The cheeky new BMW Mini Cooper is a blast to drive and is so quietly trendy that few area residents gave it a second glance while I recently tested it for several days. In contrast, the Volkswagen New Beetle caused near riots when I drove one of the first ones in the Chicago area several years ago. The reason for the lack of Mini recognition is that, while hundreds of thousands of Beetles were sold here, less than 10,000 of the more sophisticated $1,295 Mini Coopers were bought in America when it was available here from 1960 to 1967.
The Mini never had a chance in the United States, with poor distribution and almost zero advertising--although car buff actor Steve McQueen had one. England was known for sports cars, not boxy little four-seat autos. BMW did a survey before releasing its Mini and found only 2 percent of American drivers knew about the original car and its legendary place in auto history. It was a different story for the Mini in swinging 1960s England, where it became a cult car. Owners of the two-door hatchback included Paul McCartney, Peter Sellers, royal family members and fashion designer Mary Quant, who named her "miniskirt'' after the Mini. The original Mini was simply revolutionary.
Introduced in 1959, it was created by genius designer Alec Issigonis after British Motor Corp. looked at England's strict gasoline rationing and told him to design the smallest possible inexpensive economy car for narrow British roads. It had to comfortably handle four adults and luggage--and not cost too much to build.
Issigonis tossed the rulebook for small car design and made the tiny Mini spacious partly by pulling its wheels to the far edges of the body and mounting its four-cylinder engine sideways. It drove the front wheels through a manual gearbox built into the engine sump--a concept never tried before. An amazing 80 percent of the tiny, boxy body was left for occupant accommodation. The British Mini was cute, sipped fuel and was a blast to drive.
Its unique rubber "doughnut'' suspension provided a remarkably good ride, although the car was only 10 feet long. The Mini's basic design later was copied by many large automakers, including Volkswagen. A race version of the Mini, called the Mini-Cooper S, debuted in 1961. Developed by legendary race-car designer John Cooper, it was a winning competition car. It could be driven on the street, and enhanced the Mini mystique.
In fact, the Mini still was being made in 2000, with more than 5.2 million sold. BMW bought the rights to a bunch of British cars in 1995, and one was the Mini. The German automaker later got rid of all the British cars--except the legendary Mini brand. When BMW decided to make a larger, modern version of the Mini, it wisely retained the original front-drive design and basic styling of the British model.
It designed its Mini to capture the spirit of the classic model and introduced the car at the 2000 Paris Auto Show to rave reviews, although some found it odd that a German automaker was reinventing a British icon.
BMW's publicity machine drummed up exceptional publicity in America for the BMW Mini, which was anxiously awaited by car buffs.
"In America, many people who aren't buffs have some idea of what the car is all about because of the publicity it's gotten-- and then there are those who know nothing about the old or new Mini'' said Mini spokesman Mike McHale. Just wait until the media picks up on the fact that folks such as movie stars and music industry idols are snapping up Mini Coopers. There are three Chicago area Mini dealers out of a nationwide total of about 60.
Only about 20,000 Minis will be sent to America annually, although dealers already are screaming for more. A recent drive in an old British Mini showed that model is a ball to drive, but is much cruder than the new model, which has impressive solidity and refinement. After all, the 2002 Mini is a premium model from BMW, known for refined, smooth vehicles.
The Mini comes as the base $16,300 model with 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that has 115 horsepower. The upscale $19,300 "S'' model has a supercharged version of the base engine that produces 163 horsepower and considerably more torque. The base version has much standard equipment such as air conditioning, AM/FM/CD, anti-lock brakes, remote-control locks--and power door locks, windows and mirrors.
It can be had with a five-speed manual gearbox or $1,250 continuously variable automatic transmission, which is expected to be ordered by 40 percent of buyers.
The hotter S model has more equipment and can be had only with a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission, which shifts easily and works with a short-throw clutch that has a rather springy feel. Special items for the S include a prominent functional hood scoop, sport suspension, traction control, spoiler, twin tailpipes and wider wheels and tires, which enhance the handling but cause a less comfortable ride.
The Mini has a firm, but generally good ride, especially the base model. But the ride gets jumpy over bumps. Considerable shifting is needed for the best acceleration with either model because the engine is small and the Mini is fairly heavy with all that equipment.
The S hits 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds, while the base model reaches 60 in about nine seconds. Both engines are smooth, but initial acceleration is slow until revs hit about 2,500 rpm. Fuel economy is good, although even the supercharged S engine works hard, turning over at 2,900 rpm at 70 mph.
My test S model had the $1,250 Sport package, which contains an antiskid system, powerful Xenon headlights, fog lights, hood stripes and even wider wheels and tires (17-inch tires and 45-series tires) to enhance handling. Mini options include a big $800 power sunroof, $500 cold weather package with heated front seats and $1,250 leather upholstery. The Mini is the shortest car sold in America, being only 142.8 inches long.
While it's about a foot shorter than a Mazda Miata sports car, the Mini feels larger than it is because it's wide and has big seats and a heavy feel.
The doors are wide, but the supportive seats are too low for easy entry and exit. There's good room for four 6-footers, if front seats aren't moved more than halfway back. Those who feel nervous about being in such a small car should know that it has no less than six air bags. There's also a $500 anti-skid system.
The cargo area is tight (figure on room for grocery bags or some soft luggage) with the folding rear seatbacks in their normal position. Flip the seatbacks forward and there is considerably more cargo space. The comfortable, quiet interior has a funky Art Deco look, with lots of brushed aluminum-look plastic. But the small interior door latches are hard to find.
Controls are logically positioned, but most are small because the dashboard area isn't large. For instance, tiny dashboard toggle switches control the windows and locks. The tight space around the steering wheel can cause one to accidentally activate the windshield wipers when starting the car. It's hard to adjust the seatback angle controls because they're difficult to reach. And rear windows don't roll down. The large speedometer is in the center of the dash--just like in the original Mini.
A smaller tachometer is directly in front of the driver on the steering column. However, if the $1,600 navigation system is ordered, you get a small speedometer set alongside the tachometer. The Mini--especially the S model--is one of those cars that would be a real kick to drive on a winding race course. The steering is very quick, handling is in the sports car class and the brakes work great, with good pedal feel. The Mini is expected to have wide appeal, just like the original. The fact that it's now a premium model from BMW won't hurt.
A blast to drive. Snappy styling. Roomy. Trendy. Solid. Affordable base prices.
Much shifting needed. Jerky ride on bumpy roads. Small cargo area. Small controls. Hard-to-find inside door latches.