The front-wheel-drive MINI Cooper, a diminutive, British-inspired coupe, has returned to American shorelines. MINI franchised dealers opened their doors March 22 to an eager audience. Fifty MINI dealers are now operating throughout the United States. An additional 20 outlets will open during the next year.
Approximately 10,000 of the short, rectangular, two-door hatchback, cult-status cars were sold in the U.S. between 1960 and 1967. While the MINI was a cute means of tooling around for a time on this side of the pond, in Europe, the diminutive transporter was “everyman’s car” occupying a status similar to what Ford’s Model T carries here. MINI was a car for the masses that many Europeons used when learning to drive. It’s the most popular British car ever sold. How did the 2002, four-cylinder MINI eventually make a triumphant return to the U.S.?
The ride was rather bumpy. In 1952, the British Motor Co. (BMC) was formed by the merger of the Austin and Morris companies. In August of 1959, BMC rolled out the fuel-efficient MINI to, in part, combat gasoline rationing of the day. Only 20,000 MINIs were assembled in 1959.
In 1961 a high-performance MINI Cooper version was launched. By 1962, production reached 200,000 units and in 1963, the more opulent MINI Cooper S debuted. By 1976, more than 4 million had been produced. In 1986, MINI’s parent company merged into the Rover Group. In 1994, Germany’s BMW acquired the Rover Group which also included the Land Rover, Rover and MG brands (Land Rover eventually ended up in Ford Motor Company’s corporate portfolio.)
In effect, the once totally-British MINI car line became the property of Germany’s BMW. Parent company BMW began selling up-level vehicles in the U.S. in 1975. Three versions will be built with only the Cooper and Cooper S versions shipped to the U.S. The 1.6-liter, 115-horsepower, four-cylinder Cooper is arriving at dealers first with the more potent, supercharged Cooper S arriving a month or two down the road. Both engines are transverse mounted and recommend premium unleaded fuel.
It’s good to note with ever-fluctuating gas prices that the MINI Cooper includes estimates of 26 miles per gallon in the city and 43 m.p.g. highway. These powertrains were jointly developed by BMW Group and DaimlerChrysler.
Early Cooper shipments have the five-speed manual transmission with optional continuously variable automatic versions (CVT) arriving later. The Cooper S boasts a six-speed manual transmission standard.
If the unique, eye-catching, retrospective styling doesn’t grab your fancy, the $16,300 Cooper starting price probably will. This price includes such features as air conditioning, rear-window defroster and wiper, anti-lock brakes, power windows, front-seat mounted side air bags, five-speed manual transmission, side-curtain air bags and compact disc player. The more potent Cooper S checks in at $19,300.
Three option packages (two priced at $1,250 and one at $500) are offered. Back in the 1960s MINI’s dimensions checked in at 4-feet wide by 4-feet high and 10-feet long. The 2002 MINI Cooper
and Cooper S increased in size, but kept the character of the original design. Wheels are pushed out to the ends with no fender overhang.
Measuring 142.8 inches long, the new generation two-door hatchbacks are shorter than a present day Chevrolet Metro, but almost as wide as a Chrysler PT Cruiser. The MINI Cooper offers 12 exterior color choices and the flat roof can be had in black, white or body color hues.
Inside, the MINI Cooper featured a straight-across, chrome-toned dashboard (no wrap-around cockpit design here) reminiscent of street rod interiors of the 1960s. Also prominent is the large, circular speedometer (with inserted coolant and fuel gauges) in the middle of the dashboard instead of the instrument panel. The stand-alone, circular tachometer protrudes from the top of the steering column.
The four-seater boasts an aspect missing in such compacts as Ford Mustang, Hyundai Tiburon and Mercury Cougar, a back-seat with ample headroom. The flat roofline promotes enough air space for those with frames exceeding 6-feet, 6-inches; a notable accomplishment. Leg room must be negotiated with front-seat travelers to assure all parties have feet and knees in suitable positions. Rear seats fold down, expanding cargo capacity to 25 cubic feet. With seats up, small coolers or a row of grocery bags can stow together.
Plans are in the works for BMW to set up a three-tier brand strategy with the MINI lineup handling sales in the $17,000 to $24,000 range, BMW vehicles hitting the $24,000 to $200,000 range with Rolls Royce batting third in the order with vehicles priced above $200,000. BMW acquires the right to sell the Rolls Royce brand next January.
MINI is being marketed as a completely independent brand from the more up-scale BMW offerings, somewhat similar to how Jaguar is now a unit of Ford Motor Co. The key difference is MINI showrooms are situated adjacent to one of BMW’s 341 existing dealers. MINIs will share service quarters with established BMW dealer shops.
Last month, MINI hierarchy invited journalists along with dealers and their sales staff to San Francisco to test the MINI along the twisty roads of the northern California wine country. The weather cooperated, in part, because the rain and fog of the day provided slick, real-world roads to exercise anti-lock brakes and other handling characteristics. “We are very excited to be operating this MINI dealer,” said Robert K. Davis, Sales Manager at Patrick MINI in Schaumburg.
“The foot traffic is unbelievable. During the first Saturday MINI was available for sale, we must have had 250 people rolling through here. Our technician was in cars for five hours straight answering customer questions.”
Davis said he has a waiting list of 290 potential customers. The first reservation was made March of last year. Davis’ situation echoes that of other dealers nationwide.
Demand far outstrips supply, so be patient and expect to pay at least sticker price if you can find one not already spoken for. During the 2002 model year, U.S. dealers will receive 20,000 of the 100,000 MINIs built at BMW’s Oxford, England assembly plant. That works out to about 300 vehicles per dealer.
During two days of test driving through the wet streets and countryside of San Francisco, the agile, tiny car handled like a champ. Tight suspension maneuvering corners enthusiastically. MINIs utilize BMW’s Z-axle rear suspension aiding the precise steering. In fact, MINI features many other BMW engineering nuances.
Of the 50 MINI dealers sprinkled nationwide, three are located in Illinois all within the Daily Herald’s suburban circulation area. Bill Jacobs MINI, 1564 W. Ogden Ave. in Naperville (630) 357-1200, Patrick MINI, 700 E. Golf Road, Schaumburg (847) 843-4000 and Knauz MINI, 409 Skokie Hwy., Lake Bluff (847) 283-8238. Despite only nine selling days in March, MINI dealers were able to move 787 units nationwide. These numbers will only grow as more product becomes available.