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Mini Cooper


First, a confession: I was never a great fan of the original Mini.

I know that my being underwhelmed by the natty little two-door flies in the face of the popular theory that it was one of the greatest cars of all time.

I can hear the jeers and hoots from Brits who found it equally risible that Henry Ford's Model T and not the Mini was judged the Car of the 20th Century.

It's not that I don't acknowledge the Mini's important place in automotive history, its kick-starting of the transverse-engined, front-wheel drive revolution.

Nor do I deny the car's superb packaging. What other car of its size could - with the judicious stuffing of sofa cushions into the big side-mounted storage bins - carry three adults on the back seat in fair if not great comfort (this, of course, was in the days before rear seat passengers were required to wear seatbelts).

Nor do I deny the original Mini its zippy handling or perky performance. And nor do I lack experience of Minis. I've run three as company cars, and even once flirted with buying one new till I opted to fork out the extra $700 and get a Ford Escort 1300.

It was the seats that made me stay away from the Mini that time (I figured I'd have to replace the shapeless standard items with costly aftermarket ones).

It was later that I learned such Mini driver "joys" as standing in pouring rain on the motorway drying the distributor after the motor conked out. NZ Motor Corporation sold a numbered part as a fix for that - a section of motorcycle inner tube you slid over the distributor to cover the gap between body and cap.

No, the Mini could be fun to drive, but it was also rather crude, basic and screaming out for update and development.

It got some of that development - most of it cosmetic - late in life with the final Rover Minis, but a $30,000 pricetag seemed astronomical for a 40-year-old design.

No, I could never write - as a colleague has done - that the original Mini is the most wonderful car ever made.

Ask me about the new one, though, the one made by BMW and which went on sale here in February, and you'll find me searching for superlatives.

It's possibly the best front-wheel drive car I've ever steered, and BMW's designers have made a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the original Mini and reinterpreting it as an up-to-the-minute motor car.

It's a significantly-bigger car than the old Mini, but BMW has retained the wheel-at-each-corner look.

And its overall lines (though it's a three-door hatchback rather than a booted two-door) and stance recall the old car.

In sum, it looks like a Mini.

And it feels like a Mini when you step into the cabin and settle into the nicely-shaped front bucket seats - upholstered in optional leather in the test Mini Cooper.

You sit low, hugging the floor. The perfectly-sized steering wheel is mounted near-vertically. There's none of the bus-like angle of the original's steering wheel.

The view ahead also brings to mind the old Mini, with the base of the upright windscreen a fair old stretch in front.

The dashboard is dominated - and I mean dominated - by the biggest speedometer I've seen in a modern car. It's centrally-mounted, as pre-Clubman Mini speedometers always were, and its presence is so commanding that excuses like "I didn't know what speed I was really doing, officer" will meet with even more incredulity.

BMW's designers have fallen short in a couple of key areas, though.

The door handle and door interior panel styling is controversial. The test car's was finished in silver. It's chunky and funky and industrial-looking. We grew not to notice it, but some people hated it.

The cockpit abounds with safety gear (see specifications page) and is a light, airy, chic yet functional space.

Front seat legroom is good and the low seating position ensures plenty of headroom.

But the rear cabin is nowhere near as practical as the old car's. With the front seats even moderately back on their runners, rear seat legroom is ultra-tight. With the front seats pushed back to their limits there's virtually no rear cabin leg space. Children's seats can be fitted there and small children would probably have enough legroom, but the rear seat seems destined to be used as extra cargo space by most owners.

And that extra cargo/luggage will be useful. The new Mini's boot is as mini as the original car's.

There were other echoes of old Minis - rattles, though they came from the unique-to-the-new-Mini hatchback door.

In most respects the new Mini is quite a refined car. 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, and there's no whine from the gearbox or clatter at idle.

Our only complaint about the gearshift was a tendency to baulk going into fifth.

The low seating position is excellent and gives you a good feel for the chassis.

The steering is razor-sharp. The car turns-in to corners instantly and more directly than we can recall any front-wheel drive car doing.

Turn the steering wheel even a fraction and the car responds immediately and eagerly. I haven't driven a car on which such little steering wheel movement is needed since my old Austin Healey bugeye Sprite.

In the Mini you initially find yourself using too much lock, too much force. This is a car for fingertip control. Even a right-angled corner requires only minimal turning of the wheel.

Pushed into a corner the quite firmly-riding Mini goes exactly where you want it to, something that initially catches you by surprise.

Nail the throttle on the way out of the bend and the Mini continues to hold its tight line. There's no sledging of the front end, no matter how tight the corner or how apparently optimistic the speed is.

The car stays tight into the corner and never shows even a hint of running wide and dropping an outside wheel into the gravel.

British testers have noted an almost neutral balance. We can understand what they mean.

On a piece of road on which directions change frequently, the Mini is in its element.

It makes direction changes instantly, its attitude remains flat.

The balance, poise and sheer grip are so great that on that type of relatively low-speed road the brake pedal becomes virtually redundant - or certainly little-used. Fire it into a corner and the Mini rounds it totally without fuss and with no sensation of understeer.

BMW has said that it will retain rear-wheel drive for its own badged cars, even the forthcoming 1-Series.

The Mini is its first front-wheel drive production car and the designers have got it right first time. We've never driven a sharper-handling front-driver.

Manufacturers of bigger front-wheel drive cars can be thankful BMW is staying with RWD.

The designers have captured 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.

It's a very impressive achievement.

However, we've encountered some scepticism about price. Some people find $37,900 outrageous for a Mini. I guess it would be if we were talking about the old Mini, but we're not.

This is a thoroughly-modern take on a car that set standards for roadholding, handling and packaging in its heyday.

The new Mini delivers in spades on the first two but falls down on the third. It adds far greater refinement to the mix, with more precise gearshift, lower noise levels and more creature comforts.

Calling it a fashion statement sells it short. This is no mere pretty face or exercise in high-chic style.

It's a highly-competent car with adequate if not startling performance from its 85kW 1600cc motor, stunning road manners and unbeatable driving appeal.

I see it as a two-seater sports coupe with real handling finesse and possibly the best front-drive chassis we've ever encountered. It's a masterpiece - with one or two flaws maybe - but a masterpiece nonetheless.

AutoPoint road test team. Words by Mike Stock. Photos by Mike Stock and Elan Phillips.

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