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Feature: A Mini Splendid Thing

Fluto Shinzawa

Like many owners of this car, Frank Eimont didn’t take a test-drive before purchasing it. In fact, he had not even seen one of these models in person; he had only read about it in auto magazines and on online message boards. Still, a year before its release, Eimont placed a deposit, then waited, seemingly forever, while he made do with his BMW. Now, Eimont, a 34-year-old technology wizard, is reaping the rewards of his patience and his foresight, because the vehicle has transformed his 100-mile round-trip commute on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway into an eagerly anticipated daily adventure. He weaves through the parkway traffic, tucking into tight openings in the passing lanes and accelerating past slower cars. Instead of curses and obscene gestures, Eimont is showered with friendly waves, smiles, thumbs-ups, and approving honks of the horn from other drivers. “It’s a dynamite hit,” he says.

Eimont’s tale would be a typical one for someone purchasing a quarter-million-dollar, 500-plus-hp beast from Sant’Agata Bolognese. But Eimont’s car resembles a bulldog more than a Lambo bull, has just 163 horses under its snub-nosed hood, and costs about the same as a first-class vacation to Italy. Eimont drives a 2002 Mini Cooper S, a vehicle that carries a price tag of less than $20,000 (the 115-hp base model costs less than $17,000) but transcends any classification as an economy car. Like a six-figure exotic, the Mini Cooper is a car that speaks to the driver’s sense of individualism as well as his recognition of fine styling and design.

 

Gavan Fitzsimmons, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, compares the Mini Cooper to Macintosh’s iMac: a uniquely stylish machine that delivers exceptional performance. Mini Cooper owners are individualists, he says. “They’re looking to make a statement with what they drive.” Geoff Wardle, a professor of transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., concurs. “Minis will be bought by people who want to say something about themselves. They want something that shows they appreciate design.”

Until now, the Mini Cooper had not been available in the United States since 1967, by which time it had become firmly established as a pop culture icon in its native Great Britain, the car of choice for the hippest, most happening celebrities (the Beatles, Twiggy, Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers). If its heritage has created a stateside cachet for the new Mini Cooper, however, it is appreciated only by America’s true car cognoscenti, at least according to BMW, which now owns the brand. The German automaker conducted a survey prior to releasing the new Mini Cooper and found that only 2 percent of American drivers were familiar with the original car and its place in automotive history.

The car, first introduced in 1959 as the Morris Mini Minor, was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis in response to a fuel crisis and gas rationing that followed Egypt’s nationalizing of the Suez Canal three years earlier. It was economical (a four-seater weighing just 1,300 pounds with a 35-hp engine), evolutionary (front-wheel drive and a sideways-mounted engine), but aesthetically, with its boxy 10-by-4-foot frame and tiny wheels placed under the car’s four corners, not particularly appealing to the masses. Sales were sluggish until the pop stars began driving the Mini in the mid-’60s, then its popularity soared. “Once [celebrities] were seen driving Minis around, it became okay and cool for people to drive a Mini,” says Wardle.

By then, the Mini Cooper had been renamed for racecar builder John Cooper, who, in 1961, tweaked the engine to increase its power and added disc brakes. The Mini Cooper eventually became the most popular car in British history, with sales of 5.4 million from 1959 through 2000, but it never caught on in the United States. In fact, stricter American safety and emissions regulations and the increasing popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle drove the Mini out of the U.S. market in 1967 after only 10,000 had been sold.


However, pockets of American Mini enthusiasts remained loyal to their cars, keeping them in working condition, racing them in regional rallies, and sharing their passion for the Mini with younger generations. Eimont’s father was one of those Mini fans, praising the little car until he convinced his son to buy one. Eimont found a 1965 Mini with 80,000 miles in the classifieds of an automotive magazine, purchased the car, and drove it for three years before selling it once it hit 140,000 miles. As with some of today’s other Mini Cooper owners, Eimont’s memories of the old model helped convince him to get in line early for the new version. “There are quite a lot of people who grew up with the Mini,” says James Ogilvy, publisher of Luxury Briefing, a United Kingdom–based publication covering the luxury goods industry. “This is a very nice way to revisit the past. It’s like the Jaguar XJ8 acting as a reference to the E-Type you saw as a boy. The Mini has a lot of positive imagery.”

But as Fitzsimmons suggests with his iMac comparison and Wardle notes with his comment about the car being an indication of one’s appreciation for design, nostalgia alone does not account for the buzz surrounding the Mini Cooper—and the hype also has to be related to more than just a clever marketing campaign that has included billboards and a centerfold ad in Playboy magazine. Prospective buyers, including drivers as discerning as Eimont, have waited several hours for an opportunity to test-drive the car before placing their names on months-long waiting lists to purchase it. Indeed, shortly after the Mini’s U.S. release in March, BMW, which expects to sell 20,000 Mini Coopers in the U.S. this year, announced that it would increase production by 15 percent to 20 percent. “While we had great expectations for it, our expectations have been exceeded,” says Denise Wood, president of Princeton Mini, a New Jersey dealership.


The Mini Cooper is becoming the car of choice (that is, the second or third car of choice in many cases) of people who know and love cars. Wood cites an anesthesiologist whose primary car was a BMW 750iL. However, since she took delivery of her Mini Cooper, the sedan has been parked in her garage. Wood tells of another driver who recently pulled into her dealership in a Rolls-Royce and purchased a Mini Cooper. The car’s appeal to the luxury consumer is not limited to the United States. “All around London, you find people who own a Range Rover or a Mercedes S-Class buying a Mini Cooper as well,” says Luxury Briefing’s Ogilvy.

Wardle credits much of the Mini’s popularity among luxury car owners to its driving capabilities. Most of today’s drivers, he says, regard their cars as utilitarian home-to-office transports. “BMW made sure that the car drives like a Go-Kart as the original Mini did, except with a much greater degree of sophistication,” notes Wardle. “The Mini is clearly a driver’s car.”

Steer the Mini Cooper S into curves, and the 17-inch wheels hug the pavement and propel the car through the turns, making it just as speedy as a 3.2-liter, 333-hp M3, a preferred vehicle for driving enthusiasts. Turn the wheel hard, and even on slick, gravelly lanes, the Mini remains stiff and stable. In fifth gear, the Mini eases past traffic at 75 mph, its 1.6-liter engine refusing to whine with the tinniness that characterizes other small vehicles. On chewed-up pavement, however, the ride is bumpy. In second gear, especially when it’s aimed uphill, the Mini Cooper requires a stomp on the accelerator to rev it up to speed. On highways, trailers and SUVs hulk over its 55-inch-tall frame.


Despite its shortcomings, which also include a backseat devoid of any legroom, Wood, the Mini dealership president, claims that the Mini Cooper outperforms its direct competitors, the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Volkswagen Beetle—moderately priced cars with unique designs. She test-drove the three cars on a coastal road in Portugal, where a dusting of sand created icelike driving conditions. “It was actually scary in some of the other vehicles,” Wood recalls. “The Mini Cooper zipped right through it. Nothing came close. It’s a performance vehicle. There are other cars in that price range and size, but there are none like it.”

The same can be said of the Mini Cooper’s appearance. On a highway choked with the drabness of uniform shapes and hues, a stout yellow Mini Cooper with white mirrors, white wheels, and a Union Jack roof makes a statement as bold as that of any exotic. The Mini is shorter than the Mazda Miata, but it has the same width and height as the BMW 3 Series, giving it a wide, aggressive stance that is enhanced by the positioning of the wheels; they are at each corner of the chassis, allowing for minimal overhang. “It gives the vehicle an appearance that it has a foot planted at each corner,” says Wardle. “It’s stable, dynamic, and agile. Overhang at the front and rear hark back to an era where the only important thing was the length of the car. The focus now is on agility and dynamics.”

In the driver’s seat, everything feels close, including the steering wheel, the circular analog speedometer on the center of the dashboard, the in-dash CD player (standard on the Mini Cooper), and the dashboard toggle switches that control the locks and windows. The Mini Cooper can be personalized to match the tastes of its driver. Options include 12 exterior colors, a Union Jack roof, racing stripes, and mud flaps.

No mention has been made yet about whether BMW will offer the psychedelic paint job that John Lennon had on his Mini Cooper or the wicker trim that adorned Peter Sellers’. The car cognoscenti might appreciate the historical significance of such features, but even they probably wouldn’t want them.

Mini Cooper, www.miniusa.com

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