LONDON — Nearly 42 years ago, Alec Issigonis's Mini redefined small cars. The new, reincarnated Mini model may not inspire generations of imitators, but neither is it just another small car.
This isAG's Mini, a German-conceived and developed baby that's packed with contemporary technology and far from the simplicity (sliding windows, wire door handles, push-button starter) and packaging miracle of the primitive original.
Yet,seriously wants the public to believe this is the car Mr. Issigonis, were he alive, would have designed in the late 20th century as a successor.
As custodians of the legend, BMW has built a small car that's closer in character to its own products, despite being the automaker's first front-wheel-drive model. The new Mini — styled by an American, engine designed in Detroit and built in Brazil, transmission fromPeugeot Citroen, and the whole international jigsaw puzzle assembled in Britain — still looks like a Mini.
Essentially, the new Mini is like the original because it is one of those rare cars that can't easily be labeled. BMW, which chose to keep the Mini when it sold Rover and Land Rover, claims it will make money on the new generation and plans a full range of models next time around, with a 4-seat cabriolet being the most likely alternate body style, due out in 2004.
The new Mini looks tough, squat, broad shouldered and, ultimately, hugely desirable. The proportions push the wheels out to the corners, one Mr. Issigonis trait that rightly has been carried over. And though that upright windscreen helps shove the drag co-efficient out to an unimpressive 0.35, it creates a distinctive two-box shape that's in complete contrast to any other modern small car.
And it is small. Despite being more than 19 ins. (0.5 m) longer and 9.8 ins. (250 mm) wider than the original, the new Mini still is only 142.75 ins. (3,626 mm) long, or barely more than a Daewoo Matiz.
Yet the wheelbase stretches to 92.2 ins. (2,467 mm), which, given the tiny rear overhang, helps explain its tiny trunk. A tailgate and folding rear seats increase its versatility. BMW's packaging engineers also have given over plenty of space to the cabin to ensure the Mini has a superb driving position as well as plenty of room for the average driver.
Reminders of the original come in the near vertical A-pillars and wraparound windscreen (though it's set much further forward), nearly vertical side windows, the view across the top of the rounded front fender and a massive central speedometer.
The more upscale Cooper version also gets a circular tachometer, mounted to the steering column immediately behind the tilt-adjustable steering wheel, and wheel-mounted controls for stereo and the optional satellite navigation system.
Excellent, low-slung, height-adjustable bucket seats, beautiful detailing and the obviously high overall quality make the Mini's interior a very special place, as tactile and distinctive as an Audi TT. Not so remarkable are the clumsy seat back adjustment (set to be changed, according to BMW) and the lack of rear leg room behind the driver. BMW is realistic about the available space and only fits two three-point belts in the rear.
The quality perception of the Mini extends to the whirr of the starter motor and, initially, the engine's purposeful burble. Led by the meaty steering, the controls feel heavy, solid, thoroughly engineered and very “BMW.” Wide tracks, long wheelbase and low center of gravity instantly impart a squat, tied-down feeling that suggests the Mini is going to be great fun to drive. Quick steering and a tight turning circle create an impression of agility, while a supple ride ensures comfort.
But the electro-hydraulic power steering is too heavy at low speeds to impart the go-kart handling that BMW set out to achieve. On the other hand, the steering filters out all unnecessary kickback while eliminating any trace of torque steer.
If only the engine expressed the same verve. The DaimlerChrysler-developed/BMW tuned “Pentagon” 114-hp engine becomes unpleasant over the last one-third of its rev range. Below 4,500 rpm, where the torque peak of 110 ft.-lbs. (149 Nm) is developed, it's smooth — if slightly uneven — in its responses on a light throttle, yet without ever delivering the energy somehow implicit in the rest of the car.
The engine needs to be revved to deliver anything approaching sparkling performance. Blame class-leading passive safety, a structure that's obviously very stiff and the complex multilink rear suspension from the 3-series for the average performance. It all adds up, with the Mini topping the scales at 2,315 lbs. (1,050 kg). The fact remains, this engine doesn't make a positive contribution to the driving experience. The Mini deserves better.
Exactly a year from now, the 164-hp Cooper S promises to correct the vaguely lackluster performance of the regular Cooper. Ansupercharger is responsible for a near 50% power increase that insiders claim slashes the 0 to 62 mph (100 km/h) time by 1.5 seconds to 7.5 seconds, and leaves the top speed on the high side of 138 mph (220 km/h), up over 12.5 mph (20km/h) on the Cooper. The engineers also are keen to give the S a more sporting exhaust note and induction sound.
As a highway cruiser, the Mini surpasses any car of comparable size. The ride quality, brilliant body control, low-wind noise, and a relaxed gait at 3,500 to 4,000 rpm make this very grown-up, mature Mini a terrific long-distance companion.
The base Mini, called Mini One by BMW and powered by a detuned 88-hp version of the same 1.6L engine as the Cooper, isn't expected to be sold in the U.S. when the Mini arrives early next year at around $20,000.
BMW's Mini isn't the revolution of the original, but neither does it sit aimlessly as yet another supermini hatchback. No other small car is built with the same loving, expensively crafted care. Like the Audi TT, it doesn't have the engine it deserves, yet, in other respects, it is a quality statement without peer.
The new Mini is far more than just a fashion statement. This is a serious, thoroughly developed, mostly satisfying and often-convincing re-creation of an icon. There is nothing like it — and on those grounds alone it deserves to succeed.