- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

Honey, I shrunk the car.
It was a simple punch line, but it seemed to entertain the dozens of folks who admired my test car, the diminutive 2002 Mini Cooper.
The new Mini hatchback, after all, ranks as the shortest car in America, with an overall length of just 11.9 feet.
It also rides low enough to the ground that the owner's manual advises against driving the Mini through standing water more than a foot deep.
But the Mini, which has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $16,850 for a base Cooper model, is in no way short on fun. As one auto critic put it, the new Mini Cooper is the closest thing to a street-legal go-kart a consumer can get.
Available in the United States for the first time since 1967, Mini is an icon in Europe, Asia and its native England, where it was the "classless" car of the '60s, embraced by common folks and celebrities alike.
But where the first-generation, front-drive Mini was austere inside, the new one is comparatively sporting. The newly engineered Mini also is larger than the original, if you can believe, more powerful and loaded with safety features.
"There's one air bag for every 2 feet of car," said Jack Pitney, general manager of Mini in the United States.
Earlier Minis were built by a British company, Rover. But the modern Mini Cooper comes from an English factory under the auspices of German-based BMW.
Because the 2002 Mini is a new model, Consumer Reports does not provide a reliability rating. Government and insurance-industry officials have yet to release crash-test results for the car.
Despite its small size, the new Mini Cooper provides a sense of spaciousness to riders, especially those in the two front seats.
Windows are surprisingly large, and neither I nor my 6-foot husband felt hemmed in by front-seat headroom of 38.8 inches. Note that this is more headroom than in the front seats of the Acura RSX hatchback and the VW GTI.
Legroom was adaptable for both of us I'm 5 feet 4 as there's plenty of track to move front seats fore and aft. But the Mini Cooper's dead pedal should be repositioned. It was not comfortable for my husband or me.
The first impression inside the Mini is all the circle shapes, from air vents to door handles. This makes it feel retro-stylish.
There's also a surprising location for the speedometer, at least for those unfamiliar with the old Mini.
Instead of being in an instrument cluster in front of the driver, the speedometer in the Mini is a large round dial smack in the center of the dashboard, giving even back-seat riders a good view.
The driver's attention, however, is directed to the Mini tachometer, another round dial set atop the steering column. There, the 6,750-rpm red line is illuminated bright red, even when headlights aren't on.
The test Mini Cooper, which was the base Mini, came with a 1.6-liter, single-overhead-cam four-cylinder that never sounded strained or buzzy.
In fact, it felt as if the car moved along better than its numbers would suggest. The Mini is rated at only 115 horsepower and 110 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm. Of course, it helps that the Mini is light, with a curb weight of just about 2,500 pounds.
The go-kart sensations are felt immediately. The Mini scooted down the road, powered by the eager peppiness of the engine and the correct selection from among the five manual gears. Shifts were satisfying, with a cushioned-rubber feel.
The ride in the test car, which had sport suspension and run-flat tires with stiff sidewalls, was quite firm, and road bumps were sometimes transmitted to riders in an instant, abrupt way. Mini officials noted that the structure of the car is 50 percent stiffer than even that of the BMW 3-Series cars.
Add the quick steering response just a slight movement to the right or left sends the Mini darting and you can begin to understand the go-kart description.
Still, the Mini doesn't intimidate. It's not just its friendly exterior, which brought smiles and thumbs up from passers-by. It's the ease with which this little car can be driven softly or aggressively, depending on the driver.
Of course, drivers and passengers do need to get used to riding low and being surrounded on today's roads by larger vehicles. I had a great view, for example, of a pickup truck's license plate in front of me.
But at least the Mini comes with a big-car horn.
Company officials highlight the safety features on the Mini, which include standard four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock braking system; electronic brake-force distribution and cornering brake control; six air bags, including side-curtain bags; and advanced crumple zones in the front and rear.
There can be perks to driving such a small car. The Mini can claim many an urban parking spot that big sport utility vehicles have to pass up. The Mini's fuel economy rating includes 43 mpg on the highway for a model with manual transmission. And it leaves extra space in your garage at home.
Mini also offers a unique, customizable paint scheme where the roof can be a different color or design a flag design, for example than the car body.
But rear-seat riders won't find much legroom if the front seats are back on their tracks, and cargo space behind the folding rear seats is a meager 5.3 cubic feet.
According to the owner's manual, premium fuel is not only recommended, it's required in the Mini Cooper.
The test car had an on-again/off-again problem with the tailgate latching correctly, and the lever to open the hood is positioned way over on the front-passenger footwell area.
Mini officials can get only about 20,000 cars to America this year, so supplies are tight.

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