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Mini's a Mouse That's Roaring Again

The tiny, fun-to-drive car has been updated and retooled, and so has its popularity


Michael Lewis has some problems with his car. He can't go anywhere without being stopped to talk about it. He can't wipe the smile off his face when he's driving it. And he hasn't been able to restrict himself to owning only one.

Lewis' car or, rather, cars are classic English Minis, 1960s and '70s micro mobiles that are so narrow they could drive on sidewalks, so short the only view out the driver's side window is often another car's hubcap, and so responsive they can outmaneuver Ferraris.

Since March, when BMW brought out its updated and retooled version of the classic car, Minis--both old and new--have become more popular than ever. Some say it's SUV backlash, a perspective BMW promotes in its ad campaign, but the car's true fans know the real reason. Minis are just "so much more fun to drive" than regular cars, said Lewis, who bought his first Mini four years ago and now runs a vintage Mini dealership in Ventura.

Some of the fun in driving them is nostalgia--the car's been around since 1959--and novelty--they're just 10 feet long and 4 1/2 feet tall. But almost every driver will tell you the biggest thrill is the handling and performance.

"We're gonna turn left," Chris Travers announced as he approached a corner in his classic Mini Cooper S, speeding up rather than slowing down to take a turn at 40 mph. There was no burning rubber, no plume of smoke from the transmission. Just the echo of a scream as Travers' passenger recovered from the maneuver. Travers was showing off his ride at a recent meeting for the Mini Owners of America-Los Angeles car club, whose members own the originals and the reissues. Shrugging off the move, he said, "You didn't hear tires squealing."

Travers, 52, has owned his Mini for 6 1/2 years, but the love affair began many years earlier, when he saw the 1969 Michael Caine film "The Italian Job."

"When I saw that chase scene where the [Minis] made the getaway through shopping mall sidewalks and stairways, I thought, that's the coolest thing going."

Many of the classic Cooper S's, the sports cars that are the most coveted of all the Minis, were and still are being raced. As a result, many have been destroyed. But the new ones are helping to fill that gap. When BMW first announced it would be reissuing the car--originally made by British Motor Corp. and branded as either Austin or Morris Minis--dealers began compiling waiting lists, which quickly grew out of control.

At Nick Alexander Imports, the only BMW Mini dealer in Los Angeles, 2,500 people were on the list by the time the car was available, even though the dealership will only be receiving 350 this year. Some customers are combing the state for Mini dealerships with cars available. With a base sticker price of $16,850, the cars are so popular that many dealers are asking thousands of dollars over sticker, charging as much as $27,000--and getting it. In the six months the car's been available here, 12,500 of them have been sold nationally.

The Mini's popularity doesn't surprise Dan Pund, associate editor at Car and Driver magazine. "You build up equity over the course of years in a particular name and people associate certain characteristics with that name," he said. "If you had a fairly successful vehicle over the course of several years, bringing it back is ready-made marketing."

It's a formula that worked for Volkswagen when it reintroduced its bubbly new Beetle in 1998. The original Beetles were, at one time, the best-selling import car in the country. Volkswagen sold more than 4.9 million of them in the U.S., but the company stopped distributing them here in 1979. By the time the car was updated and brought back to market, people were so misty-eyed and nostalgic for the little Bug that they've since snatched up more than 320,000 of them.

In the U.S., Minis are far more obscure than the Beetle. They were sold in the U.S. from 1959 to 1967 only. In Europe, they are much better known. By the time the company closed its doors in October 2000, 5.5 million of them had been sold worldwide--mostly in England, other parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand--but only 10,000 of those were sold in the U.S.

The new BMW Minis are built in the same plant as the old Minis but are substantially different. The BMW is bigger than the classic: It is 2 feet longer and 6 inches taller. It also comes with a number of safety improvements over the original--air bags, side-impact beams, crumple zones. To many classic car aficionados, the only thing the new and classic Minis have in common is the name. But it is that name that is getting more and more attention.

The new BMW is not only raising the car's profile in America but prompting a mini-resurgence in the original cars' sales.

Though he declines specifics, Lewis says he has sold more Minis in the first nine months of 2002 than he sold in all of 2001. It's rare, he says, that he sells fewer than one a week.

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