2003 MINI Cooper
My friend Dana described the teal-with-black-roof-vehicle succinctly, ''If it were a cheek, you'd want to pinch it.''
The object of affection was the new Mini Cooper, the latest automotive flavor of the week, whose legend and asking price are being driven up by those who deem the latest, greatest set of wheels more of a priority than how a vehicle drives.
Even if you don't have a propensity for keeping up with the Joneses, the Mini is a maxi when it comes to pleasure.
Like other recent retro revivals such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Thunderbird and Volkswagen New Beetle, smiles greet you around every corner. People who ordinarily show no interest in cars pepper you with questions. It's pure love at first sight.
The Mini Cooper comes in regular and performance-oriented S versions.
Although larger than the original Mini, the Mini Cooper is still small by American standards, measuring 22 inches shorter than a Volkswagen Golf. But the Mini is just 247 pounds lighter than the Golf, despite the shorter length.
The Mini wears its size well, with a retro style that's as endearing as a newborn puppy.
With its chrome grille, large round headlamps and sleek door handles, this little hatchback's deco design inspires good will wherever it goes. Customizing your Mini is easy: the roof is available six ways: body color, black, white, checkerboard, Union Jack or American flag.
That delightful deco design continues inside.
True to Mini tradition, there's a starter button and a large center-mounted speedometer. In front of the driver is a column-mounted tach. A round cue ball tops the transmission shifter. Toggle switches operate the power windows, locks and stability control.
While the name Cooper used to designate a performance Mini, now all Minis are called Coopers, with the performance version called the S. Both trim levels use a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine developed by BMW and Chrysler. In the base car, it's rated at 115 horsepower, and comes with a 5-speed manual. A continuously-variable-automatic transmission is available as a $1,250 option. The S gets a supercharged 163-horsepower version of the same motor with a six-speed manual.
The fine folks at BMW supplied a base car with a five-speed manual for testing.
While not a fire-breather off the line, there's sufficient power. Steering is very quick; brakes are strong and progressive in feel. The shifter has short, quick throws, although the clutch travel seemed long.
Handling has a go-cart-like agility, and the vehicle sticks to the road with a surprisingly neutral feel, despite being a front-driver. Suspension is independent. The car's 97-inch wheelbase and overall small size means it will transmit a fair share of information regarding the deteriorated state of Pennsylvania roads. But it's more than tolerable.
Part of the handling issue is helped by a slew of electronic aids, including Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), which helps you avoid skidding off the road and making this Mini even more compact. It's also helped by anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake distribution (EBD), which distributes braking force evenly front to back and corner brake control (CBC), which does the same thing but side-to-side). Along with six airbags, there's enough here to not only make you a better driver, but also make you feel safe.
The interior feels bigger than the vehicle's size suggests. There was plenty of room for my 6-foot, 2-inch frame, as well as my editor's 5-foot, 7-inch frame. Either height was easily accommodated and comfortable. Head and leg room in the supportive front bucket seats are exceptional for the size of the car. Rear seat room is best left for those not yet of legal age.
The automatic climate control and radio worked well and were easy to use.
Cargo space is good for a few grocery bags, but improves immensely with the seats folded.
Base price for the Mini Cooper is $16,300, while the Cooper S is $19,300.
Option packages include a $500 cold-weather package
(heated windshield, heated front seats, heated washer jets, and heated outside mirrors), a $1,250 sports package (dynamic stability control, rear spoiler, 16-inch wheels, sport seats, and fog lamps), and a $1,250 premium package (multi-function steering wheel, front and rear sunroofs, and onboard computer).
Even sporting some of those goodies, it's easy to escape under 20 grand for a base car.
While there are only 63 dealers nationwide, BMW is planning no more than 70 dealers total. Currently, there are no plans for an official Mini dealer in the Lehigh Valley.
But it may be worth hunting down a Mini.
After all, few cars offer an attractive mix of cuddly looks and sharp handling in such a distinctive package. This new Mini has the moxie to fulfill this little car's legendary, if cheeky, status.
Cars.com Expert Reviews
|Jim Flammang||Cars.com National||May 7, 2003|
|Larry Printz||The Morning Call and Mcall.com||October 6, 2002|
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