10. Chang@10: Regular grade gas is more prone to premature detonation (“knocking”) than premium grade. The engine computer will jigger with spark timing and other factors to prevent it so it won’t bork the engine, but at the expense of fuel economy, power, and higher emissions.

  11. Re: The Mini – I think they generally have problems with how they have ordered the inside, especially around the driver’s seat. The cup holders are especially annoying, because short of something like a can of soda (which is a pain to drink while driving anyway), nothing fits in there, especially if you have a bottle or larger cup. The cup olders in my Mini *are* the right size for my iPhone, and it typically is seated there.

    My other quibble is the interior – lots of plastic and vinyl, and I’d be interested to hear if any of the dashboard or panels inside squeak or rattle. I go on a bunch of dirt roads regularly, (Vermont roads suck anyway), and at points when it’s cold, the car is really annoying to drive because of the noise it makes.

    Premium gas is also annoying. I typically will alternate fillups around the half-way point – fill the tank at premium, wait until it empries a bit, fill with regular, repeat. It also largely depends on how much money I have on me when I fill up. I haven’t noticed a problem with performance though.

    Also, Will McIntosh’s book Soft Apocalypse in your photos – will he be up for a Big Idea anytime soon? I loved that book.

  12. @Scalzi: When your free maintenance is over, be careful with what the dealership (if you continue to take it there, which I would advise against if you have a trusted alternative) tells you is needed. I don’t know anything about your dealership, but when I had a Cooper S, my local dealership did everything in their power to over-charge me and to get me to pay for replacements that were not necessary (and would not be for quite some time). Part prices can also be pretty painful (thanks, BMW). Those are a couple of the main reasons why I didn’t buy another Mini when the time came to replace it.

  13. I should probably have mentioned that not all dealerships are created equal and I suspect mine was particularly bad.

  14. Product placement of a Series 7 in your next movie and who knows what might happen.

  15. John writes:

    Finally, I’m not really in love with the fact that the car wants premium gas, which is a slightly larger gas price bite each time at the pump. Some other Mini owners online have told me that in their experience the premium gas thing is really more of a guideline than a rule, but you know, I think I kind of want to listen to the manufacturer on this one.

    My experience is that the car will tell you what it needs. If you’re running regular and you hear knocking or experience less good gas mileage, then you should switch to premium. If the car doesn’t really need premium, using regular won’t make any difference, except for costing more.

  16. If the manual explicitly says 91 octane (premium) gas is required, use that or better. Period.

    Cars that can handle regular but perform better on higher octane will say that they require 87 octane fuel, but fuel economy may suffer. (see: Most turbo Volvos.)

    If it says 87 without any caveats about fuel economy, then put 87 in. You can put 91 in, but you’ll just spend 20 cents more per gallon and get nothing for it. If you have an 87 (but economy might suffer) you’d want to test the economy loss between 91 and 87, and see if you’re actually paying more per mile for regular or premium gas.

    If you have a turbocharger or supercharger, take a statement of premium gas required as gospel. These engines have much higher combustion chamber pressures, so knock is not only easier to initiate, but can do damage much faster. The knock sensor *won’t* stop the engine from knocking, it only suppresses it so that it doesn’t keep happening, but in a high compression engine, that first predetonation can do damage — and, of course, if the knock sensor is always pulling the timing back, you will get much worse mileage, so you’ll almost certainly spend more on regular gas than you would have on premium for the same amount of travel.

    And, really, that’s the point, right? You *want* to pay twenty cents more per gallon if the result is you spend less, per mile traveled, than you would have on regular. The assumption that premium is a waste of money is posited on you getting identical mileage between the two, and unless you’ve proven that by testing it, you can’t be certain that it is true. If you do test it, despite the manual saying “don’t use regular” and it breaks your car, I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have done that, see the very first sentence I wrote.

    Looking at the actual specs, John’s car has a 10.5:1 compression ratio, which is quite high for a petrol engine — indeed, that’s the line that divides “premium might be required” from “premium is *most certainly* required if you want to keep the engine.” Given his stated “Buy something good, use it until it collapses” rule, using anything but the recommended grade of fuel is a bad idea — why help it collapse sooner?

  17. I have a Subaru WRX, which requires premium, only I bought it used, so no one told me that. Besides that, I live in CO at a higher altitude, where higher octane doesn’t really have as much effect. A couple years after I bought it, I found a really great mechanic who specializes in Subarus and started taking it to him regularly for oil changes. Around the second or third time he saw me, he said “your motor’s not running as well as it should.” Frankly, I had thought that it’s performance was OK — not great, but OK. He paused and then asked “are you using premium?”
    Long story short, I decided to run an experiment and switch to premium gas for a while and see. I started regularly getting 10% more miles (or better) per tank and the performance of the engine improved. (For me it turned out to be the benefit of the additives, not as much the octane.) Since premium is around 10% more expensive than regular (or was at the time), I figured it was a wash financially (gas wise) and better for my engine.
    YMMV, literally.

  18. I find the premium gas thing to be much less of an issue now that gas is $4.50 a gallon (well, it is where I live). The differential between premium and proletariat gas is about the same, but percentage wise it’s hardly meaningful.

  19. Yikes, do you know how much premium is nowadays? That would have probably turned me off buying a mini Cooper. Gas in California is really expensive right now. Diesel is even worse. I always wondered if you could put 87 in a car that says it takes premium. Thanks for everyone’s input.

    Now I want to go out and buy a new Nikon. There is a noticeable difference in those photos. I hate messing around with photos in Photoshop. I just want the camera to do all the work. Maybe for my birthday? And I have to keep teenager hands off of it too if I get one.

  20. The thing is also a bit like a TARDIS, in that it’s small on the outside but seems rather a bit larger on the inside…

    We have a 2007 Honda civic that does this. Inside, it feels like a nice spacious midsize sedan, then you get out and look at the compact car you just drove in and scratch your head. The fact that the dashboard looks like a console on the Enterprise only adds to the effect.

  21. Check to see if the requirement for 91 Octane is based on European standards or North American standards. I believe that octane ratings calculated using NA standards have a higher number than EU standards, so you might be able to get away with mid-grade gas (we have 87, 89, 91 in Canada at most stations).

    I might be mistaken, but I think NA 89 ~= EU 91.

  22. Ack! Nikon gave the 5100 the same itty battery as the 3100, bummer – I’ve been blown away at the battery improvement in the D700 vs D80. That aside, the D5100 has a fantastic sensor, and video should be very fun – just make sure you have a fast, fast card for video, if you want to avoid weird stops and starts in recording.

  23. After running my V6 Accord for several thousand miles each (to reduce the effect of driving style, road conditions and traffic) on regular and premium, I found I get about ten percent better mpg using the premium, which means as long as gas prices are over about two bucks a gallon, I get more miles per dollar with the more expensive gas.

    With my wife’s 4-cylinder CR-V, we found almost no difference, so it drinks regular.

    Might be worth running the test to see what the actual difference is for you.

  24. I feel like the Mini is control panel is designed for the driver to be on the right.

    The Cooper that we occasionally get from Zipcar has huge blind spots. It’s enough of a pain that we try not to use it even though it’s parked right by our house. Does the larger body improve sightlines, or is it just not much of a change compared to the Sidekick?

  25. i bought a 2005 Mini Convertible four years ago and I’ve been running it on regular without the slightest hint of a problem. I do have the base model rather than the S, so comment #18 may apply, but I’ve never noticed any difference the one or two times I’ve put in premium gas (except of course for the bigger hole in my wallet). I also experience the TARDIS effect,but it’s even more pronounced in my car since I can take the top down and stack ridiculous amounts of cargo straight up. For example, we recently bought a 55″ TV and it wouldn’t fit in my wife’s Honda Fit (ironically enough). Fortunately, it was a nice day and I was able to wedge it into the back seat of my Mini where it stood up about four feet higher than my head and get it home without incident! As to the dashboard design, it’s more for aesthetics than anything else. I don’t use the digital speedo on my tach (I have that screen set to display fuel consumption) so I’m always looking at the big speedo in the center. It’s a mild adjustment, no worse than shifting up and left to go into reverse. The cup holders are useless, however – get an aftermarket one.

    As for dealerships, there’s only one here in Boston and they’ve been pretty good. I still had some warranties left on the car when I bought it (both parts and service) and my first scheduled maintenance resulted in one hell of a massive list of repairs – all of them covered. Some were more necessary than others and the final total was staggering, but I quickly realized that since it was all under warranty and being charged back to BMW, the dealership was pulling out anything that even looked like it might fail and replacing it. Subsequent service has been minimal – I think in 4 years I’ve only paid for tires and a very slight electrical malfunction (switch burnt out and needed replacement). I love the car and I’ll have no qualms about buying another one once I’ve run it into the ground.

  26. @27

    Yes, the blind spots on the mini’s are pretty bad – the convertible is particularly horrible because the rear seats incorporate fixed rollover hoops. This is the only convertible I’ve ever owned where the rear visibility is slightly WORSE once you put the top down! The one thing my Mini came with that I figured I’d never use was the back up sonar system. It’s turned out to be incredibly useful, especially for parking in the city…

  27. We’re talking about a 1.6 liter motor making 182 horsepower and 192 lb-ft of torque. You couldn’t pay me to put anything less than 91 octane into a mill running 19 pounds of boost at 10.5:1 compression. I’d honestly be afraid it might diesel at shut-off. I’d consider octane booster, I bet it loves race gas.

    There’s some really easy stuff you could do to coax 300+ ponies out of that rally-bred engine, but I doubt you want to void your warranty so early in the life of the car.

  28. The premium requirement can be because premium here equals Europe’s standard. When I came to US I was surprised by the low octane numbers. I didn’t know car can even drive on that so I checked and I learned you use different scale then Europe. And then I learned US gasoline still has lower octane rating then you can find where I (and your car) come from.

    Lower part of your photo is really convincing. I’m thinking about buying new camera myself and D5100 was already on top of the list and this just made me more convinced it’s a good choice.

  29. “The thing is also a bit like a TARDIS, in that it’s small on the outside but seems rather a bit larger on the inside…”


  30. Tuttle @ 31:

    Can you get race gas that’s not full of lead? That’s an excellent way to kill the catalytic converter otherwise.

  31. I just love that fact that you slipped the word “tranche” into a sentence.

  32. “The thing is also a bit like a TARDIS, in that it’s small on the outside but seems rather a bit larger on the inside (I understand other Mini models pull this one off, too).”

    Interesting. I’ll be using this to try and “sell” the husband on a Mini. He keeps noting that my dog may not fit in a Mini. I keep telling him that the greyhound is very “foldy,” and would certainly fit.

    “Wow,” on the maintenance. My husband is a shade-tree mechanic, so I’m not sure what he’d think about that. (Might be relieved. One less thing to do.)

  33. My husband is a shade-tree mechanic, so I’m not sure what he’d think about that. (Might be relieved. One less thing to do.)

    I was too, but I gave it up when I could no longer fit under the car. (Which wasn’t entirely because we got a smaller car, I might add.)

  34. I don’t know about anyone else, but Erik@18’s comment was wonderfully full of information. So much so that I went to look at the manual for the used 2008 328i I just got — and, to my surprise, it said that the use of 91 octane is recommended, but that 87 might produce knocking sounds (which would not affect engine life) on very hot days, but would be acceptable.

    As AlanM@20 said, the difference isn’t such a big deal, so I will probably use the premium. But it’s nice to know, just in case.

  35. John,

    If BMW tries to upgrade you from your Mini to a BMW, go whole hog, and buy their top end car – a Rolls-Royce!

    Pull up at your next SF conference in that baby, and you will be noticed!


  36. My old Mustang was “fine” manufacturer-recommendations on regular, but ran much smoother on 91 octane and got 10% better mileage on it.

    As the markup from 87 octane to 91 was far less than 10%, it saved me money to buy premium all the time, and I did that without hesitation once I figured that out via experimentation and calculation.

  37. I love that if you cross your eyes just a little the two pictures become 3D, much like those Magic Eye things.

  38. Speedometer in the middle is a historical artifact….or, maybe not, it has to be visible to your navigator when you’re participating in a rally.

  39. I am firmly convinced that no camera battery life is ever long enough, which is why I bought a second one when I got my Nikon D-60 the first Christmas it was out and keep it charged in my gadget bag. Your photos almost convince me it’s time to buy a new camera, although a comparison of an overlit scene (my particular bugbear is the apple orchard in bloom) would clinch the deal- except for the fact that I blew the camera budget on a herd bull, so such an acquisition will have to wait until he gets sold, by which time I hope that digital photography will have reached the point where the camera is directly linked to my brain and set in a pair of glasses. (viz LN)

  40. The original mini had the speedometer mounted in the middle.
    So its just a retro feature.

  41. You must have the super-deluxe dealership – or maybe it’s because you live out in the countryside. My dealer would NEVER do such things! We have a very nice waiting room if we choose to wait, and the loaners are always automatic Minis (ugh – do not buy!) Hopefully your dealer is more honest than our local one – I feel that they deferred several key maintenance items so that I’d have to pay for it. Can’t prove it, but it was odd that I suddenly needed brakes 2 months after the warranty ended, since It had been examined several times previously. Dealerships aside, I think Mini is an awesome product. The BMW belongs to the dark side – do not go there.

  42. Very nice car and camera, but the real review I am interested in (because I can afford it) is Soft Apocolypse. I see it peaking out in the two pics.

  43. Kevin Williams @ #34; Oh yea, plenty of unleaded race gas. In WRC racing the Mini Clubman’s they race have to have a catalytic converter and use 102 RON fuel.

    They haven’t done too bad so far in their first rally this weekend either. Mini that is.

  44. In regards to your premium gas comment you could do a little experimenting. I made a simple spreadsheet and recorded my gas purchases and milage for my Toyota Tacoma pickup. I would enter the milage, gallons, and cost for each tankful I bought. The spreadsheet would then calculate my MPG and my cost per mile. Run 3 or 4 tankfuls of regular and then 3 or 4 tankfuls of midgrade and then 3 or 4 tankfuls of premium. I found that the truck got the best cost per mile with the midgrade. I did the same with its replacement years later and the regular gave me the lowest cost per mile.

  45. I was told in early 2004, by a service tech at my MINI dealer, that using PLUS (89 Octane) will work just fine with very little change in MPG. So I took them at their word and have been driving my Cooper S on PLUS for almost 8 years and have yet to hear a knock. If the MINI dealer felt okay telling me 89 octane is fine, I think you are safe doing the same.

    See you at Joseph Beth on Wed in Cincinnati!