There's the American way, and then there's the British way. That statement applies, of course, to any number of cultural, political, musical, literary, culinary, dental and linguistic matters ("two peoples separated by a common language," and all that). Consider the differences between football and, well, football. Between Masterpiece Theatre and South Park. Or between the polished, multisyllabic oratory of Tony Blair and er, never mind.
Actually, the across-the-pond disconnect I'm talking about in this case concerns cars. And not just how "they" drive on the "wrong" side of the road. No, there is simply a profound difference between the American approach to drivin' and the British approach to motoring.
This was brought home to me in concrete terms in the course of the past month. In late February I went down to Florida to cover the Daytona 500. There I witnessed an ear-splitting spectacle of speed and noise, the roar of high-powered engines racing side by side, the smash of metal against metal as drivers took insane risks to edge ahead of each other and that was just among the fans parking in the infield. In all seriousness, there is a reason they call the Daytona 500 the Great American Race: it's all about big, loud V8 engines and puttin' your right foot down and goin' flat-out on the high bankings. That's drivin'.
But then, back in Princeton a week and a half later, my hearing almost restored to normal, I headed out to Princeton BMW and Princeton MINI on Route One to test drive a Mini Cooper S. And I have to say that, while I don't expect to see the little boxy beauty parked in the driveways of too many NASCAR dads, it is, well, bloody good fun to go motoring in.
The original Mini was born in Great Britain in 1959. It was a cute little fuel-efficient four-seater perfectly suited to the narrow English roadways. Two years later, however, renowned race car builder John Cooper tweaked the car a bit with an eye to adding some pep, and the Mini Cooper became an icon. Racing Minis won the Monte Carlo Rally of 1964 and countless other races. (As a kid I had a photo of a pack of Minis cornering on three wheels tacked up on my wall.) The original version of the film The Italian Job featured an outrageous chase sequence with Minis. The quintessential "mod" vehicle ("Yeah, baby!"), the Mini Cooper was eventually named Car of the Century by Autocar magazine.
In 1994 BMW acquired the British company that was still making the Mini Cooper and two years later announced plans for a completely new Mini for the new millennium. (The last of the classic Minis was produced in 2000.) Designed from the ground up by BMW's engineers, but retaining the look and the spirit of its classic inspiration, the new Mini Cooper debuted in the U.S. in 2002 and was an instant hit, essentially selling out to the tune of 35- to 40,000 per year. "The car sells itself," said Princeton MINI Sales Manager Alan Causing, a serious car guy who is himself an enthusiastic Mini owner. "Ninety percent of the people who come into the salesroom to look already have the car in their head."
A good number of buyers are families with two or more kids who are looking for a fun second or third car. With a base Mini Cooper starting at around $18,000, it becomes a hip and reasonable alternative to another Civic or Beetle. And despite the car's dimensions (just 144 inches long with an overall height of 55.4 inches), the Mini is surprisingly accommodating (at least with the kids in the backseat). After all, the all-time record for number of people crammed into a classic Mini is 25.
My interest in the Mini however, was less domestic and more sporting, which is why I was here to check out a Mini Cooper S, the performance version of the car. The Cooper S, which starts at around $22,000, features a 1.6-litre transverse- mounted in-line four-cylinder engine that develops 168 horsepower at 6,000 rpms. Which is pretty good stuff in a vehicle that weighs in at just 2,700 pounds.
But now here's where things get fun: Mr. Causing was going to take me out in his own Mini Cooper S, which happens to be equipped with the John Cooper Works Tuning Kit, which is essentially factory-installed and offered as an after-market package. At over $5,000, it's not cheap, but for true enthusiasts it may just be irresistible. The kit features a supercharger, modified cylinder head, reprogrammed electrical controls and a stainless steel free-flow exhaust system, all of which boosts the engine output to 207 horsepower.
The Cooper S is fast. I learn this as soon as Mr. Causing pulled out onto Route 1 and punched the throttle. I am reminded again later when I hit it at a light and squeal the tires and later when returning on Route 1 myself I glance down at the speedometer, do a double take and immediately back off the gas. But there are lots of big, powerful American cars that are fast like that (though with a different sound than the Mini's supercharger whine). What makes the Cooper S so thrilling in the end is its nimbleness, its speed not just between the curves but through them.
"You keep trying to find its limit," Mr. Causing said with wonder in his voice, "and you just can't."
Despite its front engine and front wheel drive, the car handles very neutral with no heavy understeer. In fact, with its compact size but relatively long wheelbase (97.1 inches) and wide stance, the S has a little bit of a go-kart feel to it, a reassuring stiffness. It would be great fun to throw the car through an autocross course.
Alas, I have only an all too brief time on the roads of Lawrenceville, some of it spent languishing behind a creeping bus. For a moment, as we approach a curve, I imagine darting to the inside of him and squeezing by on three wheels to go driving no, motoring happily off into the distance. It is a pretty thought.
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