Given that its return was as inevitable as the sun rising in the east and Willie Nelson being on the road again, BMW still has done a magnificent job of manufacturing, marketing and just flat hyping its Mini Cooper.
The little darling — no going against the public perception here — is as pervasive as those wretched pop-up ads on the Web. Folks who did and didn’t know the original, which was birthed in 1959, are lusting after it, much to the delight of dealers.
The price is right, $16,300 base plus $550 delivery for the model. There’s also a hotted-up "S" model with the 115-horsepower standard four-cylinder engine supercharged to 163 hp for $19,300.
With the latter, you get zero to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, BMW says (8.5 seconds for the base Mini). Along with that comes a slicker Getrag six-speed transmission instead of the base model’s heavy-shifting five-speed.
What’s not short-circuited is the realization that the Mini Cooper is more than a toy or a politically/ecologically correct statement (low smog emissions, 28 and 37 mpg EPA figures and the conservation of parking space). Sizewise, at 142.8 inches, it’s about 18 inches shorter and 8 inches wider than the Beetle and every bit as maneuverable. Curb weight is about 2,600 pounds.
The first thing actually noticed upon first entering the Mini Cooper is that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside. As with many compact and subcompact cars today, the front of the cabin aspires to full-size-car spaciousness.
Sure, from behind the wheel you can easily reach across to open the passenger door, but passenger and driver don’t rub shoulders or hips with each other unless it’s intentional.
This is not, however, a car for people who abhor togetherness. The circus-inspired question when I arrive home is when will the 17 other clowns emerge from it.
It’s also worth a giggle or at least a grin to drive. The Mini feels solid with tight steering and a suspension that doesn’t mask what’s underneath its 16-inch alloy wheels, shod with optional run-flat tires. The 1.6-liter engine needs to be cranked up for decent acceleration, but it steps out smartly and, except for the intimidation factor around much larger vehicles, is comfortable on the expressways.
BMW has done a commendable job on the Mini’s fit-and-finish, and the instrumentation clearly marks it as a driver’s car.
There’s a huge 150-mph speedometer at the center of the dash and a tachometer behind the steering wheel. The not-unpleasant sound of the engine winding up, however, does a good job of indicating when shifts are advised. Just a shame it lacks the Getrag unit that’s in the "S" version.
Window, lock and the stability-control switches come in the form of gleaming toggles in a row across the bottom of the center dash. They’re both striking and convenient for driver or passenger.
For that matter, "striking and convenient" is an apt description of the entire Mini, despite the "Mini Vanilla" tag some have given it in comparison with the "S." It doesn’t need the British or American flag-type symbols that are rooftop options to distinguish itself. All it needs is a crack at the road.
- Test vehicle: Mini Cooper front-drive two-door hatchback
- Price as tested: $18,380 (base: $16,300 plus $550 delivery)
- Drivetrain: 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 16 valves (115 horsepower), five-speed manual transmission
- Safety features: Dual front air bags, front-seat-mounted side air bags, front and rear head-protective air bags, power anti-lock disc brakes with electronic force distribution, optional stability-control system ($500); side-impact beams, flat tire monitor and optional 195/55 run-flat tires on 16-inch alloy wheels ($500)
- Other standard features: Air conditioning with climate-controlled glove box; power mirrors, windows and locks with keyless entry system; six-way adjustable seats; CD stereo with six speakers; center-mounted speedometer and column-mounted tachometer; Xenon headlamps
- Other options on test vehicle: Heated front seats, $270; fog lamps, $140; chrome exterior trim, $120
- EPA figures: 28 mpg premium city, 37 mpg highway