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First Oz drive: Thoroughly modern Mini

Mini makeover: BMW's new Mini Cooper blends tradition with modern engineering in a stylish, cheeky new package

The new Mini Cooper has landed Down Under courtesy of BMW and we drive it on home soil four months prior to launch

Mini logo13 Nov 2001

By MARTON PETTENDY

FIRST examples of the new Mini Cooper have arrived Down Under with local journalists treated to a first Australian drive of BMW's new entry level car some four months before it is due to go on sale here.

BMW says the lead-up to Mini Cooper's June, 2002, launch will be used to build the Mini brand name here, with a national dealer network of 23 Mini Garages opening yesterday and the 2002 Australian F1 Grand Prix featuring the Mini Celebrity Challenge.

Designed and engineered by BMW and built in Oxford, England, the Mini Cooper hatch is built on an exclusive new front-wheel drive platform that may eventually sprout four-door, convertible and wagon body styles.

Not sold in Australia for 22 years, the Mini Cooper will be available at a price of $32,650 in five-speed manual form. An automatic CVT version, with six-speed Steptronic gear selection, will be offered at a price of $34,850.

As such, Mini Cooper will compete on price with sporty front-drive cars like the Peugeot 206 GTi and Renault Clio Sport, cars that BMW claims lack the Mini's build quality, safety standards, innovation and equipment levels.

The Mini Cooper employs a 1.6-litre, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine developed in partnership with Chrysler and built in Brazil. It produces 85kW at 6000rpm and 149Nm of torque at 4500rpm. With a kerb weight of 1050kg, the Cooper is claimed to accelerate to 100km/h in 9.2 seconds, with a top speed of 200km/h.

Suffice to say the Mini Cooper is not a performance car: that moniker will apply to the 120kW Mini Cooper S, due just a few months after the Cooper next year. Priced around $40,000, the S will be up against established performance products like Nissan's 200SX, Honda's Integra Type R and Subaru's Impreza WRX.

The Mini Cooper is an altogether different animal - one that BMW says can't be compared with other retro offerings like Volkswagen's New Beetle and Chrysler's PT Cruiser because it does not share components with any "lesser" vehicles.

BMW build quality aside, the Mini Cooper is certainly well equipped. Standard features include air-conditioning, trip computer, four-speaker CD sound system, central remote locking, power windows and mirrors, sports suspension, 15-inch alloy wheels, ABS, leather height-adjustable steering wheel and, in what BMW says is a first for the small car segment, a total of six airbags including dual front, side and head airbags.

Following BMW tradition, a host of options are available for Mini Cooper, including metallic paint ($650), an electric glass sunroof ($1750), front foglights ($290), 16-inch alloy wheels ($900), sports suspension PLUS ($410), cruise control with multi-function steering wheel ($700), cloth/leather trim ($1020), soft or profile leather trim ($2410), sports seats ($610), front seat heating ($530), automatic climate control ($610), ASC+T stability and traction control ($290) and an interior light package ($200).

Aiding the faithful yet thoroughly modernised styling, Mini Cooper will be available with a choice of white or black roof colours with matching exterior mirrors.

Other features include proper chrome door handles, a rear wiper, BMW's service interval indicator, tyre defect indicator, crash sensor, tinted glass and chromed items such as the tailpipe, grille and rear applique.

The contemporary styling extends to the interior, which in Australian models features a steering column-mounted speedo with a large tachometer positioned in the dash centre. When satellite navigation becomes available, both speedo and tacho will reside Mickey Mouse-style on the steering column.

A dedicated four-seater, the Mini Cooper employs single-joint spring-strut suspension up front and a multi-link rear end, while BMW's Mobility System replaces the spare wheel.

Like all BMW products, Mini Cooper will carry a two-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, with two-year Mini Roadside Assist.

BMW Australia - which says Rolls Royce will join Mini as the third premium brand to come from the BMW Group stable on January 1, 2003 - expects to sell a combined total of about 1700 Mini Cooper and Cooper S vehicles during 2002, but says it could sell up to 2000 given unlimited supply.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

BMW's positioning of the new Mini as a premium BMW Group product may be drawing a long bow for those familiar with the budget-based original, but after our first local drive of the larger, heavier 2002 model, it does not seem too far a stretch.

Indeed, until the entry level Mini One appears in coming years with a sub-$30,000 price tag, BMW will need to draw on all of the Mini Cooper's strengths to attract the 25 to 40-year-old "young at hearts", females and second or third car buyers it says Mini will attract.

Mini Cooper has many strengths - such as a solid equipment list, first-class safety features, totally ergonomic front seating (though the twin rear seats remain squishy), BMW-level engineering and after-sales support, a well sorted ride/handling combination and European build quality - not to mention novelty value.

The latter factor became evident during a drive through peak-hour Melbourne traffic, in which the Mini Cooper succeeded in turning almost every head it drove past.

Build quality is also of a high standard, though some A-pillar wind noise, a persistent interior rattle and a noisy air-conditioning generator were evident in some of the early UK-spec cars we drove.

Well-spaced gear ratios and a low final drive ratio make the five-speed manual transmission well suited to the 1.6-litre four's somewhat revvy nature, and the clever CVT auto also does an admirable job of keeping it on the boil, but this is no performance car.

A claimed 0-100km/h acceleration time of 9.2 seconds hardly makes the Cooper S a firecracker, but in fairness there's enough urge to offer rewarding open-road scratching as well as pain-free urban commuting.

Like the original Mini, the new Cooper is a sharp-handling device with delightfully precise steering, excellent feedback and plenty of grip - with none of the original's road-wandering characteristics.

While the nimbleness is a factor of its short wheelbase, the same feature becomes evident over large road irregularities, through which the firmly-suspended Mini crashes and is easily thrown off line. But both high speed stability and ride quality are a match for many larger vehicles.

Overall, the Mini Cooper delivers a feeling of solidity and driver involvement that will be as familiar to BMW owners as it is foreign to Mini enthusiasts.

But many of the original's best features are there, packaged in a well thought-out, highly ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing car for the 21st century.

As such, the first BMW-built front-wheel drive is a fitting entry point to BMW Group vehicles.

But remember, fun is the name of the game here, not performance.

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