Actor Kevin Spacey summed it up best. On the Letterman show one evening, he said of the '02 Mini Cooper he purchased at a charity auction:"How small is it? It's about the size of a piece of luggage." The Mini Cooper, which went on sale last month at 70 dealerships around the country (three in Illinois) is attracting massive showroom crowds, just like the Plymouth Prowler, Volkswagen Beetle and Chrysler PT Cruiser in their first year on the market. The '02 Mini Cooper and its supercharged Mini Cooper S carry a name that represented a low-price, fun-to-drive British car last sold here in 1967. But it also signals the return of a name synonymous with spending as much time in the garage or on the rack as it did on the road or track. So why the fuss? Thank the parents. "It's got a British mother, but now a German father," says Mini spokesman Andrew Cutler of the brand acquired when BMW purchased the Rover Group in 1994 and kept when BMW sold Land Rover to Ford in 2000. So the retro Mini is small and you easily could argue not very attractive. It is a child of BMW, the German automaker with a reputation for quality, dependability and performance. Mini is built in Britain--to BMW's German engineering specs. Just like Mazda legitimized two-seat British sports cars with its '89 Miata, BMW has legitimized four-seat British coupes with its '02 Mini. While British machines were noted for low-cost fun and high-price frustration, BMW boasts Mini will do something its British namesake didn't do often--run, and run well. We had an abbreviated test of the '02 Cooper and Cooper S. The Cooper comes with a 1.6-liter, 115-horsepower 4-cylinder with a choice of 5-speed manual or continuously variable (CVT) automatic ($1,250) transmission. The S comes with a supercharged, 165-h.p. version of the 1.6-liter 4 with 6-speed manual only. With the differences in power, the Cooper is for cruising, the S for carousing. While a traditional CVT basically is a belt that changes shape based on the driving situation to provide an infinite number of gears, BMW modified its system. With the Mini CVT, six gears have been programmed into the system so you feel six shifts. You feel no gear changes with a traditional CVT. Mini's CVT also has been programmed so the six shift points change based on driver demand and whether easing away or accelerating hard from the light. Our test drives were abbreviated because only about 20,000 will be sold in the U.S. this year, and the press pool is empty. BMW can produce 100,000 for world markets this year, perhaps double that in '03. But the U.S. gets 20,000 this year, perhaps 25,000 next year. "Our strategy is to build a premium small car and not flood the market with them because premium doesn't mean you see one in every driveway," Cutler said. But that doesn't rule out derivatives. "We look to perpetuate the brand so there are likely to be variants over time. We aren't g oing to let Mini sit by itself off in the corner," Cutler said. Because so many readers have been asking about the Mini, we ran down to the local dealership, Knauz Mini in Lake Bluff, to check out the two cars it has for customer familiarization rides. Those 70 dealers nationwide have been promised 300 cars each to sell this year. With demand high and supply low, don't be surprised if in addition to full sticker, you're asked to hand over the deed to your house as well as prepare a codicil, making the dealer sole beneficiary to your estate. Bill Knauz, dealership owner, said BMW has warned dealers not to play games. While first-year allocation is guaranteed at 300 cars, second-year allocation isn't, Knauz said. In fairness, however, while consumers don't want dealers to gouge them, dealers say they expect some consumers who get the first cars sold to turn around and resell the vehicle within minutes to a friend or colleague for a quick profit of $5,000 or more. Most of the Minis arriving at dealerships now are 115-h.p. Coopers, not the supercharged S, which probably won't arrive in good numbers until June. By taking a base model, you might drive away with a Cooper sooner than expected if most of those ahead of you on the waiting list want an S. Though the drives were brief, the S has considerably better off the line and passing spunk. And the 6-speed is very smooth. Both models came with optional ($500) dynamic stability control (DSC), the system similar to StabiliTrak at Cadillac. With DSC a host of sensors apply the anti-lock brakes and/or throttle control to ease you on down the road and keep you moving in the direction pointed rather than slip-sliding away. The S has the added benefit of all-season traction control to get you going so DSC can keep you moving. While we'll expand on both vehicles when available for a longer period, the S is surprisingly nimble and agile for such a small car. The base Cooper was no slouch, but we have to assume without DSC it may be prone to swing wide in turns like your typical small economy car. With either car, the ride is firm. You feel each tar mark in the road, though that's to be expected with short wheelbase/overall length. The cabin is snug. Spacey's reference to luggage is accurate. Yet the rear seat-bottom cushions are the longest we've seen in any vehicle. That's a design gimmick to force your body back in the seat and pull your legs away from the seat in front of you so you don't feel cramped. Clever. Both models are hatchbacks, though with precious little storage room until you flip down the rear seat backs (they fold flat) to increase cargo/golf-club capacity. Features of note include power window flip-up/flip-down toggle switches in the dash, an EML, or emissions system warning light, in the instrument panel that basically is a visual reminder that you didn't tighten the gas cap after the last fill, and a dual pane sunroof in which the glass goes over the front and rear seats. Base price: $16,300 for Cooper, $19,300 for Cooper S, which in addition to the supercharger, sports dual exhaust tips dead center below the rear bumper while the base car has only one off to the right. If you tack on the options or if the dealer has tacked a lot of options on to his allocation, prepare to pay a lot more. The S was stickered at more than $23,000.
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