- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO As the new Mini Cooper was unveiled I thought I heard the late Sir Alex Issigonis mutter: "What have they done to my baby?"

If you are listening Sir Alex, we believe you must look closely at the icon you created 43 years ago.

The new Mini is larger, offers the latest safety and comfort features with more power and better handling than the Mini of 1959 that set new standards in design and engineering.

His automotive icon with its revolutionary concept of a transverse engine with submounted transmission allowing it to provide maximum interior space lives on in the new Mini Cooper. The new version has all the classic Mini cues. For example, the legendary wheel-at-each-corner ethos is carried through.

The proof is in the driving and after more than 200 miles around Marin County's famous back roads with the ghost of Sir Alec hopefully sitting in the spacious back seat, I'm personally convinced BMW has succeed in producing what it likes to call a "prestige small car." Its packaging is beautifully executed and the Mini Cooper's performance and handling are superb.

Even more surprising is the car's price. The base price of the 115-horsepower Mini Cooper is $16,850. The 163-horsepower Mini Cooper S is $19,850. Prices include a destination charge of $550.

Customers are offered a choice of three distinct option packages that simplify ordering. The Premium and Sport Packages are each only $1,250. There are close to 30 comfort, safety and convenience options offered customers.

Appearance options, such as Mini's signature contrast roof in either black, white or body color are available at no cost.

Mini Coopers are just now arriving in dealer showrooms with the S version arriving later in the year. The 70 Mini dealerships expect to sell 20,000 cars the first year.

A household name in Europe and Asia, a total of 5.3 million Minis were produced by the end of its production run in 2000. It was voted "European Car of the Century" by a panel of 130 international journalists.

The Mini was sold in the United States between 1960 and 1967, and around 10,000 cars were sold in that time. More than 30 years later, about 12,000 cars are on U.S. roads today. BMW, which builds the new Mini in Oxford, England, explains this by saying: "Maybe they breed."

Sir Alec will be happy to know that his invention of providing a transverse front engine with transmission mounted underneath has been carried over to the new model.

The center of gravity has been kept very low with weight distributed 63 per cent on the front axle and 37 per cent on the rear. This provides enough weight up front for excellent traction, while the weight between the front and rear axles guarantees excellent dynamic balance, particularly when cornering.

I found this to be true on the tight, twisty corners on my jaunt through Northern California's back roads.

Power for the Mini Cooper is provided by a four-cylinder, 1.6-liter engine. It was developed jointly by BMW Group and DaimlerChrysler. It delivers approximately 115 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 110 foot-pounds of torque at a useable 4,500 rpm.

Active Knock Control allows the engine to run on lead-free fuel between 87 and 98 octane. The same engine tuning can therefore be used almost anywhere in the world, no matter what fuel grades are available.

It was my impression that the base engine offers more than enough power for all average driving. It has an impressive 0 to 60 mph time of 8.5 seconds and a top speed of 126 mph.

A smooth five-speed manual transmission is standard with a continuously variable transmission offered as an option.

Mini uses a highly sophisticated multiplex electronics infrastructure in its vehicles. Borrowed from the BMW 3-Series, this system uses far fewer wires, cables and plugs than is usual in car electronics. The advantage of the system is that it is divided into two: the "CAN-bus" system that connects engine management, brakes, transmission and instruments, and the "K-bus" system, which is responsible for body electronics such as interior lighting, air conditioning, doors and windows.

One of the things learned during the introduction ride is that the body is exceptionally rigid. Company officials claim it has two to three times the torsional stiffness of other cars of the same size. This helps provide an exceptional, go-cart-like handling.

The original Mini was enthusiastically taken up by racing drivers. It won three Monte Carlo Rallys and I expect the new Mini to also be quickly adopted by rally and racing groups.

BMW uses its patented innovative multilink Z-axle rear suspension. Up front there are McPherson struts that offer advantages in terms of both weight and use of space.

Torque steer, the dread ailment of many front-drive cars, has been virtually eliminated by the use of drive shafts of equal length.

The braking system is completely modern. Large disc brakes (front ones ventilated) on all four wheels, supplemented by four-sensor anti-lock with cornering brake control and electronic braking distribution are standard. BMW's Dynamic Stability Control is available as an option.

Final Enviornmental Protection Agency standards have not been set, but the Mini is expected to average 35 mpg on the road. Its 13-gallon fuel tank is also expected to offer more than 500 miles of highway driving.

All Mini models have three-doors. The front doors can be opened extremely wide up to 80 degrees making for easy passenger entry and excellent access to the rear seats. When the doors are fully open, the Mini is wider than it is long.

The exterior is like no other car on American roads. Its appearance displays the Mini's heritage, but at the same time is modern in every way. I found the interior to be impressive in the manner it has evolved from the minimal look of the original Mini. It uses modern materials such as aluminum tone facings on the dashboard and the Mini's classic center speedometer is featured. The speedometer unit also houses fuel-level, coolant-temperature gauges and a flat-tire monitor.

The tachometer is placed on the steering column, thus maintaining the sporty nature of the car.

Full-size front seats provide both comfort and support, including lateral support to hold the driver and passenger in place during enthusiastic driving. They feature integrated side air bags.

Bucket-style rear seats, with indents in the front-seat backs, and a relatively high roof line, allow six-footers to sit comfortably in the rear.

The Mini Cooper contains the maximum possible interior space and specification for the minimum external size. The rear seat splits 50-50 and with both seatbacks folded, increases the trunk capacity from 5.6 cubic feet to 25 cubic feet.

Rest easy Sir Alec, the new Mini Cooper is a worthy successor to the original.

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