Big Enough to Turn Heads

BMW's updated Mini smartly recalls the original

Every once in a while, some car manufacturer comes up with a classic. For me, the last one, 12 years ago, was Mazda's Miata, a contemporary rendering of the legendary British MG roadster.

Now another modern classic has emerged. It's the new Mini, a British icon that dates to 1959 and has been thoroughly updated for 2002 by BMW. The German carmaker picked up the brand when it bought Britain's Rover Group in 1994. That acquisition unraveled, but BMW kept the rights to the Mini as a way to get into the small-car market. It launched the updated Mini in Europe last summer, but it wasn't until Mar. 22 that two models, the $16,850 Mini Cooper and the supercharged Mini Cooper S for $3,000 more, finally reached American shores. It's the first time Minis have been sold in the U.S. since 1967.

This is no mini-Beemer Ultimate Driving Machine. With its quirky, one-of-a-kind looks, it's hard to take the Mini that seriously. But it's surprisingly roomy and comfortable given its diminutive size, and anything it lacks in raw power it makes up in raw fun.

I spent a day with a Mini Cooper, leisurely driving the back roads from downtown San Francisco to the Sonoma County wine district and back. What a kick it was. This pipsqueak elicited big grins from passersby at every stoplight in the jaded City by the Bay. Many flashed thumbs-up or, in the case of the less jaded, let out whoops and hollers. The country roads were hardly more tranquil, with people stopping and staring or even chasing the car.

Big Enough to Turn Heads

The cause for all of this head-turning is the car's unusual size and retro design. The new Mini is a third bigger than the old one, but is still a scant 12 feet long, a full foot shorter than any other car sold in the U.S. The car's design, particularly the front with its signature chrome grille and winged Mini logo, is true to the original. Sure, it's a little boxy, but those rounded corners make it more cute than frumpy. The payoff is more room inside: Unlike its predecessor, the new Mini will seat four adults comfortably.

The cabin is nicely detailed with touches that recall the original. The big speedometer is in the center of the dashboard, and the tachometer is a circular gauge attached to the steering column. Power windows, door locks, and optional fog lamps are operated with a series of chrome toggle switches, shielded with chrome dividers to meet today's safety regulations. Speaking of which, antilock brakes are standard, as are front, side, and head air bags.

I recommend you spend the extra $270 to get sport seats in the front. With higher bolsters for a snugger fit, they're noticeably more comfortable than the standard ones and will help smooth out what I found to be a pretty rough ride. You should stick with the standard tires and pass on the optional run-flat tires ($500), designed to let you drive up to 90 miles after a puncture; they yield an even stiffer ride.

Otherwise, the Mini is a joy to drive. The steering is tight and responsive, almost a BMW feel. I drove the stick-shift version; an automatic transmission is $1,250 extra. The 115-horsepower engine--coupled with the car's light weight--is enough to get you where you're going. You can hit 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, or 6.9 seconds in the souped-up 163-hp Cooper S version.

The Mini is more about fun and fashion than pure sports car performance. It's eminently customizable, with a mind-boggling dozen colors available from the factory. You can get a shiny white or glossy black top, too, at no charge. Want a U.S. or British flag stenciled on the roof? That's $180 more. But don't be too picky--BMW is only bringing 20,000 to the U.S. this year and those will sell out fast, well above sticker prices.

I drove the 100 mile route from San Francisco to Healdsburg with Juan Recavarren, an auto restorer from British Columbia who owns six original Minis and wanted to try out the new one. His verdict? "What a sweet car." Even he couldn't suppress that telltale grin we had been seeing all day.

By Larry Armstrong

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