The giant panda has been largely unchanged for millions of years. Evolution made some nips and tucks, but mostly let the species be. Perhaps because the design is right. Strong, capable, cute as . . . well . . . as a Mini Cooper, also largely unchanged since last we looked. So, is no news good news or has the Mini been left behind?
My Mini was Toy Fire Truck red. They call it something else in the brochure and they’re wrong. The rolling curves, contrasting tones, Bambi eyes and Cheshire Cat smile make you not so much want to drive this car as play with it.
The inside amps up that feeling: Radar screen gauges, rocker switches sourced from a Spitfire—you feel like you’re in Thunder Bird 6. All of the controls move smoothly. Most are supple plastic with only a hint of cheapness in the hard-to-reach places. It’s not intuitive, or even logical sometimes—window lifts sit where ashtrays used to hang. Love it or hate it, the interior is distinctive.
It is also practical. Two ‘growns’ fit just fine up front. Two half-growns fit OK in back. Seats up gives you 5.7 sq. feet of cargo space—less than a sidecar. Seats down and you’ve got 24 sq. feet behind a wide hatch. The aquarium design results in visibility bested only by a convertible. As goofy as the whole design seems, it’s not sacrificing utility.
The car is actually not big on sacrifice. 28, 37, 32 are great measurements . . . for mileage (city, highway, combo). That’s what you get with 118 horsepower. Just when you think you’re giving up fun for the sake of fuel savings, the real charm of the Mini shows.
The dual layshaft Getrag six-speed (a four speed with two output shafts) and snappy clutch let you juice the motor as much as you like. The throws are short, so you can keep the little engine in the biggest part of its power-band. The whole drivetrain has a puppy-waiting-by-the-door attitude.
The electronic steering lets you maximize the engine output. It tightens up nicely at speed and relaxes to park. It’s also one of the elements affected by the Sport button on the shifter boot. Pressing it warns the various on-board computers that mileage is not your primary concern. The steering firms up more quickly and the throttle response hastens. As these things happen anyway after the Mini’s processors have judged you, the button is more affectation than innovation. Still, pushing it helps warn your passengers, too.
Which they will thank you for once you start tossing this thing around. Yes, the car is style-conscious and gitchy [Ed. kitschy?]. The chassis, suspension and brakes give the style substance. The Mini is a fully flauntable sports car, even in base form. The normally aspirated engine doesn’t have the punch of the S model’s power-plant. That also means you can drive flat out loony and never get into trouble. Mini Legal would never let Mini Marketing say this, but I can: Minis can’t be rolled. You will never tip, spin or punch this car beyond your control. Go on. Try.
In whipping your Mini the worst that will happen is tire wear. And that’s great. The sooner you slip out of the run-flats and into something less comfortable the better. I have no complaints with the grip of the stock all seasons; it’s that they so efficiently convert comfort into noise.
Which can be mitigated by any number of the 7.2 million options available for the vehicle. The car is customizable from the dealer in ways previously found only in the truck center. Mine had Bluetooth phone integration and an iPod dock, allowing me to control the MP3 player from the stereo or, even better, right from the steering wheel, correcting the tire noise.
The way most of us use our cars most of the time the Mini is superb. No bragging rights. No smoked Trans Ams at the stoplight. Certainly no crossing the Rubicon. It’s nimble, athletic and supports your life, rather than add a new burden. That’s probably one of the best things you can say about any purchase.
It’s also, I believe, the way the car buying public is headed. As we wake up from the current recession and feel the pressure of pent-up demand, I think an increasing number of consumers are going to be looking a car that does more with less. There will always be a market for a bike ramp with 500 pound feet of torque or a gentleman’s club on 19″ rims. The trend, for the meat of the market, will bend towards usable fun. It already shows in the steadily growing list of Mini competitors. None of which are putting it on the endangered species list.