Let me introduce you to the bookends of BMW's Mini brand.
In this corner is the 2010 John Cooper Works World Championship 50. At 211 horsepower, it has some guts under the hood - a fancy twin-scroll turbocharger is at work here - and at $46,900 to start, the 50 is the most expensive Mini you can buy in Canada. Quick, too, at 0-100 km/h in 6.7 seconds.
Now over here is the Mini One - all 95 hp of it, exceedingly unpretentious cabin and bland steel wheels to boot. With a 0-100 km/h time best clocked by a sundial (11 seconds-plus), this is the Mini for patient drivers.
Now you can't buy the Mini One in North America, but the people who run the Mini brand here are thinking about offering this little starter Mini. For the One to have a chance here, Mini would need to price it below $20,000, given the Mini Cooper Classic lists for $22,800.
But don't hold your breath waiting for this most basic of Minis to go on sale in Canada. For that kind of dough you can snap up a loaded Ford Fiesta, complete with voice-operated Sync controls, a 120-horsepower and very fuel-thrifty motor and a slick dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission. Leather seats, too. And you can get any number of other $20,000-something cars with more stuff and sexy looks.
The Mini 50, on the other hand is a rarity with a back story. With only 300 for the world and eight for Canada, this little one is here to juice the Mini brand while celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Cooper's inaugural victory in Formula One racing. I'd bet there aren't 10 Mini owners in Canada who even know that John Cooper once was a big deal in F1, but it's true.
So here we are 50 years on and Michael Cooper, John's son, is running the John Cooper Works (JCW) tuning shop that is charged with, well, charging Minis for the marketplace. Sort of an in-house tuner shop, if you will. What the JCW people have done is not merely turbo the 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine, but they've done all sorts of other things, too.
The challenge for the engine tuners, however, is not squeezing out more power. No, the problem with small and powerful front-drive cars like the Mini 50 is keeping all that oomph under control. We're talking torque steer - that tendency for a zooty front-driver to pull this way and that when you bury your right foot on the throttle.
With as much as 207 lb-ft of torque on hand, the front wheels want to spin, and steering starts to tug and the zooming-away car wants to pull in this direction or that. It's all controllable, but you can see what the chassis and electronic anti-slip engineers had to manage.
On the other hand, torque steer is not a Mini One issue at all. The 90-hp, 1.4-litre four-banger may have 40 more ponies on hand than the very original Mini, but in this day and age, 90 hp screams economy car. To call this car pokey is to say the late Haystack Calhoun, the 400-pound wrestler, had a minor weight problem. Did I mention the torque figure? Ah, 103 lb-ft is, to be kind, unimpressive.
The Mini 50, by contrast, is a go-kart with luxury features. Solid and stable, the short-wheelbase Mini 50 (2,467 mm) has a stiff suspension and wide and sticky tires (P205/35R17 Dunlops) that completely fill up the wheel wells. This Mini is quick and nimble and oh, so fun to toss into corners, accelerating out with enthusiasm. We're talking the Mini of Minis, for my money - actually, not my money because my understanding is that all eight for Canada are spoken for.
The Mini One would not attract my money, not a penny of it. Of course there are those who might argue the One is the Mini most true to the ideas of Mini creator Sir Alex Issigonis. They might even be right. But I still wouldn't be tempted, not for even a millisecond.
The 50, however, looks every bit the part of tempting toy. Sure, the JCW people have not gone beyond the normal Cooper Works tweaks to the chassis and engine, but there are some design elements that set this Mini apart from the masses. Various carbon fibre inserts are the most obvious way Mini has dressed up this one. You'll find them at the front air scoop and the rear air deflector.
The Connaught Green exterior paint is meant to represent an original version of British Racing Green. Meanwhile, in the cabin most everything is pure Mini, aside from the Carbon Black leather upholstery set off by red piping.
The Mini One has no such cabin extras whatsoever. The seats are covered in some sort of vinyl and everything looks like it was approved by a fanatical accountant. The One might stand for the fact the cabin has one colour - black and it's everywhere.
What these two do share is a small hatchback design with a little trunk at the rear. You have room for a couple of gym bags and a few groceries back there, but don't stop at the liquor store to stock the wine cellar for fall and winter. No room for wine cases back there.
At least the front passengers sit in very comfy chairs. As well, Mini's signature design cues fill both cars, including the big, centre-mounted speedometer and the aircraft-style metal switches for the lights and so on.
Mini, at the end of the day, is scratching around in a quest to reinvent itself after nearly a decade-long run of success. The 50 is a tidy little niche model that builds the brand's image. It's a good idea.
As for the One, it is apparently a volume model in Europe, but it doesn't have a hope here in North America - especially Canada, where buyers are finicky and oh, so careful with their money.
2010 JOHN COOPER WORKS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP 50
Type: Subcompact hatchback
Price: $46,900 (plus $800 freight)
Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 211 hp/207 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.8 city/5.7 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Mazdaspeed3, Volkswagen Golf GTi