You'd think Chrysler had invented the "cab forward design" they trumpeted so loudly some years back when they introduced the Intrepid and Concorde sedans. You know, push the wheels out toward the corners so as to create more interior room. Duh. Well, one reason they didn't get the Nobel prize that year was that the concept had been perfected decades earlier in a vehicle more extreme than anything that's come out of Auburn Hills, Mich. design studios. That of course was Alec Issigonis' Mini, an urban car designed to be as thrifty - and as small as possible while still holding four people - and easy to own and maintain. Issigonis led the way in eliminating superfluous front and rear overhangs. The best way to do that is to push the wheels out to the corners, turn the engine sideways, drive the front wheels and stow the transmission beneath the engine - radical concepts all, especially in 1959. But the engineering genius pulled it off and in the process, created a car that was also rather fun to drive, though grossly underpowered. It soon began attracting lots of fans, who clamored for a more sporting version. (It was to youth of that era analogous to today's Honda Civic, an affordable, sensible little car that has spawned a huge customizing industry.) Along comes John Cooper. He was a renowned racer and constructor of racing and rally competition machinery, who had a hankering to build a real, i.e., roadgoing car. He didn't have to flog the abacus too long to realize that a de novo auto factory is a very expensive proposition. So he made a pitch to British Motors that he be allowed to hotrod some of the cars. Permission granted, he increased the displacement of the engine from 850 cc to a whopping full liter, i.e., 1,000 cc, and beefed up the suspension accordingly. Cooper ran a factory Mini team with great success in the mid-'60s, capturing both British and European Touring Car championships along the way. Some Minis were imported to the United States for a few years in the '60s, but the hotfoots of the era much preferred to shock the bourgeoisie with 7-liter V-8s, and by the late '60s, the Mini was gone from these shores. The name went through a number of ownerships through the years, finally winding up almost by accident in the unlikely hands of BMW. The Bavarians really wanted Land Rover, and the Mini name came along in a package deal. They later dumped the Land Rover franchise (Ford now owns it) and decided to revive the Mini. In honor of Cooper, they affixed his name to it and affected an all-caps style for the name, rendering then the MINI Cooper. The car comes in two basic styles with a dizzying array of customization possibilities. For instance, you can have one with a white or black top, or even one the same color as the body, but the one I think is funkiest is the one with the British flag on the roof. (You can get one wit h the U.S., flag, too.) The two series are distinguished by the letter S as a cognomen - the base models don't have it, but the hot ones do. The basic car, with 2,500 pounds of mass, is a leisurely ride with its 1.6-liter, 115-hp 4-cylinder motor. But it goes for $16,850, delivered, if you can find a dealer not into gouging. Folks have been waiting more than a year for their Minis, so the price has tended to exceed the manufacturer's recommended at many stores. The S model I tested starts at $19,850, delivered. For the extra three grand you get the same engine, but now with a supercharger and appropriately tweaked underpinnings and sundry other bits. Now we're talking hot. The deep-breather cranks out 163 hp and 155 foot-pounds of torque. It's now just a few pounds heavier than the base car, but can do the 0-60 dash in a hair over seven seconds - fast for anything in this price range and exhilarating in a car so small and close to the road. How small? Well, your correspondent is 6-1 with, uh, large bones, and fit rather neatly. Legroom was not a problem, and headroom would have allowed a cowboy hat. Now as for the back seat . . . two fairly tall women assistants tried it (consecutively - no way they could do it simultaneously) and found that even with some charity on the part of the folks up front, they had to position themselves crosswise, like the engine. The consultant who has two small children said they'd be OK in back, until the fighting broke out. So realistically, this is a two-seater toy. The rear seats fold down 50-50, and with both lowered, the vestpocket 6-cubic-foot trunk under the rear hatch becomes a 25-c.f. cavern. With the sportier suspension, the ride of the S is firm, but not punitive - quite survivable over the ordinary run of expansion joints and small pavement breaks. And the car is nowhere near so hoppy as I expected, given its diminutive 97-inch wheelbase. Handling? It's a hoot. So rigid is the chassis (that's a good thing) that the Mini feels like a go-kart. The steering is rather light and very fast, with perhaps a bit too little on-center feel, but buyers of this car are predisposed to want to drive. The standard transmission is a 6-speed manual, but if you must (Mr. Cooper is probably twirling) you can have, for $1,250 extra, a continuously-variable box with a Steptronic, simulated 6-gear shifter. The manual shifter was reasonably easy to use, though not so precise or intuitive as some. The clutch was light and easily engaged, and gear ratios were such that even in sixth, the engine was turning about 2,500 rpm at 55 mph. They say the Mini will run well on anything from regular unleaded to super-premium. Looking at the relatively high compression ratio on the base machine (10.6:1), I'd bet you'd lose perhaps significant power on the cheap stuff as the knock sensors retarded the timing. Go ahead, indulge him with the top-shelf pour - the little fella gets 24 mpg city, 33 highway, according to the EPA. I used 91-octane and got 27.3 mpg in mostly country driving. I couldn't get flat out much, because the roads that didn't have snow on them were covered with enough salt to be very slippery. But the exercises I did do - more demanding than a sane passenger would cotton to - made me very confident of the car's abilities. And why not? It's derivative of the 3-Series BMW. The car I had was black over yellow - I felt like an angry yellowjacket as I buzzed about the Indiana wilds with the engine booming and buzzing at its 5,000-rpm sweet spot. I give BMW a big salute for some customer-friendly design decisions. Every car has SIX air bags, the extra ones being situated to protect the driver or co-pilot's thorax and head. Every car has 4-wheel ventilated disc brakes with antilock, electronic front-to-rear braking di stribution and even cornering brake control, which allocates more braking force to the rear wheels when it detects a high-rate slowing in a corner. That, kids, is big-league stuff. If you want to go the whole route, you can get Dynamic Stability Control for $500 to keep you from cornering harder than the car can manage - but that would be SO counter-historical. The brakes per se are terrific - a solid, easily modulated pedal feel and impressively short stopping distances. When the government crash-tested the Mini, they awarded it four stars on their five-star scale for its ability to protect driver and co-pilot in frontal and side impacts. As for the rear passengers . . . the feds said "seat too small." Guess they couldn't even persuade a dummy to ride in back. The Mini Cooper aced the 40-mph frontal-offset test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - scoring Good (their top rating) in every category, and winning a further accolade, "Best Pick." Remember, that's a frontal crash . . . my back-seat consultants said they felt very vulnerable being so close to the rear bumper. One problem in buying a Mini is that the options list is so long and so seductive. Who could live without the Combo No. 2 Sport Package the tester had: Dynamic stability control, sport seats, fog lamps, rear spoiler, 17-inch alloy wheels with performance 205/45 run-flat tires, hood stripes if desired and xenon headlamps with power wash. For another $350, the steering wheel got adjusters for cruise control and audio. The total price on the tester was thus $21,450. But some might want the automatic transmission, leather-wrapped wheel, leather seats, radio upgrade, climate control and panoramic sunroof, too. It would be pretty easy to build one for 25 grand. And you're not likely to see a discount soon. Edmunds.com says they're going for about $650 over. Overall build quality was fairly good, with some trim glitches here and there. The Mini is assembled in Oxford, England. The engine is from Brazil, the transmission from Germany. Payments on the tester would be $431, assuming 20 percent down, 10 percent interest and 48 installments.
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