Clarkson on: the Mini Cooper S
Let's talk Mini. I've just spent the last three weeks in a supercharged Cooper S and I have the following observations.
It may have a wheelbase that's pretty much identical to a Land Rover Discovery - there's just a couple of inches in it - but where's all the space gone? There is absolutely no leg-room in the back and the boot is laughable.
Of course, the main reason for the discrepancy is that the Discovery has overhangs like a Colorado cliff face while the Mini has none at all. It really does have a wheel at each corner, which is fine, until you bump into something. Then watch the repairs turn from a spot of minor panel beating into a huge mechanical undertaking.
Then there's the ride. Tradition says that Minis bounce up and down as you drive along, so that is what happens in the new car. But tradition also says that the Queen can cut off people's heads and put them on spikes in her garden.
Handling? It's not that great actually. I had 15 hard laps round Donington and it wanted to plough straight on at every single corner. Short of using the handbrake, nothing was going to unglue the rear.
And now, things really start to get nasty. The fuel tank is basically a Zippo and to make matters worse, the Cooper S does about 17mpg. Frankly, this car doesn't have the range to get from pump eight on my local forecourt to pump nine.
Worse than this though is the reliability. You might imagine - it being a BMW and all - that it's perfect, but judging from my post bag, it isn't. Indeed, it seems to have picked up the baton dropped by the old Range Rover and become the most complained about car in the land.
Mind you, I suspect the only reason the new Range Rover is not being complained about is because, so far as I can tell, none of them have been delivered yet.
Finally, we have the seats. They're quite comfortable but when you've let someone out of the back, just try to get them back into the right position again. I should like to meet the man who designed this feature, so that I could plunge a brace of cocktail sticks into his eyes.
So, to sum up then, the Mini is badly packaged, badly made, badly thought out, bad at going round corners, bad at going in a straight line and bad at getting where it's going because, even if it doesn't break down, it'll run out of petrol.
And yet I absolutely love it. I have been volunteering to go into town to get the milk and then coming home without it, on purpose, so I can go again. And yesterday, I drove all the way to London to see someone who I knew full well is dead.
Why? Well it's because all the drawbacks are overshadowed by the looks. The pillarless doors. The white roof. The twin exhausts poking out from the centre of the rear bumper. And inside, you have those fabulous switches and dials that are utterly useless at telling you how fast you're going, but look great.
"I had 15 hard laps round Donington and it wanted to plough straight on at every single corner"
A friend of mine took one look and decided on the spot to buy one. "But Brian," I wailed, "you can't have an automatic Cooper S and you cannot drive a manual because you're always on the phone".
"I don't care," he said. And so, pretty soon, some dealer somewhere is going to be part exchanging a Mini for a Maserati 3200GT.
This, I think, is the future of cars. Have you seen that new Alfa Romeo Brera? Who cares how much it costs or how many seats it has. If I told you it had a 1.3-litre engine, would you mind? No, and neither would I. (Actually, it has a 400bhp 4.2-litre V8 and that just makes me want one even more).
And it's much the same story with the elusive Range Rover. I hear there are some problems with BMW-sourced parts but this doesn't bother me one jot. Those headlamps - they're like a techno marine watch. And the gills - they're like you get on a shark.
Do you know what I was doing this morning? I was sitting on my loo reading stuff; nothing unusual there - I'm a man - when I suddenly decided that I had to have one of the new VW Microbuses. This has nothing to do with the seven-seater layout or the promise of great economy from the five-cylinder turbodiesel engine.
Nor is my frock blown up by that whole Haight Ashbury hippy thing. Yes, I'm sure the Mommas and the Poppas had an old model but this has little to do with the appeal now. That rests entirely on the styling.
It seems to me that having cracked reliability, mostly, and having sorted themselves out into neat groups where platform sharing has pared costs to the bone, car makers are now concentrating more heavily than ever before on design.
Renault's new Megane is like a shrunken version of the epic Avantime. The Mazda 6, with its lean forward stance and razor edges is more handsome than any four door saloon has a right to be. Then there's the Mazda RX-8 which will make people explode. And Aston Martin have two cars in the pipeline, both of which will make small boys grab at their tinkles. I even like the look of the new Astra.
In fact, the only company that seems to be going backwards is Ferrari. The 360 is not as pretty as the 355 and the new F60, now to be called the Enzo Ferrari, is not as pretty as Hilda Ogden.
I'm sure it's fast and so on but styling is the new black, so I'd rather have the Mini.