Mini has popularity to max, but why?

May 06, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

SOMEONE PLEASE explain car trends to me, because I don't get it anymore.

The hot new car right now is tiny, boxy, not particularly fast and seats four adults comfortably only if the two in the back are advanced yogis capable of traveling with their ankles entwined behind their heads.

Nevertheless, the Mini-Cooper, made in Great Britain by BMW, will probably be sold out in this area by summer's end. Partly, this is a numbers thing: Only 20,000 will be sold in this country this year, and the two Maryland Mini dealerships, one in Towson and the other in Annapolis, will each be allotted only 300 cars.

But it also has to do with the growing fanatical interest the Mini is inspiring. It's this year's must-have car, the new Volkswagen Beetle or PT Cruiser, only the Mini's appeal seems to cut across age lines, from young 20-somethings to established businessmen to blue-haired grandmas.

Mini of Towson, for example, just opened at the end of March and already has sold 40 cars, with the backlog of orders for the S (or supercharged) model now stretching to six months.

So the other day I drove out to the Towson dealership for a test drive to see what all the fuss is about. What follows is a chronicle of events, as best as can be recalled:

4:05 p.m.: General Manager Brett Sholder makes a copy of my license. At this point, I should probably share with him an incident that occurred some years ago when, for a magazine story, I test-drove a $250,000 Lamborghini Diablo VT, the fastest street car sold in North America.

For a gag shot, our photographer had me pull into a McDonald's and park under the famous sign that proclaims 400 zillion sold or whatever. When I backed out, the car scraped the curb, which practically caused me to have a heart attack. Leaping out, I discovered a thin scratch about 6 inches long near the door.

"That's probably $10,000 to repair," said the Lamborghini guy with me. By this point, I was ready to throw myself in front of a bus. Luckily, the dealership never billed The Sun for the damage.

Yeah, I should probably share all that with Sholder.

But then I think: Naaah.

4:10: I'm test-driving a Mini S model with a six-speed standard transmission. As we pull in behind a monster GMC Suburban on Kenilworth Avenue, I feel like I'm driving a go-kart. At a little less than 12 feet, the Mini is a foot shorter than a Mazda Miata in length. If that Suburban hit me, I'd end up in Cecil County.

Still, there's plenty of legroom for the driver and front passenger, and the dashboard is sleek and high-tech, with silver-plated speedometer and tachometer and toggle switches instead of knobs.

Sholder says the Mini belongs to a new class of automobiles called "premium small cars." But for now it seems affordable: A regular Mini has a base price of about $17,000, with the S model starting at about $19,850.

4:14: As we turn right onto Charles Street, we're drawing quite a few stares. The Mini comes in some hip, vivid colors: chili red, liquid yellow, electric blue. The one I'm driving -- a snazzy dark silver metallic with a white roof -- has necks snapping.

"The most popular [initial] response is how cute it is," says Sholder. "But Mini [corporate headquarters] frowns on cute. They like, uh, cheeky and muscular."

In the Mini brochure, the car is described as having: "That look of a bulldog pulling at its leash."

Me, I don't quite see this imagery. But you know the Brits. They can be crazy as loons about their cars.

4:16: On the Beltway now, I'm putting the car through its paces. This is a great way to get a speeding ticket, of course, although it's being done strictly for research purposes.

The transmission is tight and responsive. It corners well -- not that the turn near the Loch Raven Boulevard exit is like banking it at Daytona. And it has surprising -- if not overwhelming -- pep for a four-cylinder engine. (Naturally, it's great on gas: 28 mpg city, 37 highway.)

All in all, it's a fun car to drive. After we turn around on White Marsh Boulevard, I spot a Baltimore County police cruiser and make the return trip as cautiously as a 16-year-old who just got his permit.

4:35: Back in the dealership, I'm in the office of Mini Motoring adviser Barry Wilson, who's from Bristol, England, and is trying to explain the odd appeal of the Mini.

"People buy this car not for any left-brain intellectual reason," he says. "It's based on pure emotion and lust, without a doubt. People don't need this car. Other cars are more practical.

"This car," he continued, "is targeted at the handful of people left in the world who still enjoy the process of motoring."

Oh, you gotta hand it to the Brits. They're really terrific with words.

And to make that "process" even more special, Wilson says, "there's a whole rigmarole we go through" before a customer drives off with his new car. In other words, they don't just toss you the keys, shake your hand and tell you not to let the door hit you on the way out.

First, the buyer is ushered to a special "presentation bay" where the new Mini sits enveloped in its own special car cover, which the new owner gets to unzip.

Then he's presented with a Mini T-shirt. Finally, when he climbs in, he finds a couple of mints on the driver's seat.

Personally, if I'm spending upward of 20 grand, I'm not going to be jumping up and down over a T-shirt and mints.

But you can't blame the Mini people for trying.

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