The new Mini has come a long way in America since Barnum & Bailey filled the 1960s British icon with 15 red-nosed passengers and a pack of small dogs in pink tutus.
Clowns don't drive these front-wheel drive coupes through three rings anymore. Instead, young hip urbanites or weekend racers or green-minded consumers fill Mini showrooms across America to get the chance to hop into the redesigned 2007 Mini Cooper and Cooper S.
The reasons: Cars are status, and the new Mini will raise your coolness factor tenfold. What other vehicle resembles a street legal go kart to whip around town and park where you want? Take one for a ride and feel the buzz the Mini creates on the road.
It may not have the trust-fund sophistication of a Jaguar XKR or the old-school power of a Corvette, but the new Mini's premium handling, well-tuned engine and distinctive looks are picture perfect for anyone who wants style to trump space.
The second-generation Mini continues its Cooper Cult status, in part because BMW, the automaker that brought Mini to America in 2001, improved the car without changing its looks.
It's as if the redesign team photocopied the car's previous design at 103 percent. Things are slightly bigger, mostly better, but always true to the Mini's roots. (And before the crazed owners of the original British Motors Corp. Minis write, know this: The new Mini is better than those right-hand drive relics.)
Even the Mini's flaws -- a bumpy ride and loud interior noise -- add to its character. It's not a car for everyone, which is just the way any Mini owner would want it. But it is a car that everyone is going to notice.
Starting at $18,700 for the Cooper and $21,850 for the Cooper S, the Mini is a scream to drive and the closest anyone will ever come to racing a bumble bee.
Mini is quick and nimble
My $26,000 Mini Cooper S test car gleefully buzzed along the streets of Detroit. Its wide track, short wheelbase and low center of gravity left me giggling around corners once I grew accustomed to its tight cornering ability and quick pickup.
The 1.6-liter turbocharged engine belts out 172 horses -- more than 100 horses per liter if you do the math -- and the car felt faster because of the 177-pound-feet of torque available between 1,600 and 5,000 rpms. That gives you maximum power through all of your gears and a 0-60 time in under seven seconds.
One drawback is the car's torque steer -- the pulling to the right during lead-foot startups. It's not noticeable on easier acceleration, but if you stomp the gas, just be ready to push the wheel a little to the left.
The Cooper S blasts off and the six-speed manual transmission clicks smoothly through every gear. A six-speed automatic is available for sissies and people who deal with city-type traffic.
The giddy acceleration tops off the driving experience. On city streets, its small stature becomes an advantage. Quick and nimble, the Cooper S cuts through traffic as easy as it parks.
Although it rides lower than most cars, visibility is very good. On the highway, the Mini drove well, with a sports-tuned suspension and electric-power assisted steering -- firm and accurate with good response and feedback. Plus, every lane seemed bigger than normal, which is nice during the annual summer construction season.
The Mini also boasts many safety devices, such as six airbags, electronic stability and traction control and even brake assistance that builds up brake pressure quickly in an emergency stop.
Interior is larger than expected
While small (an overall length of 146.2 inches, which is less than some extended cab pickups' wheelbase), the Mini feels large inside and distinctive.
The front seats are comfortable, especially with the concave cut in the door panel to leave room for your arm -- an ingenious way to create space. The second row, however, is cramped -- with nearly a foot difference in leg room between the rows (41.4 inches versus 29.9 inches).
Despite its size, the Mini can carry plenty of groceries with the second row seats folded. Even with the second row up, there's enough room for a couple of gym bags in the back seat.
Obviously, the Mini is not designed for families of six -- it's made for one or two people who occasionally have a friend to lug around. But it could serve anyone who wants a daily commuter with good gas mileage. The Cooper S gets 36 mile per gallon on the highway, and the regular Cooper gets 40 mpg, according to the EPA.
The interior design has a techno modern feel that's decidedly European with a Mandala theme. I had to look it up too: Mandala is Sanskrit for the word "circle" and the Mini's interior has more circles than a Twister board. From the giant center mounted speedometer to the speakers, vents, cup holders and door handles, this car as fewer right angles than a teepee.
Funky toggle switches instead of typical buttons and a small stereo face add to the car's charm. Some of the knobs, like the volume control for the stereo, feel cheap, but even that adds to its personality.
The center-mounted dash speedometer, which grew in size over the previous generation, keeps your eyes closer to the road than traditional speedos behind the steering wheel. You look across, not down when checking out your speed. I never realized how often I check my speed until I drove the Mini.
Accessories are nearly limitless
Outside, the Mini maintains its fun and distinctive looks. The car grew just over 2 inches during its redesign but kept it is wheels pushed out to the car's edges. The car's over/under sized proportions stayed the same and most of the changes are tough to pick out unless you do a side-by-side comparison.
The front end maintains its friendly face but the turn indicators are now encased in the headlamps. The window line after the door rises slightly more than the previous generations, and chrome accents are now on the door handles, gas cap and side fender vents.
With 10 million combinations available, the choices to accessorize and outfit the Mini are nearly limitless. Every one can have something different. Of course, by standing out and looking unique, each Mini starts to look the same. Iconoclastic behavior, a staple of Mini, creates conformity.
But don't let its carefree attitude and cute looks fool you. It's one extreme machine that is like nothing else out there.
2007 Mini Cooper and Cooper S
Type: Front-wheel drive premium compact Models: Cooper, Cooper S Retail price*: $18,700 -- $35,000 Engines:
1.6-liter: 118-hp, 114-ft-lbs
1.6-liter with turbo: 172-hp, 177-ft-lbs torque Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic transmission EPA mileage:
1.6-liter: 32 mpg city / 40 mpg highway
1.6-liter with turbo: 29 mpg city / 36 mpg highway Notes: The convertible models are currently built on the first generation architecture. Don't expect refreshed models until at least 2009. *Includes shipping Report card
Overall: *** 1/2 Performance: Good: Quick and agile. Bumpy ride and loud interior takes some getting used to. Exterior: Excellent: Pure Mini. Slight changes on exterior enhance its good looks. Interior: Good: Front is comfortable, back is a tight squeeze. Tech-heavy design may persuade people to look elsewhere. Safety: Excellent: Six airbags and well-equipped tech package makes Mini safe to drive. Pros: Distinctive and dramatic. An absolute hoot to tear up city streets. Cons: Smaller stature and size could shun some buyers. Grading Scale Excellent: **** Good: *** Fair: ** Poor: *