- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

Its been 32 years since a new MINI came to these shores. It has been more than 40 years since the first MINI was developed, and through 2000 it remained for the most part unchanged.

Its sameness, all this time an attribute to its function and need, was engineered as a packaging exercise to meet the demand of the concept: being a neat, affordable means of transportation for the basic family unit.

The heritage of the MINI is well founded. This little English icon to personal transportation was selected the European car of the 20th century and was second only to the Ford Model T as the car of the century. That's quite impressive when one considers the number of choices available to the juries involved.

This MINI is a tribute to evolution, although its evolution was taken in one fell swoop. And while true to evolution, as one may easily recognize the heritage of this MINI, it is without the slightest doubt all new.

MINI is also a tribute to the patience and intuitive smarts of BMW, its designers and engineers.

The German company known for its "ultimate driving machines" kept only this small part of Rover, the English car company it purchased during the early 1990s and later divested, giving up not only Rover but the luxury sport utility company Land Rover as well.

The redesign of MINI was under way when BMW entered the picture. But to BMW standards it was not a pretty picture, so BMW invested time, money and manpower to move MINI forward without compromise.

The MINI that BMW has wrought is longer, wider, higher and by a large margin more powerful than its predecessor.

It is imbued with charisma, character and style. It is as cute as it is aggressive.

The MINI comes to the United States in two trims; the Cooper and the Cooper S.

A third MINI, the MINI One will be sold in Europe and Asia only, as BMW believes the performance level of the One would not be suitable for the North American market.

While the new MINI is only 18 inches longer than the original, BMW has packed it with performance and safety enhancements, and with some systems pulled from the BMW 3-Series.

The Cooper is powered by a BMW/DaimlerChrysler-developed 1.6-liter engine with four-valve technology and outputs of 115 horsepower and 110 pounds-feet of torque.

The engine is matched to a five-speed manual or to an optional new CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic that operates in either a single-select drive mode or in a sport mode with steptronic-gear selection.

What really separates the MINI from other small cars is its remarkable handling. It is agile and quick with minimal body roll and a stick-to-the-road feeling like that of a go-kart, best described as flat, and can turn on a dime.

Much of that road-sticking ability comes from what BMW calls a "robust body structure." In fact, the MINI is 50 percent stiffer than a BMW 3-Series.

While that provides well for the handling, it can be a little rough on the driver and passengers, and on poor roads it can be downright uncomfortable.

With the available run-flat tires with stiff sidewalls the problem worsens.

But you're having so much fun driving the MINI that the stiff ride hardly matters, and the younger you are, the less it matters. For this reason, the target market of 17- to 24-year-olds seems appropriate.

Safety is a real consideration in selecting the MINI. After all, the MINI is mini.

In this case it's handling gives the car some terrific active-safety attributes. On the passive side, the MINI is outfitted with dual-stage front air bags, side-impact air bags and side-curtain air bags that protect front and rear passengers in side impacts and rollovers. Belts with pretensioners and load limiters are found in all four places.

Additionally, the car comes with four-wheel anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution (EBD) and cornering brake control (CBC) as standard equipment. EBD moves braking power to the appropriate wheels under different load conditions, and CBC tempers heavy braking in corners, limiting potential oversteer.

Dynamic stability control is available as for enhanced control especially on slippery surfaces.

The interior has as much appeal as the exterior, simple but fun. Comfortable seats with height adjuster, an adjustable steering column, center-mounted speedometer and a tachometer mounted on the steering column.

Toggle switches operate the electric windows, the central locking system and the optional fog lamps.

Pricing on the MINI Cooper is $16,850, and the 163-horsepower Cooper S will start at $19,850. Both prices include destination charges and a surprising amount of standard equipment, including air conditioning, electric windows and an AM/FM stereo with CD player. Premium and Sport packages sell for $1,250 each and a cold-weather package is $500.

The original Mini sold in the United States from 1960 through 1967 with 10,000 total sales, although there are more than 12,000 registered, a testament to enthusiasts.

The new MINI, with its higher volume targets, joins other iconic models (such as the throwback PT Cruiser and Volkswagen's new Beetle and Ford's Thunderbird) looking to capture the hearts and imaginations of American car buyers. The MINI looks like a sure bet to do just that.

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