Tiny British Mini a big hit in America

Nostalgia: Demand is heavy for the new Mini Cooper, a BMW-made version of the 1959 classic.

May 02, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

At a time when monster SUVs are crowding U.S. highways, the big buzz is being created by a car named the Mini.

The Mini Cooper, introduced in 1959 in the United Kingdom and not sold in the United States for 35 years, has become this year's PT Cruiser in showrooms in the United States.

"The demand is overwhelming," said Brett Sholder, general manager of Mini of Towson.

"Our waiting list is eight months now for the S-model, that's the supercharged model," he said. "It is really hot."

He said those to whom the Mini appeals range from teens getting their first set of wheels to at least one septuagenarian who has waited more than 30 years for the chance to buy another of the British imports.

"One of my first customers was a 76-year-old lady," said Margaret McCleary, a saleswoman at the Towson dealership. "She bought a bright yellow one. She owned a Morris Mini in the '60s, and has been waiting for more than 30 years for the car to come back to the U.S."

"It's an incredibly fun car to drive," McCleary told a test driver. "It's made by BMW. It's very sticky; it hugs the road. It was engineered to drive like a go-cart, and that's the way it feels."

Sholder said he received his first order for the new Mini nine months before the dealership opened and cars went on sale in late March.

He said the dealership took $1,000 deposits and put future buyers on a waiting list.

"This is why we didn't have the long lines, like they had in California," he said. "This is why we didn't have people camping out overnight on our parking lot."

The Towson Mini dealership is one of two in Maryland. The other is in Annapolis.

The Mini comes in two models, each a little less than 12 feet long (23 inches shorter - and 230 pounds lighter - than the Honda Civic Si hatchback). A standard model has a base sticker price of a little less than $17,000 but can cost as much as $24,000 with options.

Far more popular is the S-model, with a price range of nearly $20,000 to $27,000.

Sholder said he sells the car for the manufacturer's suggested retail price, but he noted that dealers in other parts of the country are charging premiums of up to $5,000.

The boxy shape accommodates four adult passengers in reasonable comfort, and its four-cylinder engines gets an estimated 26 miles to the gallon in city driving and 43 on the highway.

BMW, which got the rights to the British car in 1994 when it acquired the Rover Group, introduced the Mini to the United States to give its dealers a fuel-efficient, front-wheel-drive car designed to fill a niche market. Sholder said the car is produced in Oxford, England.

Fewer than 20,000 Minis are earmarked for the United States this year. An additional 100,000 will be sold throughout Europe, where the car has been available for years.

The original Mini was introduced in 1959 in the United Kingdom in response to an oil shortage and high gasoline prices. It was the first car to make use of the transverse engine and front-wheel drive, a combination that is part of nearly every front-wheel-drive car on the road today.

About 10,000 Minis were sold in the United States from 1960 to 1967, when the four-cylinder car was pulled off the market here because it couldn't meet the tougher U.S. emission standards.

"I don't understand its appeal," said Brett Smith, senior industry analyst with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "I don't understand all the fuss. It's not a very practical car.

"It looks neat, and it is fun to drive, but is this the kind of car you want to live in every day? I don't think so," Smith said. "Maybe it's a nostalgia thing, like the Volkswagen Bug or the new Ford Thunderbird. Maybe it stirs memories of the '60s generation."

George E. Hoffer, a professor of economics and an auto analyst with Virginia Commonwealth University, called the new Mini "a hotly hyped car for the beautiful people."

He cautioned consumers, however, about paying too much for their Minis. "Like the Volkswagen Beetle and the PT Cruiser in the past, there is broad appeal for the Mini. Don't get caught up in the hype. Once the initial demand is filled, we will probably see rebates in the Mini."

Hoffer attributes the car's current allure to its BMW bloodline and its association with "the British invasion of the U.S. in the 1960s. The Beatles were closely associated with the Mini. It has a lot to do with nostalgia."

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