Let’s take the giant blanket off the elephant in the room. You know it’s crossed your mind. A question looms large and stares some buyers straight in the eye: “Is the MINI a ‘chick car?’”
Before you skip straight to the comment section, I offer you some food for thought.
The topic for this week’s “Opposite Lock” has been bouncing around in my grey matter for some time, brought into focus however by the recent launch of the MINI Coupe. What a handsome product. The MINI Coupe is, in fact, the first MINI I’ve ever set my eyes on that gave me palpitations. I absolutely love its design, and in early photos it had me drooling. No one ever uses the rear seats anyway – to the best of my knowledge – so why not do away with them altogether and morph this car into something more impractical and indeed, exotic.
Ironically, eliminating the rear seats has actually made the new MINI more versatile and practical, with an impressive 8.8 cubic feet of rear storage space. Yet its newfound utility does nothing to detract from its enormous sex appeal. If Austin Powers makes a return to the big screen, you know what he’ll be driving.
With the above in mind, I saw the MINI Coupe in a completely different light from all previous MINIs. I saw the MINI Coupe both as a car that I want, and a car that meets my exhaustive criteria (well, nearly: the MINI is not RWD, nor does it have a LSD). “This little sports car would make quick work of Toronto,” I thought. But before rushing down to the dealership to put my name on a waiting list, one last ominous consideration popped into my mind: “How would I look in the MINI?”
As a recently single bachelor, this questions matters. Let’s be frank: if I pulled up to my next date’s house in a pink Mazda Miata, I would quickly find myself set firmly in the “friend zone.” “You’re so much fun!” she’ll say as she slaps my knee and giggles, concurrently checking out the driver of the passing mud-covered pickup. Truth is, in a dating environment as tough as Toronto’s – a man needs all the help he can get.
So back to the original question: “How macho is a MINI?” It’s funny that we just tripped over the Mazda Miata, because while even the “Urban Dictionary” defines it as a “chick car” – it remains one of the best driver’s cars on earth. It has a terrific chassis, balanced and playful handling, gears in all the right places (RWD, Manual 6-speed), and it’s light-weight to boot. There’s even a spec-racing series devoted to it; how much more macho can you get? And yet, somehow, the Mazda Miata remains etched in the collective opinion as a girly car, a “chick car.” We probably owe this travesty largely to Hollywood, who have done their share to use the Miata in estrogen-soaked product placement. Perhaps a stint as the next Bond car could undo the reputation? Pop-up machine guns and bumper mounted surface-to-air missiles could probably shoot down the populist image. Perhaps it doesn’t much matter though, as the Miata is still selling strongly after all these years – to satisfied male and female buyers.
The MINI is similarly a terrific driver’s car, with significant racing pedigree. Like the Miata, it is petite in proportions, and features arguably “cute” styling. Yet the MINI has largely evaded the “chick car” stigma. A consideration of the car’s history could help to explain why.
The original Mini (written in lower-case letters back then) was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis for the British Motor Corporation or BMC. The Mini was a tour-de-force of the time, uniquely space efficient thanks to its clever front wheel drive layout – allowing 80% of its footprint to be devoted to passenger accommodations. The Mini had an impressive run, produced from 1959 until the year 2000, largely in its original form and following the same basic construction. But the plot thickened in the year 1961. John Cooper, a friend of Alec and a successful Formula 1 and Rally race-car builder turned his eyes toward the Mini. He saw the performance potential in it, thanks in large part to its feather-light 650 kg (1,433 lb) curb weight. The Mini Cooper was born, and thanks to the ingenious performance tuning of Mr Cooper, Mini saw great racing successes around the world, namely in victories at the 1964, 1965, 1966 (technically, as they crossed the line first but were later frivolously disqualified) and 1967 Monte Carlo Rally. Hence, the MINI is seen as an icon of motorsport – and its rich racing lineage establishes it as a sports car before a “cute” car.
To this day, the MINI Cooper remains a true driver’s car. Okay, I prefer rear wheel drive sports cars – but as far as front wheel drive sports cars go, you’d be hard pressed to find a better performer. The Honda Civic SI is a great fwd product, fast and fun with a trick front limited slip differential – yet it somehow lacks the playfulness of the MINI. There are other front wheel drive sports cars that are worth a look – the Focus RS and the Fiat 500 Abarth among others – but at the end of the day, the MINI Cooper remains a favorite with its well-rounded performance.
The only issue I have with the MINI is its interior. If anything about the car can be labeled as girly – it’s the interior. Googly, big round instruments pop out from everywhere, and the overall look is bit feminine for my tastes. I would appreciate a second interior design option that tones down the vogue and offers more traditional lines and stronger surface tension. While we’re on the topic, I can also point criticism at the quality of the interior itself – full of cheap feeling plastics that bend and wiggle to the touch. I suspect MINI may have moved on and improved the quality of the plastics since the 2007 model Cooper I last drove, but I’ll have to test a new one to find out.
If the MINI is considered a “chick car” by some – it remains a car I’d be proud to drive. A “chick car” story pops into my mind, and it’s one that only builds adoration for the brand. I had spied a mint condition BMW E30 325iS out of the corner of my eye as it passed me on the Danforth. I immediately spun my car around in hot pursuit. When I came upon the E30, I found it was driven by an elderly lady. Perfect. In good condition and “lightly driven” I thought. I pulled along side the car at the next red light and motioned for the driver to lower her window. She looked back at me with a scared look, and took off for the next intersection. Thankfully, we were met by another red light, and after mustering what was apparently a more innocent smile, the driver rolled her window down. A brief conversation about her car ensued, and I soon found myself standing beside her car at the road side, in an engaging conversation.
Sheila turned out to be a proud grandmother – and E30 driver! She went on to explain that she would like to move on to an automatic transmission as her hip is beginning to pain her, but she just “can’t let go” of her E30. “It drives so well” she explained. After a few more minutes conversing she offered the root cause of her love of driving. Sheila used to rally race a Mini Cooper through the forests of England as a young teenager. “My Aunt used to stand as flag marshal, with a flag in one hand and a bottle of spirits in the other!” “I love driving, and I miss that car,” she exclaimed.
It was then that I realized two important things: If Sheila was several decades younger, we could have been a great match. Second, from the testimony of such an enthusiastic and experienced driver, the MINI Cooper is a brilliant car – for everyone.
How “Macho” is MINI in YOUR opinion? Tell us in the comment section below!