The new Mini, which is just starting to become visible in New Zealand roads, is likely to become the automotive fashion statement of 2002.
The first customers are taking delivery of the $37,900 charmer this month. We were lucky enough to get a chance to sample the car recently. I'm not going to try to kid you that I've driven the car far, and I certainly haven't driven it in anger. But I did drive it enough to gain some very real impressions. The British have already taken the new Mini to heart, even though it's made by a German manufacturer.
And BMW NZ says it's shown the Mini to Mini Car Clubs in this country and it's received an overwhelming vote of approval. After our short time with the car - a mini-drive if you will - we can understand why. I've run three Minis in the past - a 1000 and two Clubman models. They had their good - and their bad - points.
Among the good were the nippy handling, the staggering amount of interior space for the size of the car.
Among the bad were the 1000's penchant for getting water in the distributor and requiring roadside drying so the disable car could get started again (curiously I drove a Clubman through a quite deep flood without it cutting out), and the somewhat bang/crash ride.
Overall, Minis were great fun but not long on refinement. Now the new Mini, a much bigger car than its predecessor, is quite a refined vehicle.
There's still plenty of sparkle in the exhaust note, but the mechanical package is refined and smooth. The clutch is light and takes up perfectly and without the juddering that could accompany old Mini clutches. The gearshift is precise and pleasant to use. There's no whine from the gearbox or clatter at idle. You sit low and the steering wheel is set high and at a conventional angle, unlike the original Mini's bus-like steering angle.
The seating position is excellent and gives you a good feel for the chassis. Roadholding is very good and the steering razor-sharp. The car turns-in to corners with alacrity and more directly than most front-wheel drive cars we can recall. British testers have noted the car's almost neutral balance: we didn't drive it enough to confirm that, but the car certainly felt very good.
Ride is firmish, but not harsh. Overall, the designers have managed to capture the essence of the old Mini, both in the way it looks and in its general feel and behaviour, and wrapped it up in a completely contemporary package.
On first acquaintance it's a very impressive achievement.
AutoPoint road test team.