D. John Booth, Contributor
Michael Caine used one to escape the authorities in The Italian Job. It was the original econocar and the first with a front-mounted transverse four-cylinder engine mated to front-wheel drive (the format of virtually all current subcompacts). It also won three Monte Carlo rallies and would have won a fourth had it not been disqualified on a technicality. It's the most ubiquitous of British motorcars. It's the Mini.
It's also coming back to the United States.
Yet, unlike Volkswagen with its New Beetle, BMW (owner of the Mini brand and producer of the 2002 Cooper) doesn't seem to be cranking up the nostalgia machine, no doubt because the original hasn't been sold here since the early 1960s. The company will be happy if prospective customers simply remember the name and the car's general shape.
The new car certainly is faithful to that familiar silhouette. Oh, it's bigger and a whole bunch more streamlined, but it can't be mistaken for anything other than a Mini. There's the white roof (also available in black or painted the same color as the body), the cute little headlights (now flush-mounted into the fender) and that truncated rear roofline with the wheels at the very edges of the body. Even the front grille faithfully mimics the original.
So, BMW managed to make the new Mini look like the old one, but did it sacrifice the rest of its heritage the way VW did when it morphed the Beetle from a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive, air-cooled runabout into a front-engine, front-wheel-drive, water-cooled Golf in drag? Thankfully, for the purists, the new Mini remains true to its roots.
Gone, however, is the original's 850cc engine (which grew to 1,275cc over the years), replaced by a 1,598cc (1.6-liter) 16-valve four built jointly by BMW and Chrysler in Brazil. Those worried that Chrysler's involvement might lead to the lack of sophistication that bedevils the Neon needn't worry. The new engine is quite smooth and even if it isn't as eerily silent as a BMW inline six, it's not as raspy as most small fours.
It does, however, only put out 115 horsepower, and most of those ponies don't make themselves known until the tach needle swings past 4,000 rpm. Below that mark, the powerplant is a little lethargic. Row the five-speed manual gearbox with gusto and performance is sprightly, but try lugging the engine past a long truck at 3,000 rpm in a higher gear and acceleration is leisurely at best. Those who like to involve themselves with every aspect of driving will enjoy the constant shifting. Those looking for basic transportation, with a heaping dose of trendiness, will want more displacement and torque.
That will no doubt be available when the Cooper S version of the Mini arrives (both cars are due in the States this March). Powered by a bored-out version of the Cooper's engine that measures 1.8 liters of cylinder volume, the S adds a supercharger that boosts power to 163 horses, along with an attendant increase in torque. That's good enough to reduce the base Cooper's estimated 9.1-second 0-to-60 time to a more pleasing 7.5 seconds.
There's another powertrain feature that may, or may not, appeal to Americans (that waffling is because we weren't able to test the Mini in its final production spec). A continuously variable transmission (CVT) will be available to those who can't stir their own gears.
Unlike conventional automatics, which contain a set of traditional gears, a CVT has no toothed cogs, clutch plates or torque converter. Instead, a steel belt and a pair of variable, tapered pulleys provide variable transmission ratios. Instead of the engine constantly changing speed, and the gear ratio remaining constant, the CVT keeps the engine speed constant, and the transmission's gear ratio constantly changes to alter speed and acceleration.
Snick the Mini CVT into drive, and the little car eases eerily away with no shifting of gears, the tach hovering continuously around 2,500 rpm. Mat the throttle in "D" and the engine revs rise to about 5,000 rpm and then stay there, without the through-the-gears sensation of rpm increasing as the speeds increase. There's also a Sport mode that keeps the engine hovering closer to the 6,000-rpm mark.
Keeping the engine revs constant is the source of the CVT's efficiency. By keeping the engine at the speeds where it makes its power in the Mini's case between its 4,500 rpm torque peak and the 6,000 rpm power peak the CVT makes the most of the 1.6-liter engine's modest performance.
What a CVT doesn't do is give the driver normal feedback, making increasing amounts of engine noise like most cars do as they rev through the gears. It takes some getting used to, but the CVT does give the Mini a sporting edge over normal automatics because it's always at the ready with maximum power.
However, it seems that this characteristic of the CVT has disconcerted some American drivers. According to BMW, folks on this side of the Atlantic prefer the traditional feel of a transmission shifting through the gears. So, while Europe gets the benefit of a true CVT transmission, the United States is slated to get a modified version in which six "gears" have been artificially programmed into its computer controller, eliminating much of the benefit of the CVT design.
No such vagaries plague the Mini's handling, however. The little Brit borrows the sophisticated multilink independent rear suspension from the current BMW 3 Series and gets a MacPherson strut arrangement up front. All four corners are suspended quite firmly and like the original, the new Mini is glued to corners while exhibiting very little body roll.
Unlike the original, the Mini has firm rack-and-pinion steering, like that of its Bavarian parent's fine touring sedans. Even cruising at speed, there's no wandering or darting, and off center, the Mini exhibits immediate responsiveness. Mini's steering is electrically powered, a feature BMW claims draws less power from the engine.
One might expect that such a short car (142.8 inches in overall length) with such a firm suspension would have an unforgiving ride with plenty of fore and aft pitching. While it's true that the Mini will never be mistaken for a Cadillac, or even a BMW, the ride isn't nearly as harsh as expected. That's because the wheels have been pushed as close to the corners of the car as possible, resulting in a relatively long 97.1-inch wheelbase and a wide track (57.4 inches front/57.7 inches rear). It's worth noting that while the standard Mini comes with 175/65R15 tires, there are 16- and 17-inch wheel and tire options. The standard items have plenty of grip for all but the most demanding drivers, but the larger varieties have the advantage of being equipped with run-flat tires.
BMW must have studied the interior details of earlier Minis closely, so well does its cabin flavor mimic the original. A prime example is the row of toggle-style switches that control the windows, door locks and lights. Once upon a time, before bureaucrats got involved in auto design, all sports cars used such toggles.
Other highlights include the steering column-mounted tachometer and the speedometer located above the audio system in the center of the dashboard. Some may complain about this location because it's out of the line of sight, but the darn thing is so big, it's impossible to ignore. And like the original, the doors are huge, something that's going to allow those nostalgic 40- and 50-somethings easy access to the low-mounted front seats, despite their creaky knees.
Obviously, 50 years of development have brought some advantages. For one, the rear seat is much more accommodating, offering excellent comfort and decent head- and elbow room. Not surprisingly, rear legroom is at a premium. If the front seats are placed as far back in their track as they will travel, they rest almost flush with the rear seat bottom. But there's a reasonable amount of cargo space behind the rear seats, with the deep well able to swallow more than a weekend's worth of gear. Of course, if you use the Mini as BMW envisions as a getaway vehicle for two romantics the rear seats fold down and there's plenty of room for larger suitcases and the like.
Unfortunately, there are a number of detail flaws inside the Mini. For instance, the gear indicator is a tiny LED on the speedometer that's virtually invisible. The audio system's volume control is tiny, reminiscent of the miniscule knobs that used to plague Suzuki products. And the standard audio system itself isn't any great shakes, either, a surprise considering the premium pricing the Mini will command compared with other subcompacts.
A basic Mini Cooper will cost about $18,000 and something less than $21,000 should land you the supercharged Cooper S. Because the Mini is still several months away from being sold in North America, specs haven't been completely finalized, though all models will get six airbags (front, side and head airbags) as well as a single CD player. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake distribution (EBD) will come standard, and a Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system is expected on the options list. A stiffer sport suspension is also planned (good to match with the optional upgraded wheels and tires), not to mention a premium Harman Kardon audio system, a six-disc CD changer, sport seats and a navigation system.
Final interior trim hadn't been decided upon at the time of our first opportunity to drive the Mini, but the two-tone leather of our test cars was quite attractive and matched well with the exterior colors. Two levels of air conditioning systems were demonstrated; a base version and a higher-tech automatic climate control system. It's also worth noting that along with the supercharger, the Cooper S model gets standard 16-inch wheels and a six-speed, instead of a five-speed, manual transmission.
Add in all the options, and it's likely that a top-of-the-line Mini Cooper S will retail for close to $30,000. That's a far cry from the original Mini's mandate and in the sole purview of the wealthy over-40 crowd. Which means that Oscar-winner Michael Caine, provided he can get a slot on a dealer's waiting list, shouldn't have any trouble affording one.
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