Tuesday, July 9, 2013

MINI Cooper - For the Pure Fun of Driving

Today, I found myself driving behind a tiny black hatchback with the license plate, "REAL MNI." Yes, it was a tiny original Mini, with left-hand drive. It could have been 50 years old or 15, but it was not one of the new MINIs, which debuted in the U.S. for the 2002 model year, and which I have loved since their arrival.

The MINI experience, even in the new, larger, owned-by-BMW form, is about fun. But it's also about practicality and economy. The original cars really were tiny but today's car can fit four adults comfortably, carry an upright bass (if you leave two of those adults at home). I loaded in a week's worth of groceries with no trouble. And, with its 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine, it gives top fuel economy numbers.

I recently got my hands on a Chili Red MINI Cooper Hardtop. It's the familiar shape that has become a driver's dream in America. I think that Chili Red was available on the 2002, but I'm not sure. In any case, the MINI line has grown over the years, to include first a convertible, then the Clubman wagon, then the Countryman larger five-door (with four-wheel drive available). Then, we got a pair of cute two-seaters--a coupe and a roadster. Now, the Paceman, a beautiful, three-door hatchback version of the Countryman, has just arrived.

That means it's time for the Hardtop that started it all to get a redesign. The current model looks a lot like the original "new" MINI of 2002, but hasn't seen any significant changes for at least six years. It seems like a perfect time, then, to savor a 2013.

The shape is still perfect, with big, round "eyes" up front. As before, the headlights themselves are only a small part of that clear plastic oval. The traditional MINI grille makes the face spunky and ready for action. The windshield sits more upright than in any car sold today, and that means a lot of air between your head and the glass--making the small interior feel larger.

That upright window up front also means that normal sunvisors would be virtually worthless, so MINI gives the driver his or her own side visor, which folds down separately or in combination with the front visor to effectively block rays. The front passenger, without motoring responsibilities, gets a folding hand grip instead.

The interior, redone several years ago, features a large central speedometer, harking back to the original Mini, which used central instrumentation to keep assembly of a car meant for drivers on both sides of the road simple. The interior has been called cartoony and is not the absolutely most practical ever devised, but it is fun to look at and everything does work fine. The audio sits within the large central circle, and the buttons are a bit small to find while at speed, although there are some redundant buttons on the steering wheel. I like the sets of toggle switches, on the dash and on the ceiling, that, to stay legal, have loops of metal next to them protecting the unwary from injuring themselves.

Front and center in front of the driver is a tachometer, which in its center has a digital speed readout, so there's no excuse for speeding (except that it's just plain fun to do it). The three-spoke leather-wrapped wheel is a fine thing to grab while zipping along the scenic backroads that seem to make MINIs come to life. There is also a Sport button on the console, which, thanks to electronics, alters the steering and throttle for quicker reflexes when you need them.

Regarding speeding, it's less of a problem with the Cooper's standard 1.6-liter,121-horsepower inline four than it is with the turbocharged engine in the Cooper S. That model, with its 181 horsepower, is much quicker off the line, but in all honesty, the 121 horsepower, especially through the Getrag manual six-speed, with the big chrome ball shift knob, is fun to work through its paces, and delivers slightly better fuel economy (and costs less, too).

The EPA rates the MINI Cooper Hardtop with the standard 1.6-liter four at 32 Combined (29 City, 37 Highway). I got 32.5. The turbocharged Cooper S loses 2-3 miles per gallon for its extra achievement.

My tester was really pretty basic. The interior was mostly black, but didn't feel plain. I remember earlier cars had more silvery plastic trim. The standard car starts at $19,700 these days, plus $700 delivery charges. My tester had only the Sport Package on top of that, which  at $1,250, contributes 16-inch alloy wheels, sport seats, a rear spoiler, and dynamic traction control, which uses more of those electronics to keep you safe while you're rat racing. Bottom line? $21,650.

However, that includes a ton of standard features, including a decent CD audio system with Bluetooth and a USB port, remote keyless entry, power windows with one-touch down and up, and there's even  a three-year, 36,000-mile $0 Maintenance Program. Yep, no charge for oil service, belts, inspections, wiper blades, and brake disks, pads or fluid.

This 2013 MINI did not disappoint. It just feels good to step into a MINI. It feels close, but not claustrophobic. It feels like a party. And from the moment you slide in the flying-saucer key and push the start button, it's game on. The sound is sporty without being showy, the steering delivers plenty of feel (thanks to its BMW ancestry) and that shifter delivers the goods. I like being seen in a MINI because it feels like home.

There are other small cars out there. Some of them are even hatchbacks now, but the MINI experience is simply different and unique.The Coopers are built in Oxford, United Kingdom, so they are British, but they have a French Engine and a German transmission for an international flavor. It's the taste of European fun, on a budget.

You can customize your MINI Cooper in countless ways well  beyond model and color. There are different seat designs, wheel styles, door panels, trim patterns, and some of the choices are not just add-ons--they're alternatives. Have as much or as little as you want. And you can do all this choosing at MINI's amusing and informative website.

It's easy to feel good driving a MINI for environmental reasons. It gets a solid 8 out of 10 for Greenhouse Gas and a decent 5 for the Smog score. It's not as clean as a hybrid, but it doesn't drive like one, either. MINI fans all over the world know exactly what that means.

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