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2001 Mini: Long Term Review "A Year In Europe With My Mini"

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SEE ALSO Mini Buyer's Guide

The author, Gregory Harris is an American who lives in Modena, Italy and has had a full year to drive his MINI around Europe, finding its ins and outs.

As a loyal TACH’er(one who loves cars and appreciates The Auto Channel), Gregory has graciously made his opinions and thoughts available for other TACH’ers, who are considering the purchase of a new Mini, especially “at the prices I’ve seen Stateside”.

Statistics: 2001 Mini One “Salt” package: A/C, driver seat height adjustment, fog lights Purchased: October 30, 2001 Modena, Italy

In October 2001, I bought the first Mini One in northern Italy. Now, 12 months and 12,000 km later, I have put together a quick summary of the car, its strengths and its weaknesses.

The new Mini is certainly a pretty car. It stands out in a sea of compact and subcompacts, all of which resemble each other too much. Its personality comes through like that of a much more expensive car. The dash is eye-catching, and the centrally-mounted speedo is a great touch. The only drawback is that your mother-in-law in the back can see exactly how fast you are driving.

We tend to take quite a few weekend road trips and it didn’t take long to realize that the trunk space on the Mini is a little too small. It will fit a few grocery bags side-by-side, but only one carry-on suitcase, which was a problem. Paring it down to a bare minimum, we could pack all our things in one carry-on each. I could squeeze those into the trunk space, but they were still a few inches too high for the privacy panel, meaning we might as well have thrown them on the back seat. In addition, there is no convenient space to put the privacy panel if (I should say, when) you remove it. It’s just a detail, but you’d think BMW would have considered that.

On the subject of space, the Mini has no glove box or any enclosed compartment. Instead, there is a small shelf below the airbag. The car manual fits nicely here, but not much else. What’s more, almost everything else you slide in there slides out: maps, CDs, mints. To make matters worse; there is no center console, either. Again, a little more ingenuity might have altered the design just a little and slipped a little Mercedes-style console under the rocker switches.

One of the Mini’s quirks is that only the driver’s door has a keyhole: the passenger’s door and the hatch must be opened from inside or with the remote. Since our remote was DOA for the first 3 weeks we owned the car, we really noticed and I hate to think what will happen when the remote’s battery dies. An extra keyhole or two surely couldn’t hurt, and a keyhole in the hatch could even be covered by the Mini logo...and would have been very convenient.

Another quirk is that you have to PUSH the lever on the front seat to slide it forward for rear seat access. Oh, it’s no big deal, I know except that every other car in the world has a lever you PULL. Meaning everyone pulls the lever, which pivots the seatback forward out of its memorized position but it won’t slide, of course, although people will try until they break it. And even if you remember to push the lever, and even if you tell someone else to, they won’t and you’ll have to readjust at least twice every time someone new gets in the car complaining that the seat didn’t slide forward.

A month after we got the car, we drove to dinner with some friends and fit 3 small girls in the back seat one way. It was so uncomfortable, one of the girls refused to get back in after dinner and instead jumped into a VW Golf. This car is for 4 people max, and those people should be under 6 feet and 200 pounds to avoid cranial bruising. We have also had 2 larger men in the car and although they thought it was a cool car for a ride to the office, they found all sorts of reasons not to get in again.

This was also a consideration on airport or train station runs: we forewarned guests to come without luggage or bring it on their lap. Even so, my wife would stay home and I would go alone to the airport in order to accommodate a visiting couple with one suitcase and a carry-on between them.

Another minor complaint is the car’s sound system. The stock system is 5 watts and has…a cassette player. Does anyone even own a cassette? Come on, guys! It’s the 21st century! The optional single CD player has 25 watts and added about $500 to the cost.

The car is peppy enough, despite a long 3rd gear. With its small engine, the air conditioning takes a noticeable hit from the power, and I found myself switching the air off if I needed to pass. Also, It made shifting sluggish, especially at low speeds. That meant uncomfortable city driving: too hot or a sloppy clutch.

There also seems to be a major safety problem with the shift assembly that a mechanic claimed was endemic to the old Mini: in the fast lane on the Autoroute in the south of France, the gearbox fell apart and I had to coast through three lanes in neutral and wait for a tow. Apparently, the gearbox is made of two pieces, an upper and a lower, that like to detach every now and then. BMW fixed the entire gear assembly for us 6 weeks after we had our near-death experience. I have put that down to typical Italian laziness, but anyone contemplating a new Mini should have the assembly replaced beforehand, or inspected regularly.

We also found out that the 1.6 litre engine is also too small to supply the power needed to navigate windy mountain roads. On small roads in Tuscany, I found myself downshifting just to keep close to the speed limit while VWs and Alfas powered on by.

The car will hit its top speed of 185 km/h, but it’s not very happy about it. Perhaps it was a Germanic safety trick but the upper limit at which the car felt comfortable was around 130 km/h. Over that, it felt like I was pushing it: I could feel the resistance and the engine noise became unpleasantly strained and loud.

The car also got its best mileage at legal speeds. After the break-in period, during which the car averaged 12km/l, the car averages 15 km/l respectable, but certainly not groundbreaking for a car this size with brand new engine technology.

Who should buy this car? Anyone looking for a fun car that’s different from the rest maybe as a city car or for daytrips (but not in the mountains) and who doesn’t need a lot of space and who has some extra cash to part with. Got a baby? Forget it: a stroller won’t fit without putting the seat down. As a first car, it’s not your best option. For the price, there are too many great cars without the quirks and problems.

In summary, the Mini is a fun car to drive on average roads. It handles better than many comparable cars, thanks to some BMW enhancements, but needs a little more torque the Cooper S delivers this nicely (for a price) and storage space. The quirks are the price you pay for a car with personality and you have to decide if you can live with them. The electrical system reflects the car’s British roots, and you can expect to have problems although that will probably more of an annoyance than a safety concern (did I mention the entire electrical system blew on a bitterly cold winter night and the car was in the shop for 3 weeks?). The gearbox, though, is a big, red flashing warning light. If BMW doesn’t change it soon, it will be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Can you get a better car for the same price? Sure. But it probably wouldn’t look as cool.

“I will be happy to answer any other questions you may have about the car or my situation. Still at large in Italy but looking for a used Alfa.”