A twist of a key and a little terrier springs to its feet with a gruff little yap, snapping and snarling and getting ready to chase its tail. First gear, second gear, third gear, snap off a rev-matched downshift to second, then haul that school-bus steering wheel to the left and brace yourself for the corner. The thing corners like a pinball changing direction.
Five minutes behind the wheel of an original Mark I Mini Cooper S, and your humble correspondent is grinning like a maniac, as befits his Northern Ireland roots. Stickin’ out! This wee yoke is the same type of motor that Belfast-born Paddy Hopkirk drove to victory at the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, cementing the Mini’s reputation as a brand that punches above its weight class.
The interior is weirdly roomier than the exterior would suggest, like Dr. Who’s Tardis fitted with tiny wheels. The small displacement four-cylinder isn’t hugely powerful, but only has to haul around the weight of what’s essentially a biscuit tin with windows. Go-kart handling? Go-karts wish they could handle like this.
But as I putter back to the paddock, cheery nostalgia fades, replaced by the looming present. And I do mean looming: When compared with its scrappy little ancestor, something like the current Mini Countryman crossover is a third longer, 25 per cent wider and 15 per cent taller. Mini, as reimagined by BMW, is no longer so mini.
“Everywhere in the auto segment, there’s a need for larger cars to exist,” says Ishaan Khatri, product manager for Mini. “Some of it comes from a consumer demand to have more technology, more room and flexibility. There are also regulations which we don’t have control over, such as pedestrian impact legislation. You need to have more space in front of the engine.”
Currently, there are three models in the Mini range, from the entry-level three-door that’s closest in spirit to the original, to the five-door Clubman wagon and Countryman crossover. The latter can now be optioned with a plug-in hybrid option.
“In my mind, there are really only three iconic people’s cars” – Khatri ticks them off on his fingers – “our Mini, the Fiat 500 and the VW Beetle. We were obviously concerned to see that the Beetle was going to leave the market.”
What lesson can be learned from the Beetle's demise? Perhaps that a quirky appeal to nostalgia with modern underpinnings isn't quite enough to go the distance. However, there might be more to the Mini brand than simply looking back over its shoulder.
To get a better sense of what that might be, I climb into a first-edition Mini Cooper GP, an ultralimited version of BMW’s original take on a reborn Mini. Yes, this modern version is immediately bulkier than the 1960s classic, but as its supercharged engine buzzes up through the rev range, there was something of that same heart.
At once, the Cooper GP is far more composed than something such as a Fiat 500 Abarth, but has a great deal more personality than any Volkswagen product. The VW Beetle was always a Golf dressed up in nostalgic cosplay, while the Mini was trying to do its own thing.
Mini has confirmed the return of the top-level GP model for the current three-door model. However, I’m more interested with what Khatri has to say about the state of the Mini at present, and what the future might hold.
“We're a niche brand with a small market share, but we have a very loyal customer base. We offer a huge amount of customization options, and we're one of the only manufacturers to offer a manual transmission in every single model we sell.”
Mini consumers seem to respond to being offered the choice in ways that buck market trends. Khatri reports that 10 per cent 15 per cent of buyers choose a manual in the base Minis, increasing to between 20 per cent and 25 per cent in the S models, and a 50/50 split in the most powerful John Cooper Works (JCW) cars.
Further, while Khatri sees the next-generation Countryman potentially getting larger still, he has good news for the Mini faithful: “With our [three-door], we recognize that it shouldn’t get any bigger. That’s our line in the sand. And, with electrification, maybe it could actually get smaller.”
Mini has announced an all-electric Cooper for limited release this year, equipped with the BMW i3′s electric motor and a roughly 60kWh battery. It’ll likely be some time before Canadian consumers get their hands on it, but an all-electric Mini urban runabout sounds like a fun way to get around town.
In the meantime, both the classic Mini and its modern version enjoy a following that’s small, but faithful and eager. When you think about it, that’s not unlike the cars themselves. Bring on the future of Mini.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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