A couple of months ago, I had the extreme privilege of attending the 2019 Monterey Car Week. It was an incredible trip and one that allowed me to check off a lot of bucket-list goals. However, possibly my biggest standout was driving a vintage Mini Cooper S down the coast of Monterey and over the famous Bixby Creek Bridge. It was an incredible experience. The best part of it was the car, though.
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There was something so special about the little classic Mini that’s stuck with me since. Never have I experienced a purer driving car, one that felt so alive. But it wasn’t just special while flogging it on serpentine coastal roads. Even driving at 5 mph through traffic was a wonderfully enjoyable experience. Part of that was its extreme communication and feedback through all of its controls. But another part, and an important one, was its interior.
That might sound a bit odd, claiming that a classic Mini had an enjoyable interior, because there really isn’t one. Inside the little Mini, there’s really nothing to touch and barely anything to look at. It’s a couple of chairs bolted to the floor, old-school style seat belts, a dashboard with a couple of gauges and that’s about it. There’s no glove box, no center console and not even wind-up windows. Instead, the windows are just panes of glass that you can slide fore and aft.
However, even though the Mini is as spartan as it comes on the inside, there’s a wonderful charm to its design and laser-like focus on function over form. Because part of the design brief for the original Mini was to create as much interior space as absolutely possible in such a small car, it uses those aforementioned windows because wind-up windows would make the door panels too thick and would cost too much money. So instead, the doors are paper thin and feature massive cubby holes for your stuff. And because there’s really nothing on the dashboard, nor is there a center console of any kind, there’s nothing to distract the driver from the act of actually driving the car. It’s a wonderfully refreshing change of pace that seems pivotal to the Mini experience.
After having driven that delightful little classic, I hopped into a brand-new MINI Cooper S and it felt like an Abrams tank. It felt huge on the road, outward visibility was laughable by comparison and there was so much clutter on the dashboard and console that it was overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I know that with modern safety regulations and creature comforts, interiors have to be more cramped than ever before. I’m not delusional. However, there are ways to un-clutter the modern MINI cabin, get back to basics and still keep all of the creature comforts of a modern cabin.
Take a look at the Honda E for example, it features a wonderfully airy cabin and one that’s incredibly simple, yet still packs all of the modern tech and safety regulations that are necessary in cars today. Of course, it’s an electric car built on a bespoke chassis, so it’s much easier to make a cabin like that for it than it would be for a MINI. Plus, with the famous British brand being owned by BMW, it sort of has to use the BMW Group parts bin.
Having said that, I think MINI has a real opportunity moving forward to get back to basics.
With BMW’s latest iDrive being touchscreen, and one of the better systems on the market, MINI can integrate that into the dash and just completely remove the rotary dial from the console. Add a couple of knobs and toggle switches for climate controls and move the speedo back to the center of the dash where it belongs. Also, ditch the center console as much as possible and give it a massively long gear lever for internal combustion-powered cars, just like the original. For EVs, ditch a gear lever altogether and go with an i3-style steering wheel mounted drive selector.
The entire MINI brand is about simplicity and focus. It’s about driving and the thrill of being behind the wheel of something special. A High-tech cabin bloated with technology and filled with creature comforts is sort of the antithesis of the entire brand. So I’d like the Brits to get back to basics a bit, separate their cabins from their German overseers more and create cabins that are closer in spirit to that delightful classic I fell in love with in Monterey.
Maybe these are all just the ramblings of a fool. Maybe my vision for a new MINI cabin is impossible but it’s still one that I’d love to see come to life. The whole point of a Mini is to be simple, un-cluttered and focused on being the best driving hatchback in the business. Simplifying the cabin would go a long way to enhancing that ethos.