By Brian C. Mackey
My 2002 dark silver under black MCS was delivered in May of that year making it one of the very first in the state of Georgia. I was at that time, driving one of the first dozen or so “S” cars in the entire state. My car was the 75th delivered in total from the dealer and yes, I have the t-shirt to prove it! MCSs in those early days were very hard to come by and represented a smaller portion of the total cars delivered. It was, to say the least, the closest thing I will ever experience to being a rock star. I was the center of attention. I was stopped at the post office, swarmed at my local Blockbuster, approached from every direction at the supermarket and not to mention the mob that would surround my car at the gas station. It was all smiles, waves and people pointing excitedly every motoring mile. Everyone, it seemed, was as excited about my car as I was. It was an unforgettable time. But that was 63,000 miles ago and both my car and myself have slipped into a routine that slowly replaced the early enthusiasm with everyday familiarity. Just like rock stars, my car and I faded away. No one wanted my autograph anymore….(not that they ever did, but you get the idea!).
With that in mind, I decided it was time to slip in some new enthusiasm into my MINI ownership. My car was completely stock, the exact same way it was on the day it was delivered. Well, yes I did purchase a car cover and managed to get a stubby antenna and center armrest, but for the most part, my MCS was factory original. No upgrades. No extra grunt. While I may not be very interested in technical aspects of upgrades, I enjoy performance driving and taking some advantage of the well-known handling characteristics that the MCS offers. I have attended the Phil Wicks MINI Driving Academy and always enjoy a spirited drive when the urge comes to motor in the nearby hills and curvy roads of northern Georgia. So now was the time, nothing too drastic or over the top, but a modest beginning toward transforming this MCS into my MCS. As a start, a cautious first step, I decided upon the Stage I kit offered by Mini Mania. It consists of a cold air box air filter and a Borla cat-back exhaust system and the prerequisite added badging that goes with making performance upgrades on the car. Between the two elements, I’m told I would notice a modest increase in performance and a total of 10-15 hp addition to my car’s performance capabilities. It does not include a pulley reduction or any other performance change to the car. This seemed to fit my objectives perfectly. The cost of the Stage I kit is $1,175 and I eagerly awaited its delivery.
For installation I consulted my friend, colleague and client, Phil Wicks who recommended taking the car to his officially endorsed race shop preparers, “Precision Motoring” in Nashville, TN. Since I had family in Nashville, I figured this was a good opportunity to put the car in the hands of experts. If anyone could quickly and skillfully install the kit, surely these guys could handle this relatively simple task. Alas, my own mechanical abilities as well as the tools needed to exercise them are extremely limited. A good shade tree mechanic could install the kit with little difficulty. But I chose to place my car in the hands of professionals. I’m glad I did.
I motored to Nashville and Phil Wicks had arranged to use my car’s kit installation as part of a tech seminar that Precision Motoring had planned on this Saturday afternoon. Several MINI enthusiasts were at the shop as my MCS took to the stage for its debut as an aftermarket performance machine. The mechanics quickly installed the cold air box and moved on to the task of replacing the factory exhaust with a Borla system. Once the removal was complete, all in attendance noted how much lighter the Borla exhaust system was than the factory original version – much, much lighter. Whereas the factory exhaust is essentially two consecutive mufflers, one pipe with two mufflers placed one after the other, the Borla exhaust is a more true twin exhaust system with tail pipes routing the exhaust into two separate mufflers, all leading from the single exhaust header at the front of the car. The Borla exhaust that is part of the Mini Mania Stage I kit is the “standard” Borla version. There is a “sport” version that features a more aggressive and audible sound but the standard Borla is the typical exhaust sent with the Stage I kit. After a bit of twisting and shuffling to properly place the system under the car, the Borla exhaust was neatly contained and mounted. It is a true bolt on system with no welding or other alterations needed to install the unit. Gone were the “beer can” exhaust tips of the original and replaced with the more aggressive look of the twin exhaust Borla. During the installation, the Precision mechanics also removed the rear bumper (not necessary for the kit installation) to install a “MINI Do More” trailer hitch. At this juncture, they approached me with an idea they discovered while working on Phil Wicks’ racing MCS. They took the heat shield material that surrounded the exhaust and bent it upward at the rear and tucked it up instead of allowing it to simply hang down at the back of the car. Sort of like tucking in a bed sheet at the corners, the shielding was tighter against the rear of the car. With this accomplished, and the bumper façade replaced back in original position, the “simulated” air duct holes in the back bumper could actually be real “holes”. Without moving it, the silver heat resistant material would be visible but now, with the heat material conveniently tucked up out of sight, the simulated air-ducting could easily become functional allowing better airflow from the rear of the car, better cooling of the exhaust and a “racier” look to the rear of the car. This illustrates one of the advantages of taking your car to professional installers, particularly race engineer types who can modify the car in ways that make a routine installation just that bit more custom. It’s like pin striping on a car; a little bit makes a big difference and puts on a “finishing” touch that truly adds to the final appeal of any alteration to the original. Precision put the ‘pin striping” detail into my installation that made a big difference in the final outcome. I really like the looks of the enhanced functional rear bumper and no one else I know has had it done to their car, excepting the Wick’s racecar.
With the Stage I kit installed I was eager to hit the road for our return trip to Atlanta. After the required visit and stay with family, we took to the interstate for our 4-hour drive to Atlanta. The first immediate notable difference was in the tone of the exhaust. The sound that comes from the “standard” Borla exhaust is notable in the sense that it is not louder in an audible way but rather a more full tone quality. The important difference for us was that the Borla exhaust was actually quieter at highway speeds. The constant and familiar drone of the original exhaust was gone. My wife and I both noted how much easier it was to have a regular conversation with the much quieter highway tone of the Borla. I averaged 35.4 mpg on the way home, which was several mpgs better than I experienced on the way up to Nashville, but my everyday average has basically remained the same. It would be nice to note any modest increase in mpg with the Stage I kit installed but I haven’t noted it yet nor traveled far enough to establish it.
From a performance aspect, I would say that driving my MCS now is like driving before in the cool air of winter we have in Atlanta. The car has more spirited acceleration and drivability but not an exceptional change in a measured way. But my principal enjoyment of driving my MINI comes from its everyday handling capability and not straight-line acceleration. For this reason, the increase in performance nicely matches my driving objectives. I think it is safe to say that most MINI owners would feel the same way. If you want straight-line acceleration, buy a Viper, but my enjoyment is more contained to the “twisty” bits, as Phil Wicks likes to say.
Finally, and perhaps the most important result of adding a Stage I kit is more difficult to define. It has brought back a level of enthusiasm for my MINI I haven’t had for a while. I find myself roaming around my car in the early morning to take one more look at those Borla exhaust tips poking out from the back of my car. I start the car with the door open to hear the sound one more time. I rev the engine a bit to capture the burble of the exhaust tone. I more enthusiastically drive to work in the morning. I am eager to take the car up to the mountains again and share the road with other MINI enthusiasts and compare notes. I am one of them now. The relative few who have gone an extra mile to make their MINI Cooper or Cooper S a bit more personal, a bit more unique and a whole lot more fun again. I encourage all my fellow pedestrian MINI owners to bite the bullet, break the ice on adding some performance enhancements and choose some appropriate aftermarket products that will revitalize your MINI ownership and add to your sense of pride and privilege of driving one. Happy Motoring!
(Note: Brian Mackey is president of Mackey Marketing Group of Atlanta, the promotion and marketing agency responsible for the Phil Wicks MINI Driving Academy and the North American MINI Cooper Challenge).