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2005 MINI Cooper

Big fun



Experience has shown that no product can succeed in our marketplace without size on its side. The extra value meal, the 13-song music CD (one great single, 12 tracks of filler), and Costco's very business model all thrive on the more-for-your-money model. Nevermind that the "more" is often something that's bad for you, that you don't want, or is more than you can use (respectively), because as long as our cash is paying for something, we sign the check.

So along comes a car company that thinks it not only ignore this rule, but challenge it head-on. That company would be BMW , who hasn't had much trouble selling cars built with its own values to the rest of the world a few billion times over. With the new incarnation of the Mini Cooper, a once-British entity now under its corporate wings, they're betting it can be done even without the cachet of the Bimmer badge backing it up. Hey, they're serious here: the Mini got a clean-sheet design with the full engineering budget, lots of real-car parts, its very own assembly plant in England, and a price tag that goes as high as 32 big ones. But with all this packaged into a punier shell than the often-mocked Kia Rio , who here could take it seriously?

Inside and out

Whether you love or loathe the look (most opinions side with love), count on it being a permanent mark in our cultural landscape. The company recently declared to make the Mini's shape a legacy to be passed onto the years, much like the unchanged-since-1965 Porsche 911 . Notice the new headlights and taillights this year? Neither did we. That's the kind of subtlety we can expect.

Former BMW owners should feel right at home already. The three-button remote-equipped key is standard-issue Bimmer. With a door handle that takes a firm tug to open, the same radio and A/C controls, and almost the same seats and steering wheel, it acts like a BMW. Take a whiff, it even smells like a BMW.

It would help if it looked like one, too, but that's where Mini insisted on divergence. Too bad. Not only was every existing bad idea incorporated into this car; the designers seem to have held board meetings to invent new ones. First, there's the now-cliché center-mounted speedometer, made as offensive as possible with its inflated size, tacky black-on-white lettering, and head-tilting markings. In front of you sits a tasteless tachometer, not that you'll be seeing it much since the steering wheel rim blocks the upper third (the range between 2,000-6,000 RPM) from view. Little half-moon door handles frequently go unnoticed by the eyes of guest passengers. The main cupholders are better called "canholders" since they can't actually fit cups, and even the windows, locks, and stability control were rounded up onto a row of toggle switches on the dashboard's basement – an inconvenient airplane-inspired gimmick to which even Saab has never stooped. Speaking of windows, rolling them down partway takes two flicks of the switch: one to start, another to stop. Finally, the half-hearted sun visors don't even cover half of the side windows, and the absence of a center console means you'll have to throw every little knick-knack into the flimsy glovebox.

The Mini is plenty creative on the outside. They should have stopped there.

Still, it's a welcoming place. With only a duo on board, there's nothing mini about it – plenty of head, leg, and elbowroom in here. I've heard a comment or two about the front seats being uncomfortable but can't imagine why. Felt great to me, both in their shaping and the soft texture of the cowhide (Minis have several upholstery choices and combinations thereof: vinyl, cloth, leather, cloth-leather, leather). The meaty BMW-sourced steering wheel (now a more attractive three-spoke design) fills the hands nicely. And remember how everyone used to rave about the slick-feeling turn signal on Hondas? Well, the Mini's is the best yet, with a sublime, tight snap that has you changing lanes just to use this addictive piece of machinery. This is the turn signal stalk that launched a thousand ships.

Things are looking brighter in the audio department. BMWs equipped with Harman-Kardon sound systems have a legacy of poor sound quality, but all we have here is crisp treble, authoritative bass, and good clarity. In short, it rocks. It helps to have such a small cabin to fill. Pretty basic on features, though; wasn't BMW about to install iPod jacks on all its cars? Suggestion: hurry it up!

Another suggestion: keep body count to two. The back seat has a narrow feeling even with two abreast, the cushion's too low, legs rub against the front seats, and a tall driver leaves literally no foot space due to the ridiculously low-hanging front seats. It's not so much that BMW did a bad job with packaging, it's just that stuffing four humans into a 143-inch-long car is a crime for which its owner will answer on Judgment Day. The Mini slightly redeems itself with its two adjustable head restraints, the same good headroom as in front, and the spillover effect of wide-open visibility. Back passengers also get their own sunroof to gaze up upon.

Simply using the Mini as a two-seater also fixes the similarly compromised trunk, more than quadrupling its meager 5.3 cubic feet of under-hatch room to a far more useful 23.7.

The Mini Cooper is an acquired taste. But it's got flavor.