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The MINI Arrives MAXI
Words and Photos by Denise McCluggage

The long-awaited MINI

You are genetically predisposed to adore the MINI.

To assure that babies would be cooed over and cared for humankind was hard-wired to find small critters with proportionally overlarge eyes (and head) appealing. The MINI design takes that predisposition into consideration. Thus you are, by nature, prone to cooing and caring. (You will not be alone.)

You are intellectually destined to admire the MINI.

BMW, the builders, have packed into this cute thing an extraordinary assemblage of engineering innovation. Thus as you coo you will also be impressed. Furthermore, a higher percentage of interior area is covered by airbags than in any other vehicle. Safety features abound. You will feel cared for as well.

You are kinesthetically susceptible to the feel of the MINI.

One operates the car from a driving environment that warms the senses with tactile and visual pleasures. The instruments and controls are pleasingly placed feeling good to the hand and look "right" to the eye. Underway, the car clings to the twistiest roads with a bulldog puppy tenacity delivering a pleasant sensation to the motion sensors in the brain and body. Steering input gets that instant and desired response drivers have learned to expect of a BMW product. And the brakes snug the car to a stop with admirable assurance even on pavement awash with a deluge.

In short (and by the way the MINI is the shortest car on the US market) this is one well-rounded serious-but-fun little driving package that is also easy to park and merely sips at the pump. (Expected highway mileage: 38 mpg.)

But about that "little:" as small as the MINI is, it carries big. Seat four full-grown passengers within, tuck a reasonable allotment of stuff in the trunk and storage spaces and listen to the chorus of "There's more space here than I thought possible!"

Yes, you may also hear some negative comments: "This is not what I call a smooth ride." It is not.

When a vehicle is designed to stick to the road with the degree of adhesion exhibited by the MINI the vagaries and variations of that road are usually translated to the people inside. Serious drivers tend to like that because they are in charge of controlling the car and prefer as much information as possible about the surface on which they maneuver. Professional passengers, especially those used to the billowy softness of large Detroit iron, usually prefer being isolated from the exterior world. Simple: We'll take the MINI and have fun and let Uncle Clyde float the others in his old Buick Roadmaster.

The MINI has a predecessor, the extremely popular Austin and Morris Minis first produced by the British Motor Corporation beginning in 1959. Anyone in England in the Happening '60s might well wonder what Brits drove before the Mini appeared. They were scuttling about everywhere. Rock stars drove them; royalty drove them; racing drivers drove them. More Brits earned their driver's license in a Mini than in any other car in history.

A small but intense following developed in the US. No more than 10,000 were ever sold in the states for several reasons, one being that truly small cars have never done well in the vastness of US highways. (The new MINI is one-third larger in size than the original cars.) And then with the stiffening of US safety regulations the mini Mini could not meet the requirements for distance between driver's head and the windshield. Technically, no more Minis came to America, but in reality avid collectors found a way. A network of Mini owners clubs web the country. It is said that more Minis are now in the US than were ever sold here.

How do Mini enthusiasts view the new MINI?

In general, very well. They seem to accept the BMW notion that this is not a retro Mini, but a car that merely fills in the lost years of world production and projects a design into the future that would have quite possibly developed naturally from the Alec Issigonis-designed Mini of old.

Well-loved or not, the Mini, as a car, was known some 14 months ago to only 2% of the American market, according to company surveys. For the new MINI (all caps please) the company launched a bright, sassy, spirited, colorful campaign to familiarize Americans with this fun-loving newcomer leading up to a celebration on March 22 when cars first reached the specially selected and limited-in-number dealerships (70.)

But let's straighten out some possible confusion. I keep saying MINI, but the mere "MINI" will not come to the US at all; only its more powerful siblings the MINI Cooper (115 horsepower) and MINI Cooper S (163 horsepower) will be available in the states. The Cooper S follows the MINI Cooper by a few months.

The base price for the Cooper is $16,850 and for the S $19,850. Add-ons include the obligatory $550 destination charge and several optional packages (two at $1250 and one at $500 each) can boost the price for the "gimme everything" buyer into the near $25,000 area for the Cooper S. But this is not a start basic and pack-on-the-price sort of deal. For one thing, though the packages are an overall saving a buyer is not beholden to take everything that's packaged. In other words dinner is the best value but ala carte is available.

Many high-end features are standard, such as the all-around disc brakes with ABS, five-speed manual transmission, flat tire monitoring system and run-flat tires, a drive-by-wire (i.e. non-mechanical) connection between the accelerator pedal and the engine and an extensive safety system including six airbags with special head-protection. The standard sound system is a six-speaker affair with in-dash CD.

The option packages for the MINI Cooper are three: Premium, Sport and Cold Weather costing $1250 each for the first two and $500 for the last. Among the offerings: a sunroof, sport seats, stability control and heated seats along with other features.

Other extra-cost options include a special automatic transmission. This is the CVT for "continuously variable" transmission that offers stepless gear changes without the power drain of regular automatics. Leather seating is available as is a navigation system.

Color choices abound along with contrasting roof colors (or flag designs) and choices in wheel style and color. This highly personal MINI can be highly personalized.

Small cars, other than the MINI, simply do not come with such posh amenities and options, but BMW is determined to create a new market segment - the luxury small car. And they have somehow pulled it off without sticking a gun in the buyer's ribs. Essential to the task is the availability to the new English-based MINI endeavor the considerable technological resources of the Bavarian-based BMW headquarters. It's as if Daddy has sent an independent child off to a distant city to make it on her own, but with a prepaid cell phone and a credit card.

As the previous owner of no fewer than three of the original Minis I had more than the usual interest in the 2002 reincarnation. My verdict: It is commendable how Frank Stephenson, the designer, has caught the essence of the Mini and interpreted it for a new time, a new driver pool. It is as saucy as ever, perhaps even more fun to drive (with improved road-holding abilities) and certainly much safer and more comfortable.

But fun rules the day. They could rightfully add an amusement tax.

The MINI development team has been inspired by the past but not limited by it. The new MINI is well-conceived, well-executed and well-priced. It is the neatest automotive package you're apt to find, certainly in its price range.

BUT (there is always that "but.") Disappointment is waiting for no few of those who would love to have a MINI "right now" and who even have the money in hand. An eager demand has already prompted the devotion of more production facilities to build more MINIs but - expect it - there will be lists at the dealerships.

Hang in there; the MINI Cooper and the MINI Cooper S are worth waiting for.