How I learned to be environmentally responsible and have fun!
Summer, good times, friends, the Great Ocean Road. These are the memories that come back to me when I think of the Mini. When I was a mere schoolboy and spent my summers along the coast it was a friend’s older brother who introduced us to his Mini.
One New Year’s Eve eight of us (yes, eight) piled into the vehicle and made our way to Lorne, only to be turned back by a polite constable who told us to go home and act our age, which I thought we were doing, as we were all teenagers. Do I have to point out that I was considerably thinner back then? Naturally enough, I did not tell the BMW rep this story when I picked up a new Mini Cooper S Cabrio for a test drive. (Some stories are better left untold).
Back at the height of the swinging 60s the original Mini was the car to have. Despite the fact that it was intended as cheap transport it hit a nerve. Famous owners included The Beatles (who had one each), Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Brigitte Bardot, Dudley Moore, Twiggy, Jackie Stewart, James Hunt and even our own Jack Brabham. John Cooper Racing later became involved in the creation of the classic Mini Cooper S. The car starred in the original version (and the new one is in the recent remake) of The Italian Job.
Of course, that was the old British engineered box-like Mini, the one Sir Alec Issigonis designed and which rolled off the BMC assembly line in August 1959. By 1976, more than 4 million had been sold and it continued in various forms until BMW acquired the brand in 1994. The final ‘British’ Mini arrived in 2000, after 41 years and 5.3 million vehicles. But that was not the end of the story. In 2001 the new Rover BMW arrived and has been developed ever since, selling nearly a million vehicles. Late last year the ‘new’ Mini was launched with a plan to produce 240,000 a year from the Oxford plant. Does BMW know it is onto a good thing?
The decision of the German car maker to get involved in Mini has turned out to be a brilliant move in an era of spiralling petrol prices and a general turning away from large cars.
As a motorcycle rider I am usually not too impressed by cars. I long ago decided that the only car I would like to buy was a Maserati and, as I could never afford one, I would be saved the trouble of ever having to replace my 1962 XL Falcon by something slightly more modern. I swore off sports cars after a nasty experience with a Triumph Spitfire, which had a habit of stalling its twin SU -carbed engine at the worst possible times – once on a stinking hot peak period Friday afternoon traffic on the Kingsway bridge.
Let’s face it, the only cars that seem like fun to drive are way too expensive for we mere mortals to afford. However, I have had a road to Damascus experience. I have found a car to almost rival a motorbike (wash my mouth out with soap and water) and which, if I had the readies, I would go out and buy one tomorrow!
My heart has been won over by a Mini Cooper S Cabrio (convertible) and, after a week in one, I can honestly say that I have never been in a car that is so much fun to drive. Nowadays the Mini is considerably larger than its ancestors and much better looking with lots of smooth curves. In the days that we were together I never overlooked the chance to jump in and take the 1.6 litre supercharged, six-speed convertible for a spin.
Not that I got much of a chance to drive with the top down during the uncharacteristically cold and wet week in Melbourne but I can vouch for the fact that the retractable roof works brilliantly. Not a drop of water inside the cabin, even in a torrential downpour. (Obviously designed in Britain).
I have to tell you, the music buff, that the CD player will also play MP3s, meaning you can insert a disc of up to 150 or so tracks. This is handy on a long trip or, for example, if you want to include a dozen Beatles albums on one disc. There is also a ten-speaker Harmon Kardon system that should be enough to blow anyone away. The controls are on the steering wheel so you do not need to take your eyes off the road.
One interesting aspect of the stereo system is the range of effects you can use. At one stage I thought there was something wrong with the mix on the latest Van Morrison Best Of Vol 3 until I realised I had the CD player controls on the concert setting which made it sound like Van was performing in a large hall.
Ease yourself behind the wheel of the Mini and you enter a cockpit rather than a cabin. In the Cooper S, the seats are almost aircraft-like and adjustable many ways. There is a surprising amount of room – enough for me one evening to ferry another large man in the passenger seat and a tall one in the small rear seat (still with room over his head). I could push the seat so far back that I could barely reach the pedals so tall people can apply. Hopefully, the airbags won’t pop you out through the soft top in case of an emergency!
As for driving the Mini, the car itself would far outperform my ability to push it to the limits but I loved the six-speed gearbox (with cruise control) and the handling was so good it was like riding on rails. It goes like the clappers when you put the foot down and I am sure that daredevils other than myself will like the look of surprise from other drivers as the Mini scoots past.
As I had the John Cooper Works model, the suspension was firm and I would probably opt for the cheaper hard top model with a softer ride. The brakes have ABS and instill a feeling of confidence. There are large dials, several gauges (one of which had me completely baffled) and an array of switches, including those for the fog lights!
The one problem that I was warned about when I picked up the car was rear vision but the side mirrors are the best I have ever encountered and there is a radar device to warn you if you are too close to another vehicle, gate or possibly a pedestrian. There is also a small boot that can apparently be extended by folding down the rear seats. By the way, there is no spare wheel but you can get 200km on the run-flat tyres (not that I would advise this).
As for fuel economy, the worst I ever got in the city was around 9.00l/100km (about 31.6 miles per gallon in old terms). This was in peak period traffic and much better than that on a country run. The on board computer gives you hours of fun delivering the consumption figures and other data – but the petrol pump is the final arbiter. There is also a diesel model available in the UK and I imagine that will make its way here.
There are not too many cars around these days that enable you to get reasonable fuel efficiency, make a smaller environmental footprint and have a bloody great time doing it. The Mini is one such car – and maybe the only affordable one for us.
At the end of a week I reluctantly returned the car and I must say I have never had that feeling before. I loved the little bugger!
*The Mini also comes with a three-year unlimited kilometre warranty and roadside assistance.