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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Jim Flammang
May 7, 2003
Posted on 9/25/02 Vehicle Overview Fans of the British-built Mini hadnt seen one officially imported into the United States since 1967. In March 2002, a brand-new Mini arrived in America that capitalizes on the Minis heritage but creates a new brand. The modern-day rendition of the legendary Lilliputian motorcar came into being after BMW bought the company that had produced the original.
BMW announced Mini pricing at Detroits North American International Auto Show in January 2002: $16,300 for the base Cooper and $19,300 for the more powerful Cooper S (excluding destination charges). Prices for 2003 have risen by $125 because Minis get new interior trim choices. A Sirius Satellite Radio is optional for the 2003 model year.
The 21st-century Mini is larger than its 1960s predecessor, and it debuted at the Paris Motor Show in the fall of 2000. A close-to-production version turned up in January 2001 at Detroits auto show. Production began on April 26, 2001, at an all-new plant in Oxford, England. The first cars were earmarked strictly for Britain, where the Mini went on sale on July 7, 2001. The BMW-owned factory expects to produce 100,000 units per year, and 20,000 of those will be sent to the United States.
Developers were focusing on fun and ended up creating the shortest car sold in America. Its not about size; its about character and charisma says Product Manager Kevin Philips.
BMW is noted for rear-wheel-drive automobiles, but the Cooper and Cooper S are equipped with front-wheel drive. In addition to the standard manual shift, both Cooper models are available with a Steptronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). A number of the Cooper and Cooper Ss components are shared with other BMW vehicles, but nothing has been carried over from the old Mini. The original Mini actually remained in production and was available for sale outside the United States until October 2000.
When the two Cooper models initially went on sale in the United States, only about 70 BMW dealers were permitted to sell them. Each dealership must establish a brand-specific sales environment.
Back in the 1960s, Minis turned into automotive icons similar to the trend with the Volkswagen Beetle. Economy-minded consumers, celebrities and even British royalty drive Minis. The early Mini had a gift for irreverence and fun and cheekiness, says Michael McHale, communications manager for Mini. BMW wouldnt mind seeing similar interest develop in the modern Mini like the comparable outpouring of enthusiasm for the Volkswagen New Beetle. A smaller BMW model is also in the works, but it has no relation to the Mini.
Designers selected the 1967 Mini Cooper as their starting point for the new model. Despite its increased dimensions and a more contemporary appearance overall, the modern Mini has a squarish shape thats similar to the original. All four wheels are positioned at the far outside corners a theme that also harks back to the first Mini. Short overhangs yield a wheelbase thats only 4 feet shorter than the entire length of the vehicle.
Mounted on a 97.1-inch wheelbase, the Cooper measures 142.8 inches long and the Cooper S stretches to 143.9 inches long overall. Standard tires for the base model measure 15 inches in diameter, and 16-inch run-flat tires are optional. The Cooper S comes with standard 16-inch run-flat tires and optional 17-inchers, which is quite a contrast to the 10-inch tires on the original Mini. Cooper buyers have a choice of 10 exterior colors, and the new models may be equipped with or without a signature contrasting-color roof. The Cooper S comes in eight body colors, and two of them are exclusive to that model. A sunroof is optional. Sport and Premium Packages for both models are priced at $1,250, which is the same amount charged for the optional CVT.
Four occupants fit inside the Mini in a configuration similar to that of old Minis. The current model provides more interior space than its exterior dimensions suggest. Leatherette upholstery is standard, and cloth or leather is optional. A center-mounted speedometer is also reminiscent of the one used on the original Mini, and the tachometer sits atop the steering column. Options include a navigation system, xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights and heated seats. In models equipped with the navigation system, the speedometer is mounted ahead of the driver. Cargo space is 5.3 cubic feet, and that number jumps to 23.7 cubic feet when the rear seat is folded down.
Under the Hood
The Coopers 115-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine teams with either a five-speed-manual gearbox or a Steptronic CVT. The engine pumps out 110 pounds-feet of torque, which Mini claims is sufficient to accelerate the Cooper from zero to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds.
A supercharged Cooper S that uses a Getrag six-speed-manual transmission also went on sale in March 2002. The Cooper S engine is rated at 163 hp and 155 pounds-feet of torque, and it can accelerate the car from zero to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds.
The Cooper and Cooper S each contain six airbags, including BMWs Head Protection System. Dynamic Stability Control is standard, and these models use all-disc brakes.
Fun takes center stage with the new Mini. Tight, quick maneuverability is its No. 1 attribute. This little hatchback clings to the pavement as if it was magnetized. It can start to leap upward in hard turns at high speeds, but theres no sensation of losing straight-on momentum or relinquishing the tires grip on the road. Only a slight turn of the steering wheel just 2.5 turns lock-to lock produces substantial directional change, which is a big reason for the Minis intense delight quotient.
Ride quality is another story. All cars are compromises between ride and handling. When making a decision, BMW developers clearly leaned toward sportiness. The Mini can get pretty bouncy on uneven pavement. While delivering smile-inducing experiences otherwise, the ride comes closer, for example, to that of the Mazda MX-5 Miata than the Volkswagen New Beetle. The 15-inch tires yield a smoother ride than the 16-inch run-flat tires.
Enthusiasts are likely to adore the Minis cheery personality and tenacious talents by applauding its nimbleness and agility during every outing. Potential buyers who expect more docile, gentle motoring would be wise to try the Mini on a variety of road surfaces to make sure its comfort level is sufficient for longer journeys.
Defying its 115-hp capacity, the Coopers engine delivers plenty of zest, but response in the middle gears at low speeds occasionally falters. Only the most ardent enthusiasts need to consider the higher-powered Cooper S, whose impact is most noticeable at relatively high engine speeds. The Cooper S delivers its extra helping of vigor with no significant penalty in ride comfort.
The Coopers five-speed-manual transmission and clutch make a great team; the tall lever helps the driver zip through the gears without a moments hesitation. The Getrag six-speed in the Cooper S is even sweeter, and it makes you want to shift as often as possible. In a brief test drive, the CVT units performance seemed more hesitant than that of the stick-shift model, but it functioned as promised.
Despite very short bottoms, the sport seats are comfortable and supportive. The regular seats are more basic and just as comfortable, but they may not suit every driver. The backseat may look uninviting, but its actually quite comfortable with abundant headroom; it offers less space for the rear-seat occupants legs if the front seats are positioned rearward. The Coopers seat adjustors arent the easiest to operate, and some of the controls are idiosyncratic, but thats part of the Minis unique personality.
The huge speedometer in the middle of the dashboard is easy to read at a glance, and placing the tachometer atop the steering column seems appropriate in this car. The mirrors are a bit small, and the front seat has no grab handles.
Putting questions of ride comfort aside, consumers who savor a sensational driving experience at a low price should start looking for a dealer that is willing to sell one of these mighty little machines. Despite the cars small size, buyers are guaranteed to get a fully packed driving experience.