" It's cute, it's practical for its size, it's fun to drive, and it's cheap. What else do you want? ."
Good: styling, handling, headroom.
Bad: loose shifter, legroom.


 

Let's face it. Most cars that come out these days are boring. They look pretty much like the other cars and act pretty much like the other cars. In fact, the poor manufacturers who make them are reduced to bragging about "an extra 15 horsepower" or "redesigned tail lights."

And then, every once in a great while, a car comes out that truly IS different. Remember when the New Beetle came out, and people on the street smiled when they saw one? Well, the new Mini falls into that category. It's fun to look at, and it'll make you smile. Not only that, but it's a pretty nice little car if you drive mostly around town and don't really need the back seat much.

The original Austin Mini was a cult favorite back in the 1960's. It was a little, front wheel drive shoebox with its wheels pushed all the way out to the corners. That gave it a surprising amount of room inside, and very decent handling. The Austin Mini faded away in the late 60's.

Fast forward to the 1990s, when in a fit of stupidity, BMW bought England's struggling Rover company, intending to turn it around and make a fortune. A few years later they basically gave it away (they couldn't sell it) in pieces, keeping only the Mini name for themselves. So the new Mini Cooper is a BMW product, even though it comes from a subsidiary named Mini.

 

The single greatest thing about the Mini is the way it looks. It all but screams "toy!" But it's not just a toy. It's packaged so well that it seats four -- although the last two not very comfortably. But for the driver and front seat passenger, it feels downright roomy. At the very least, it's practical, and does a lot for its size. It's a brand new car, "inspired" by the old Austin Mini, but made thoroughly modern. And it's a car we can get behind philosophically. While other makers are building huge, honkin' SUVs that get 14 mpg and drive over Toyotas without noticing, here's a car that's small, and making the most of the size it's been given.

As you might expect from a car developed by BMW, the driving experience in the Mini Cooper is pretty damn sporty. The car is fun to drive. The handling is exceptionally good. When you turn the Mini into corners it digs in, in the way a good-handling car does. In other words, if you make a left turn, you don't feel yourself falling out the right passenger window. Why? Several reasons.

The Mini has a low center of gravity. It's wheels are pushed all the way out to the corners, like the original Mini (if they were pushed any further, they'd be on someone else's car). Finally, the Mini has good, tight suspension components throughout.



Like the Mazda Miata sports car, the Mini has an engine that's absolutely perfect for it -- at least with the manual transmission that we tested. The people who bitched about the Miata not having enough power (and those who register the same complaint about the Mini) just don't get it. The idea of these fun, great handling cars is not to make the world fly by so quickly that you can't see anything. The goal is to enjoy the ride. The Mini's engine makes you shift the gears; it makes you drive the car. It's just right. The one downside is that when you come to an "almost stop," and drop below 10 miles and hour, you'll need to shift into first. That's the only price you pay for the small engine and we can live with that.

Mini also make a Cooper S, with a supercharged, 160 HP engine. We'll test it when it comes to Our Fair City, but we lean toward recommending the pure, base Mini Cooper.

Driving the Mini is a little bit like driving a go-cart. The steering responds quickly, and you feel close to the ground. But unlike other really small cars, we didn't find the Mini terrifying to drive on the highway (like we did in the Miata). Even though it's small, you're high enough off the ground, have enough visibility and enough personal space around you to give you confidence. In case that confidence is misplaced, the Mini has no fewer than eight airbags, including head bags in the roof and side airbags in the front and back. So, while we can't consider the Mini safe because of the its size and the laws of physics, at least the airbags give you a fighting chance, I guess.


Not only is the Mini Cooper cool looking on the outside, it's pretty darn cool on the inside as well.

The interior has a great, retro look, with round, retro gauges and toggle switches for the window motors. The Mini feels large inside, despite its size. It's got a huge greenhouse of windows, and nice, tall roof, and an airy feeling dashboard. One flaw: In front of the stick shift, there is the usual storage bin. This bin, though, doesn't have sides. For styling's sake, they've been left out in favor of a couple of metallic looking structural bars. Put stuff in, and it falls onto the floor. Form way over function.


The seats are a little chintzy looking. The base Mini comes with "leatherette" seats (i.e. vinyl that looks a lot like leather). We found them to be surprisingly comfortable though -- as comfortable as cars a fair bit more expensive. Cloth and genuine cowskin are both available as options.

The back seat is pretty supportive, and there's surprising headroom because of the squared-off, wagon like design. But, the amount of leg room will make you wish you had starred as a Munchkin in the Wizard of Oz. There's hardly any legroom at all. And, unfortunately, the rear passenger windows don't open, a bummer for claustrophobics and dogs.

The Mini doesn't have much storage rom with the back seat up (what do you expect??), though there is a nice little cubbyhole for items. Put the seats down, however, and there's enough room for medium size dog (speaking theoreticaly. Bugsy knows we sould never, ever carry an actual dog in one of his test cars).

A big sunroof would make the Mini just about perfect. Unfortunately, the model we tested didn't have one. A "Panoramic Sunroof" is available, though, if you want to fork over an additional $800.


The Mini uses a very cool looking row of old fashioned, aircraft-style toggle switches to control everything. Everything you touch, from doors to steering wheel to controls, are all very good quality. Knobs and switches are exactly where you would expect them to be, including the three very nice ventilation knobs.

One slightly unfortunate ergonomic problem: the horn is activated via a couple of small buttons are on the spokes of the steering wheel, instead of in the middle of the steering wheel where God wanted it to be. We don't know why Mini did that. And when you drive a car this small, you want to have easy access to the horn button.


BMW has shoehorned the Mini's engine into its compartment. With the air conditioning components, there's very little room to manuever. For this reason, we'd expect the Mini to be somewhat more expensive than average to repair.

How reliable will the new Mini be? Without a track record of any kind, it's hard to know. One cause for concern, though, is the engine, which was produced through a joint venture of BMW and Chrysler. Not to cast aspersions, but having Chrysler's name on the Mini engine isn't exactly a confidence builder in our book. Otherwise we'd except the Mini to be reasonably reliable.


BMW did a superb job designing the Mini. It's cute, it's practical for its size, it's fun to drive, and it's cheap. What else do you want? Another foot or two of car? OK, then buy something else.

But if your needs meet what the Mini delivers, you'll be the envy of lots of your friends. If most of your driving is done around town and not on major highways, if you use the back seat only occasionally, you don't move furniture a lot, and if you like to have fun, then the Mini could very well be the car for you.


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