Perugia, Italy--One of the most telling aspects of the new Mini's introduction to an assembled press corps (of mostly Americans and Canadians) was the moderator's language: German. If it weren't for Mini PR chief Mike McHale bringing his Englishness to the launch, the only British accents I would have heard were on the BBC--which is probably as it should have been, because this new sport hatch's roots run more deeply beneath the thick conifers of Bavaria than under the ancient oaks of the great Arden forest, which once flourished in the area of the Mini plant near Oxford, England.

Make no mistake; despite its evocative styling, homage to what once was an icon of the British motor industry, the new Mini is no re-badged Rover. It is, instead, the affordably priced front-driver that BMW has needed in its stable, an exciting backroad scrambler, and, (maybe) most importantly, the first manifestation of what BMW says will grow into a "premium brand" sporting a number of different models.

The makeover performed by BMW's engineers to the former Rover project was taken almost to the cellular level. From the nuts and bolts (which had to be changed from English dimensions to metric) outward, the original concept was refined and upgraded with more sophisticated mechanical and electronic systems, higher quality materials and generous levels of standard equipment.

But why? Given the Mini's modest sales goals (20,000 or so in the U.S. out of the first year's production run of about 100,000 cars), why should BMW have thrown considerable resources so hard at the compact hatch? Why shouldn't the Mini badge have gone the way of Riley or Humber? The answer lies partly in Munich's long-term goals for the Mini--as a premium brand, not just a boutique item--and partly in the Mini's suitability for sale in virtually every corner of the world. In contrast to cars whose stylish veneers mask mundane or impractical layouts, the Mini appears to be as suitable for wending through narrow European lanes as it will be for the repetitious grind of a L.A. freeway commute.

BMW's Dr. Burkhard Goeschel, member of the board for engineering and development, observed that the Mini was "built from the inside out," and though head designer Frank Stephenson might quibble, the statement was meant to draw attention to the car's underlying technology. The Mini is a "serious car, grown-up, but not that serious..." Goeschel laughed, admitting, like many on hand remembered, to a youthful love affair with an original Mini. That car, like many on hand also remembered, "frequently abandoned" him by the side of the road, but it was a trait he promised would be absent in this comely newcomer to the world's roads.

Such words as "likeable" and "agile" were also used (the German equivalents, anyway) to describe the Mini's project goals, and in those respects the car acquitted itself brilliantly. Hours of spirited driving over the twisted terrain of Italy's Umbrian montane revealed a willing playmate, vivacious and oozing with personality yet without a hint of superficiality. It doesn't seem the sort to abandon you.

In fact, except for a lack of grunt from the 1.6-liter engine and a backseat unfriendly to basketball players, the new Mini is an ideal mix of flair and practicality. The people empowered to market the Mini in America seemed nervous about its reception in a country addicted to gas-guzzling behemoths, but I think they'll have the same problem Chrysler faced when the PT Cruiser reached showrooms. There just weren't enough of them to go around, and it pains me to think of all those who will have to settle for some econo-box other than this new hatch. Where do I get a Mini franchise?

The Lineup
Two models, the Mini One (not for North America) and the Mini Cooper, went on sale in Europe this past July and will be joined later by the Cooper S. All models are powered by a 1.6-liter four built jointly with Chrysler in Brazil, and each will offer the choice of five-speed manual or CVT automatic transmissions. Engine outputs range from 90 bhp in Mini One trim to 115 bhp in the Cooper, and a bit more than 160 bhp is promised for the supercharged S.

Because the Mini marketers are looking at a younger group of buyers, "personalization" is being given high priority with long option lists, numerous color choices and even a plan to allow buyers to design their own roof decals, long a mainstay of Mini enthusiasm. European buyers are being offered three equipment packages, labeled Salt, Pepper and Chili, as well as individual options, and American shoppers will be given the chance to outfit their Minis as though they were luxury BMWs (see spec charts for more details on the options).

The Drivetrain
If there is one component of the new Mini that bears closer scrutiny, it is the engine. BMW officials openly admitted to some apprehension that a powerplant with so modest an output might be considered second rate for a company which prides itself on engine technology. However, in many respects, the little four is a sound basis for both economy and performance versions and features some very advanced approaches to solving problems of NVH, packaging and meeting ever stricter emissions laws. This "Pentagon" engine, in fact, meets the EU4 emissions requirements and is one of the few engines around which doesn't require a secondary air injection or exhaust return.

A cast-iron block (good for reducing noise and vibration) is capped by an aluminum-alloy cylinder head housing a single, chain-driven overhead camshaft. Four valves per cylinder are actuated by roller tip levers, which control hydraulic valve balancing elements. Many of the engine's auxiliaries, including the water pump, transmission and, if applicable, air conditioning, are mounted directly to the block, thus saving valuable underhood space for larger crush zones, and simplifying the build process.

A key element of the engine is the Siemens control unit, which BMW calls the "Powertrain Controller" and includes "E-Gas" or electronic throttle actuation, replacing the direct mechanical link between pedal and engine. The PC essentially determines the ideal amount of fuel flow, based on data it receives from the E-Gas system, for optimum engine torque. Also ensuring optimum performance is active knock control, which allows the car to run on almost anything that combusts (as long as it's lead-free petrol), and a service indicator system tells the owner when a trip to the shop is required (first service is between 16,000 and 20,000km).

The only car I drove in Italy, with the 115-bhp version of the 1.6-liter four, acquitted itself well during humdrum driving, revving freely when asked, content to plod along when required. However, when prodded for a quick burst of passing power, or faced with a steep hill, the desultory response revealed why a supercharger will be fitted to the Cooper S version. It's not so much the fault of the engine as it is economy-slanted gear ratios in the five-speed transmission. However, the shifter itself has a wonderful, short-throw feel and makes much easier the chore of staying in the right gear.

Not available for driving was a Mini with the optional continuously variable transmission, which will be available in North America and will feature optional steering-wheel-mounted gear selector switches.

The Suspension
Here is where the new Mini performs brilliantly. It begins with an exceptionally rigid body (two to three times stiffer than any competitor). Front MacPherson strut-type suspension offers weight and packaging advantages, and equal-length driveshafts temper the effects of torque steer. To be more precise, the Mini exhibits none of that behavior and is perhaps the most balanced small front-driver ever to reach market.

Even more impressive is the multi-link rear suspension borrowed from the BMW E46. Not only does it deliver class-leading stability, it allows a low rear luggage floor and wider space between the shock absorbers, optimizing the little room there is behind the rear seats. Front and rear stabilizer bars are fitted to the Cooper, which also has sportier suspension tuning and is lowered 8mm below the Mini One's ride height. Contributing to the overall excellent driving experience is BMW's electro-hydraulic power-assisted steering. Only 2.5 turns of the steering wheel from lock to lock mean precision and small inputs; plus, rather than using a conventional hydraulic pump which puts a constant drain on engine power, the EHPAS's hydraulic pump is more efficient because it's run by a small electric motor and only when needed.

Summing up the result of this sophisticated chassis is easy: It's brilliant. The Mini feels as though it could take another 100 horsepower and still exhibit the levels of agility and grip which made it such a ball to drive. I can't remember the last car I was in where my co-driver and I fought so earnestly over time behind the wheel.

The Interior
Even those who were wowed by the exterior styling of the Mini gape in astonishment at the level of finish and materials in this sub-$20,000 car. From the large rev counter on top of the steering column to the toggle switches on the center console to an advanced in-car entertainment system or optional Nav system, the layout is superbly designed. It's the first interior to come along in a while that makes the Audi TT's look almost boring.

How Much and When?
Mini Coopers and Cooper S models will reach U.S. shores next spring. Base price is below $18,000, the S will cost about $3,000 more than the Cooper, and even fully equipped cars shouldn't run more than a couple grand over base sticker. Stay tuned for much more on this exciting new car.

Factory Specs: Mini Cooper
Engine Inline four, sohc, 16 valves per cylinder, Siemens EMS 2000 engine management Displacement 1598cc Bore x stroke 85.8 x 77mm CR 10.6:1 Max bhp 115 @ 6000 rpm Max torque 149 Nm (110 lb-ft) @ 4500 rpm
Weight
2,292 lb (CVT: 2,347 lb) Wheelbase 97.13 in. Length 142.76 in. Width 66.47 in. Height 55.43 in. Track, f/r 57.4/57.7 in. Turning circle 34.97 ft Fuel tank 50L Engine oil 4.8L Max load 948 lb Luggage comp. 5.65 cu. ft Cd 0.35 Brakes, f/r Ventilated disc/disc Diameter, f/r 10.86/10.19 in. Driving stability systems ABS, CBC, EBD Steering Rack & pinion Ratio 12.88:1 Transmission types Five-speed manual, CVT Ratios Five-speed I-V: 3.417, 1.947, 1.333, 1.054, 0.846 Final drive Five-speed, 3.940; CVT, 4.10 Wheels 15-in., aluminum Tires 175/65R15 Factory performance (mfg's numbers) 0-62 mph, 9.0 sec. Top speed 185 km/h (125 mph)

Standard equipment for U.S. models (subject to change) includes tire pressure control; tachometer, speedometer, analog clock; six airbags including HPS2 side airbags; space saver wheel/tire; 15-in. alloy wheels (white or silver); silver interior surface; child seat setup; stowage package (glovebox, etc.); air conditioning; interior light package; telephone prep; CD player; AM/FM/CD player.

Optional equipment for U.S. models (subject to change) includes sport suspension; CVT auto transmission; DSC (dynamic stability control); Cooper spoiler; chrome exterior line; heated windshield washer jets; heated windscreen; headlamp washer system; Park Distance Control; foglamps; Xenon lights; 16-in. alloy wheels; electric sunroof; rain sensor and auto-dipping rearview mirror; leather steering wheel; multifunction steering wheel; wood steering wheel; navigation system; alarm system; wood trim; heated front seats; smoker's package; sport seats; six-disc changer; Harman Kardon stereo system

Base price (est.): below $18,000
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