The British Mini Cooper was one of the world's few long-lived iconic cars, and the BMW version is continuing that tradition.
A whopping 5.3 million Minis had been sold throughout the world at the end of production of the British version of the car in 2000. It was created by Alec Issigonis after British Motor Corp. told him to design the smallest possible inexpensive economy car for narrow British roads. It had to carry four adults and luggage -- and not cost much to build.
The also-iconic Volkswagen Beetle was far better known in America. Hundreds of thousands of Beetles were bought here in the 1960s, but less than 10,000 Minis were sold in this country when offered from 1960 to 1967 because the car had poor distribution and virtually no advertising -- although car buff celebrities such as actor Steve McQueen gave the $1,295 car a little visibility. The British were known for sports cars here in the 1960s, not what Americans considered a small economy car.
BMW, which bought the rights to the Mini in 1995, found that only 2 percent of Americans knew about the car before it launched a publicity drive to inform this country about it before its 2002 U.S. introduction.
The tiny front-drive Mini was a surprisingly roomy, fun-to-drive British two-door hatchback that was introduced in England in 1959 and was bought by celebrities including Paul McCartney, Twiggy, Peter Sellers and royal family members. British fashion designer Mary Quant even named her "miniskirt'' after the Mini.
Lots of common folks also bought the inexpensive Mini. It was a "classless'' car that combined affordability and economical operation with driving kicks; it was a fuel miser when gasoline prices in England were sky-high -- much as they are these days.
The Mini Cooper first carried the British Austin and Morris badges, but its tiny exterior dimensions soon led it to be called "Mini'' or "Mini Cooper.''
The "Cooper'' name was attached to a high-performance version of the Mini created by talented race car designer John Cooper. It was introduced in 1961 and was a winner on the track and the hot little car for London streets.
Quality of the rather stark British Mini was marginal, although the car was sturdy. The well-equipped BMW version has high quality. Although larger than the British Mini, it's still small -- and very fuel-efficient. It provides an estimated 25-28 mpg in the city and 32-37 on the highway. But it shouldn't be regarded as an economy car -- it's really a small quality hatchback sports coupe that's a blast to drive.
The rather heavy steering is sharp, handling of the hot rod "S'' version is in the sports car class and the ride is supple on halfway decent roads. The brakes are strong and have good pedal feel.
The standard Mini Cooper has a base price of $16,449, while the S version stickers at $19,899. The main difference between the two is that the base model has a smooth 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 115 horsepower and the S has a supercharged version of the same engine that produces 163 horsepower.
The S -- by far the best Mini Cooper buy -- also has a functional hood scoop, traction control, sport seats, sport suspension, rear spoiler, wider (55-series) run-flat tires and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The S does 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds, while the standard model takes about nine seconds for that sprint. The S definitely has an edge during 65-75 mph passing maneuvers.
The standard version is well equipped, with items including air conditioning, AM/FM/CD player, split-folding rear seat, tilt steering wheel, alloy wheels and power door locks, windows and mirrors.
Safety features for both versions include anti-lock brakes, front side air bags and side head-protection air bags.
The Mini retains its original British design, with front-wheel drive and a two-door hatchback body. But it's far more upscale and refined than the British Mini. After all, this is a BMW. It's the shortest car sold in America --about a foot shorter than the Mazda Miata sports car -- although it's 24 inches longer, 11 inches wider and 1,100 pounds heavier than the old British version.
Four 6-footers fit, although low seats complicate entry and exit. It's rather tight up front, and rear occupants have little room to spare. Doors open wide, but it's an athletic exercise getting in and out of the back seat area, where rear windows don't roll down. Front seats are supportive, but their belts are hard to reach.
Cargo room is marginal unless the rear seatbacks are flipped forward.
The stylish dashboard has a large center-mounted speedometer -- like the old Mini -- and a small tachometer is atop the steering column There are retro Mini toggle switches put low on the dashboard to operate the power windows and locks. The dashboard looks alluring, but a little less nostalgia and more practicality would make the Mini easier to live with.
Markings for audio and climate controls should be larger, although the dual front cupholders are conveniently located. The brushed-aluminum-look plastic controls won't fool anyone the moment they touch them.
The standard Mini has decent acceleration, although you must shift the five-speed manual transmission a lot to get the best performance. The S has a slicker six-speed manual gearbox that need not be used as much because the engine has a lot more torque, besides the additional power.
A $1,300 continuously variable automatic transmission with a manual mode also is offered with the standard Mini. No CVT version was available for testing, but CVT transmissions are quite efficient and BMW says this transmission makes the car only slightly slower.
The Mini is popular and there are few Chicago area dealers for it, so beware of stiff markups. Also, the car can be loaded with costly options such as a $1,700 navigation system and a $1,300 Sport package for the standard version with sport seats, anti-skid system, fog lights, rear spoiler and run-flat tires.
Leather upholstery also has a $1,300 factory price, and you can get a power sunroof in a $1,300 Premium package, along with cruise control and automatic climate control.
A Mini Cooper is attractive for a variety of reasons. For instance, it's fun, economical and easy to park in tight spots. Like the original Mini, it's different than other cars. That, alone, makes it charming.
2004 MINI COOPER S
Fast. A blast to drive. Surprisingly roomy for its size. Trendy.
Very small. Impractical retro dashboard items. No rear seat room to spare.