born to party
DON'T TOUCH YET. Just stand and admire the flawless paintwork, meticulous shut lines and impressive detailing. Even before you swing open a door you're hooked. Look closer and you know that although it says 'MINI' on the badges and is manufactured in Oxford, the DNA is thoroughbred BMW.
If the MINI has a fault, it is its palpable charisma. And while there's nothing wrong at all with the cheeky looks, they can get in the way of appreciating just how much BMW has achieved with their first front-drive supermini. People stare and give you the thumbs up but, instantly recognisable visual style aside, the MINI is a seriously competent piece of kit with great on-road dynamics.
We tested the Cooper, which falls nicely mid-way between the entry-level 90bhp MINI One and the supercharged pocket-rocket Cooper S. All models use four-cylinder, 1.6-litre 16-valve engines. The Coopers 115bhp is enough to zip to sixty-two miles per hour from standstill
in 9.2 seconds. Top speed is 124mph. Official fuel consumption figures are 31.4mpg (town), 42.2mpg (combined), and 53.3mpg (out of town).
We saw 38mpg overall and we weren't exactly hanging around which would be good for 400 miles between pit stops.
All perfectly respectable figures, but the real joy of piloting a Cooper is its failsafe, user-friendly handling. "MINI saves the world" trumpeted the advertising, but what they didn't tell you was that it made saving the world fun!
With a smart alloy wheel wearing fat, low profile rubber at each corner, the Cooper is born to party. Combined with pin-sharp steering
a fast rack with just 2.5 turns lock to lock and not a suggestion of torque steer to mar the feel through the meaty rim and masses of grip, the MINI is in its element on fast twisty roads. Few owners will ever run out of grip. And even when you're really, really pushing,
you'll find nothing more nerve-racking than predictable understeer waiting for you. Even then, recovery is just an easy pull of the steering wheel away. If chassis were gold, then the MINIs brilliant front-drive chassis would be 24-carat.
Throw in some light, well-weighted controls and a precise, short-throw gearchange, and you have a recipe for flamboyant entertainment.
All-round disc brakes (ventilated at the front) are powerful and smooth and help the Cooper shed speed efficiently and entirely without drama. And theyre backed up by ABS, Electronic Braking Distribution, Cornering Brake Control, and a £100 option Automatic Stability Control.
BMW have managed to endow the MINI with flat, roll-free cornering abilities as well as giving it a beautifully supple ride, with the result that Cooper drivers are certain to be stirred with a passion but never shaken.
The driving position is excellent, thanks to comfortable, supportive seats and height adjustment. The height-adjustable steering column goes one better because the major instruments and lights/wiper
stalks adjust along with the column. The optional heated, sports seats with lumbar support are well worth the extra money. Loads of space
in the front ensures long journeys can be as soothing as short ones.
Access to the bucket-style rear seats is good, made easier by front seats that return to their original position after folding/sliding forwards. Although the MINI is undeniably a big small car with ample headroom
in the back, six-footers up front will quickly rob adult rear passengers of legroom.
However, due to its practical rear hatch and 50:50 split/folding rear seats, the MINI manages to be surprisingly accommodating (670 litres) when it comes to a spot of load lugging.
Not only is the MINI great to look at, it's also from both the driver and passenger's point of view a great place to sit in. There are so many classy touches inside the detail-rich cabin that several trips are necessary (no great hardship!) to appreciate them all. At night, with the dash all lit up and everything instinctively to hand, driving is made even more enjoyable by first class Xenon headlights.
Other examples of BMW's meticulous attention to detail include the touch-operated electric tailgate handle and the ignition key: the remote 'unlock' button of which is in the exact shape of the MINI 'wings' emblem.
Controls and instrumentation are first class. There's a quality 'tooled' feel to the bank of toggle switches set horizontally across the central console (for the electric windows, central locking, and optional fog lamps), and the rev-counter and speedometer are perfectly sited atop the steering column.
The large, fingertip-activated audio buttons behind the spokes of the multi-function wheel are easy to use. The rev counter usually sits alone dead ahead of the driver, but the colour display of the optional Sat-Nav/on-board computer fitted to our test car occupies the speedometers normal centre-of-dash spot.
Talking of which, the Sat-Nav is a DVD-based system that's a cinch to operate, and even tells you where you are all the time it's turned on right down to a specific street name!
Reassuringly, when it comes to safety MINI is MAX. Not only has it achieved a four-star Euro NCAP rating, but sets new standards for its class in terms of both active and passive safety, combining a rigid passenger cell and advanced crumple zones with front and side airbags as standard for driver and passenger.
A head airbag system is also available as an option. For security, doors and tailgate automatically lock at 9mph. The standard-fit tyre pressure-warning system alerts the driver if pressure is falling in one of the tyres. The tyre can then be repaired in a few easy steps and pumped back up again using the MINI MS (MINI Mobility System) stored in the boot instead of a spare wheel. The system consists of a sealant and a compressor that can be attached to the in-car power socket.
At £11,600 on the road, the chic and delectably driveable Cooper is
a lot of car for the money, and with a lot of 'cool'. BMW have made it feel far more expensive, not only because of its perceived quality,
but also because the standard equipment is good: electric frameless windows and mirrors, front and side airbags for driver and passenger, height adjustable driver's seat, adjustable steering column, remote locking and immobiliser, ABS, disc brakes all round, Electronic Brake Distribution, Cornering Brake Control, electro-hydraulic power-assisted steering, 15-inch alloy wheels, rev counter, tyre defect indicator,
and a radio/cassette player with six speakers.
Prospective owners can add reasonable insurance premiums (class 5
for MINI One and 8 for MINI Cooper) and low running costs to great value. Don't forget that just £100 buys 'MINI tlc' a five-year/50,000 miles servicing package covering all routine maintenance.
But perhaps the nicest aspect of new MINI is the vast options list
and unprecedented range of accessories, including old favourites like roof flags and bonnet stripes, than enable every owner to create a truly individual MINI.
People are still clamouring to buy a new MINI, so depreciation should be mini-mal. In fact, in August 2002, Glass' Guide announced record industry low one year depreciation figures on a new MINI One of just £105 and £255 on MINI Cooper. A similar picture exists in the USA, with a Californian leasing company claiming that MINI Coopers hold their value better than any Porsche or Mercedes!
Judged by the head, the financial case for MINI ownership is a resounding yes. But the grin you see on the face of MINI owners after a spirited drive comes straight from the heart. And its priceless.
Me? Ill take a yellow one with a black-and-white chequered roof...
MINI Cooper | £11,600
Maximum speed: 124mph | 0-62mph: 9.2 seconds
Overall test MPG: 38mpg | Power: 115bhp | Torque: 149lb ft
Visit MINI's website