Honey, I shrunk the car.
It was a simple punch line but seemed to entertain dozens of folks who wanted to admire my test car, the diminutive 2002 Mini Cooper.
The new, modern Mini hatchback, after all, ranks as the shortest car in America with an overall length of just 11.9 feet.
It also rides low enough to the ground that the owner's manual advises against driving the Mini through standing water more than a foot deep.
But the Mini, which has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $16,850 for a base Cooper model, is in no way short on fun. As one auto critic put it, the new Mini Cooper is the closest thing to a street-legal Go Kart a consumer can get.
Being sold in the United States for the first time since 1967, Mini is an icon in Europe, Asia and its native England where it was the classless car of the 60s embraced by common folks and celebrities alike.
But where the first generation front-drive Mini was austere inside, the new one is comparatively sporting. The newly engineered Mini also is larger than the original, if you can believe, more powerful and loaded with safety features.
"There's one airbag for every 2 feet of car," said Jack Pitney, general manager of Mini in the United States.
Earlier Minis were built by a British company, Rover. But the modern Mini Cooper comes from an English factory under the auspices of Germany-based BMW.
Because the 2002 Mini is a new model, Consumer Reports does not provide a reliability rating. Government and insurance industry officials have yet to release crash-test results on the Mini.
Despite its small size, the new Mini Cooper provides a sense of spaciousness to riders, especially those in the two front seats.
Windows are surprisingly large, and neither I nor my 6-foot husband felt hemmed in by front-seat headroom of 38.8 inches. Note this is more headroom than in the front seats of the Acura RSX hatchback and the VW GTI.
JUST THE FACTS
2002 MINI Cooper
BASE PRICE: $16,300.
AS TESTED: $19,130.
TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, four-passenger, mini hatchback.
ENGINE: 1.6-liter, single overhead cam, inline four cylinder.
MILEAGE: 26 mpg (city), 43 mpg (highway).
TOP SPEED: 124 mph.
LENGTH: 142.8 inches.
WHEELBASE: 97.1 inches.
CURB WT.: 2,524 pounds.
BUILT AT: England.
OPTIONS: Premium package (includes automatic air conditioning, sunroof, leather interior with cruise control and on-board computer) $1,250; 16-inch wheels with run-flat tires $500; sport seats $270; fog lamps $140; chrome line bumpers $120.
DESTINATION CHARGE: $550.
Legroom was adaptable for both of us -- I'm 5 feet 4 -- as there's plenty of track to move front seats fore and aft. But the Mini Cooper's dead pedal should be repositioned. It was not comfortable for either me or my husband.
The first impression inside the Mini is all the circle shapes, from air vents to door handles. This makes the Mini feel stylish in a retro way.
There's also a surprising location for the speedometer, at least for those unfamiliar with the old Mini.
Instead of being in an instrument cluster in front of the driver, the speedometer in the Mini is a large round dial smack in the center of the dashboard, giving even back-seat riders a good view of every speeding-ticket infraction.
The driver's attention, however, is directed to the Mini tachometer which is another round dial set atop the steering column. There, the 6,750-rpm redline is illuminated bright red, even when headlights aren't on.
The test Mini Cooper, which is the base Mini, came with the base, 1.6-liter, single-overhead-cam four-cylinder that never sounded strained or buzzy.
In fact, it felt as if the car moved along better than its numbers suggest. The Mini is rated at only 115 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm and compares with 115 horses in the base New Beetle with 2-liter four-cylinder engine and 130 horsepower for a base Focus ZX3 hatchback with 2-liter four.
Of course, it helps that the Mini is lightweight, with a curb weight of just about 2,500 pounds. The New Beetle weighs in at more than 2,800 pounds, while the Focus ZX3 is 2,551 at a minimum.
The Go Kart sensations are felt immediately. The Mini scooted down the road, powered by the eager peppiness of the engine and the correct selection from among the five manual gears. Shifts were satisfying, with a cushioned-rubber feel.
The ride in the tester, which had sport suspension and run-flat tires with stiff sidewalls, felt quite firm, overall, and road bumps were sometimes transmitted to riders in an instant, abrupt way.
Mini officials noted the structure of the car is 50 percent stiffer than even that of the BMW 3-Series cars.
Add in the quick steering response -- just a slight movement to the right or left sends the Mini darting -- and you can begin to understand the Go Kart description.
Still, the Mini doesn't intimidate. It's not just its friendly exterior, which brought smiles and thumbs-up from passersby, the likes of which I haven't seen since the introduction of the New Beetle.
It's the ease with which this little car can be driven softly or aggressively, depending on the driver.
Of course, drivers and passengers do need to get used to riding low and being surrounded on today's roads by larger vehicles. I had a great view, for example, of a pickup truck license plate in front of me.
But at least the Mini comes with a big-car horn.
But company officials highlight the safety features on the Mini, which include standard four-wheel disc brakes with antilock braking system, electronic brakeforce distribution and cornering brake control, six airbags, including side-curtain bags, and advanced crumple zones in the front and rear.
There can be perks to driving such a small car. The Mini can claim many an urban parking spot that big sport utilities have to pass up. The Mini's fuel economy rating includes 43 mpg on the highway for a model with manual transmission. And the Mini leaves extra space in your garage at home.
Mini also offers a unique, customizable paint scheme where the roof can be a contrasting color or design -- a flag design, for example -- than the car body.
But rear-seat riders won't find much legroom if the front seats are back on their tracks, and cargo space behind the folding rear seats is a meager 5.3 cubic feet.
According to the owner's manual, premium fuel is not only recommended, it's required in the Mini Cooper.
The test car had an on-again/off-again problem with the tailgate latching correctly, and the lever to open the hood is positioned way over on the front passenger footwell area.
Mini officials can only get some 20,000 cars to America this year, so supplies are tight.
Buyers are difficult to describe, according to the company.
One day, a dealer in Concord, Calif., had a 15-year-old boy put his name on a waiting list, in anticipation of when he turns 16 and gets his drivers license. The same day, a 72-year-old woman said she wanted a Mini, too.
"The Mini truly is a classless car," Pitney said.
Other three-door hatchbacks include the New Beetle, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $16,450, and the Focus ZX3, which starts at $14,940.
On the Web:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: http://www.highwaysafety.org/
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