The cute, innovative British Mini arrived in 1959 as a $1,295 economy car to beat high fuel prices in England. But celebrities in swinging 1960s London picked up on the car's uniqueness and made it one of England's most trendy autos.
Mini owners included Beatle Paul McCartney and actor Peter Sellers (who owned 10). Fashion designer Mary Quant is said to have named her miniskirt after the car.
The two-door Mini was a picture of practicality despite a sporty blend of personality, style and performance. A kick to drive, it transported four adults and was suited to narrow London streets because it had a very small body.
Keeping the car small while providing decent interior room were a sideways-mounted engine up front, wheels pulled to extreme body corners and an integrated engine/gearbox. Nobody had 10-inch tires for the car's tiny wheels, so England's venerable Dunlop tire producer developed them.
The Mini initially carried British Austin and Morris badges, but soon was simply called "Mini.''
A whopping 5.3 million British Minis were sold from 1959-2000 because the front-drive car was cheap, fuel-stingy and could seat four adults, although the rear area was tight. A popular hot rod version -- developed by John Cooper, a British world champion race car producer -- was unveiled in 1961 and was called the Mini Cooper.
Actor/car buff Steve McQueen owned a Mini Cooper in America, but less than 10,000 Minis were sold here in the 1960s because of poor promotion and distribution. And few Americans wanted a tiny car then.
BMW bought the rights to the Mini in 1995 and designed a moderately larger, more refined version. It was a sensation when Introduced at the 2000 Paris Auto Show.
The solidly built new Mini kept the front-drive and basic styling of the British version, which had marginal quality. BMW's version arrived in America as a 2002 model after a massive publicity drive that was needed because few Americans knew about the iconic car.
BMW initially sold the Mini through a small number of dealers in key U.S. markets, but the car really took off. The Mini now is sold at most major market BMW dealers, and last year's sales totaled 40,820 cars -- up from 36,032 in 2004. Sales through April this year were off a bit from the same 2005 period, but still totaled 12,798 Minis.
A Mini with a power convertible top arrived as a 2005 model and has helped sales. It looks more fun-loving with the top lowered than the coupe. However, while the front of the Mini has plenty of room, the rear seat of the Mini coupe is tight for adults. And the rear of the convertible is suited only to kids or pets. A moderate amount of soft luggage fills the cargo area, so the flip-down rear seatbacks are handy for increasing cargo space.
The 2006 Mini Cooper is sold with a smooth 1.6-liter, 115-horsepower four-cylinder engine as a base $17,450 two-door hatchback and as a base $21,950 convertible. The Mini Cooper S has a supercharged, 168-horsepower version of that engine, along with a functional hood scoop and sport suspension. A Mini Cooper S hatchback thus costs $20,900, and the S convertible is $25,400.
The British Mini was sparsely equipped. But BMW Minis have such items as air conditioning, tilt wheel, manual-height-adjustable front bucket seats, split-folding rear seat, AM/FM/CD player and power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry.
The Mini is still among the smallest cars, so it's nice to know it has front side air bags and head-protecting side air bags. (The convertible's front side bags protect the head and torso.)
The base Mini comes with a five-speed manual or $1,300 continuously variable automatic transmission. The S version has either a six-speed manual or $1,350 six-speed conventional automatic.
The Mini remains fuel-stingy, although premium fuel is recommended. Estimated economy for the base Mini with the manual is 28 mpg in the city and 36 on highways, or 26 and 34 with the CVT automatic. Figures for the S are 25 and 32 with the manual and 23 and 32 with the automatic.
I recently tested the hottest Mini, which delivers about 25 mpg city, 32 highway. It's the S with the pricey $6,300 "John Cooper Works" (JCW) option, developed by the British company headed by John Cooper's son, Mike.
The JCW option comes only with the six-speed manual gearbox. It increases torque and raises horsepower to a rousing 207 with such items as an upgraded supercharger. The kit also contains better brakes, limited-slip differential, new dual exhaust system and distinctive "John Cooper Works" badging.
You can get the JCW kit with 18-inch wheels and tires, which improve handling but increase ride harshness; they're more suited to getting the fastest lap times on race tracks and I wouldn't recommend them for long drives.
Standard tires for the base model are 15-inchers, while the S version has 16-inch tires. Both provide a more comfortable ride, but the Mini only has a 97.1-inch wheelbase (distance between axles), so Minis have a choppy ride on rough roads -- especially if they don't have the base suspension and 15-inch tires, which help absorb road shocks.
The Mini Cooper S coupe with the JCW option does 0-60 mph in just 6.3 seconds and has stronger mid-range and top-gear acceleration than other Minis, although you can loaf in fifth gear at 30 mph in town. The S is fairly quick, hitting 60 mph in 7.7 seconds. A Mini with the base engine has average performance; it reaches 60 in 9.1 seconds and strains a bit during high-speed passing.
The CVT and conventional automatic transmissions slow acceleration a bit, but make the Mini easier to live with in congested traffic. My test Mini with the JCW option had a short-throw shifter but a stiff clutch with a long throw.
All Minis are fun. They have steering and handling that let them turn on a dime, along with easily modulated anti-lock brakes. The JCW version has virtually race-car-style steering, handling and braking. However, the Mini's long doors aren't suited for tight parking spots.
The quiet, retro interior design is a mixed bag. A large speedometer is in the center of the dashboard, with a tachometer that contains a small digital speedometer in front of the driver. Small toggle switches mounted low on the dashboard control the power windows and locks. Other controls are better placed, but the manual shifter partly blocks dual cupholders put low on the dash.
Never mind such things as the shifter blockage -- the Mini always has been a little quirky, and thus inconvenient in some ways. It's for the young and young-at-heart, who enjoy the car so much they don't mind a little inconvenience.
2006 MINI COOPER
PRICES : $17,450-$25,400
LIKES : Fast with supercharged engine. Fun to drive. Nicely built.
DISLIKES : Tiny. Tight rear seat. Choppy ride on bad roads.