Saturday, July 17, 2004

A Mini masterpiece

Nimble, quirky little BMW a blast to drive

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Mini Cooper


Providing British charm and German engineering, the 2004 Mini Cooper S offers character normally found in much more costly cars.


Wheels rating: (out of 5)
5 wheels
A ride and look to make you smile

What I drove: 2004 Mini Cooper S, a two-door, four-passenger hatchback

Base price: $19,899

Price as tested: $22,449

Options on test vehicle: Pure silver metallic paint, Cold Weather Package (heated washer jets, heated mirrors), Premium Combo No. 1 (multifunction steering wheel, dual-pane panoramic sunroof, automatic air conditioning, on-board computer)

Summary: Charming little go-kart

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, front-wheel drive

Engine: 1.6-liter supercharged in-line 4-cylinder producing 163 hp and 155 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Wheelbase: 97.1 inches

Length: 143.9 inches

Width: 66.5 inches

Height: 56.2 inches

Weight: 2,678 pounds EPA mpg, city/highway: 25/34

Warranty: Basic: 4 years/50,000 miles; powertrain: 4 years/50,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 years/50,000 miles; maintenance: 3 years/36,000 miles

Assembled in: Oxford, England

Safety: Dual front air bags, front side-impact air bags, front and rear head-curtain air bags, front seat belt pretensioners, LATCH child-seat anchors, engine immobilizer, flat-tire monitor, daytime running lights, antilock brakes and traction control

Cool: Legendary design, rally-style cockpit, go-kart handling, motorcycle-like parking ability, great fuel economy, humungous sunroof, six air bags

Uncool: Tight rear seat, teeth-chattering ride, no interior trunk-lid release, two dumb cup holders

Accolades: 2003 North American Car of the Year, named "Most Appealing Compact Car" by J.D. Power and Associates

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Car Talk

"When motoring in a Mini, it's important to occasionally take a left when you're supposed to go right. In this way you can avoid ruts. ... If you feel like you've taken the same path so many times before that there should be a groove worn into the street, you're in a rut. Take a left immediately. ...

"Don't freak out if your Mini gets a nick or a ding. Just think of them as scars. And as most people will tell you, scars are sexy. They tell a story. They're evidence of an active life. A life worth living. . . ."

These refreshing bits of advice are brought to you courtesy of Mini USA's Book of Motoring, and they perfectly embody the spirit of Mini's ad campaign.

Mini ads are so quirky and fun, it's as if Mini's ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, was channeling Ruth Gordon's character in Harold and Maude. You can just hear Maude shouting out ideas in an ad meeting: "Break the rules! Take a chance! Get hurt, even! Live, live, live!"

Attesting to the appeal of Mini's clever magazine inserts - which include a Cliffs Notes on Mini Standard Features, decal packages, stickers, and a fold-out milk carton - is the fact that they're regularly traded on eBay.

Sure, it's marketing shtick. But it works.

Last year, Mini USA sold 36,000 Coopers. The automaker does absolutely no advertising on TV. Instead it spends its ad dollars on quirky billboards, magazine inserts, outdoor displays and the Internet. The real key to Mini's success, though, lies in the Mini Coopers themselves, which are as charming as the ads that tout them.

Still hot, hot, hot

Even two years after its U.S. introduction, the Mini Cooper is so gotta-have-it hot that more than a few auto journalists have actually purchased them (and auto journalists try not to actually purchase anything car-related).

The Mini lineup consists of the standard Cooper and the Cooper S, both of which are powered by a 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine. In the standard Cooper, the engine produces 115 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque, and is fitted to a five-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic transmission. In the Cooper S, the engine gets a supercharger and belts out 163 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque. The "S" engine is mated to a Getrag six-speed manual gearbox.

The Cooper S is distinguished from the standard Cooper by a hood scoop, rear spoiler, dual chrome-plated tailpipes, "S" badges, and 16-inch alloy wheels (the regular Cooper gets 15-inchers).

In both Coopers, the cockpit is a busy place, brimming with circular and oval designs (I counted 30), and highlighted by such rally-inspired elements as a steering column-mounted tachometer, a wall clock-size speedometer, and toggle switch controls for the windows, locks and fog lamps. Standard features include a six-disc in-dash CD player, an air-conditioned glove box (for keeping those sodas frosty), standard power-assisted steering, an anti-theft engine immobilizer, a flat-tire monitor, and six (count 'em - six) air bags.

The front seats offer ample legroom, even for 6-footers, but the rear seats aren't appropriate for two-legged creatures. Trunk space is a miniscule 5.3 cubic feet, but can be expanded by flipping the split rear seats forward.

New for 2004

For 2004, the Cooper and Cooper S receive only minor updates, including a new three-spoke steering wheel, a rear power outlet, and a digital speedometer readout in the electronic display.

This fall, Mini will unleash the highly anticipated Cooper convertible. Available in standard and "S" trim, the convertible will feature a power retractable soft top with an integrated power-sliding sunroof that can be opened and closed at speeds up to 75 mph.

To celebrate the Cooper's victory in the 1964 Rallye Monte Carlo, Mini recently introduced the Cooper S MC40. Mini will produce only 1,000 units of this model.

Ridiculous fun

I spent a week scooting around in a Cooper S tester, and it was ridiculously fun. The steering and handling are go-kart sharp, the throttle response is quick, and the 16-inch tires stick like Velcro through the gnarliest of turns. Speaking of turns, the Mini's small size and 17.5-foot turning radius make it the nimblest and most parkable thing this side of a motorcycle.

My tester came with the optional sunroof, which extends over both the front and rear seats. I loved the sunroof, but I wasn't crazy about the mesh shade, which invited in so much sun, I spent every day sweating and squinting.

Both Coopers borrow some suspension bits from the BMW 3 Series, but the "S" gets reinforced anti-roll bars and firmer springs. The stiff setup, combined with the run-flat tires, makes for a butt-bruising ride - not something you'd want to endure on an extended trip.

It may be small, but it has the kind of character and substance found in cars costing twice as much.

Combining British charm with German engineering, and an affordable price with fun-to-drivability, the Cooper is custom-made for people who don't take life too seriously.

It can bring a smile to your face on the dreariest of days.

E-mail Carol Traeger at

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