The iconic Mini is coming to India. Can it do what the Fiat 500 and the Beetle couldn’t?

The Mini is finally coming to India. However, we have been living with the its legacy ever since the first Maruti 800. Most small cars even today are front-wheel-drive with transversely mounted, water-cooled engines, a configuration popularised by the first Mini designed by Sir Alec Issigonis in 1959. This configuration enabled the car to achieve truly micro-car exterior dimensions along with a surprising amount of usable space inside. The car was affordable, stylish, fun to drive and easy to park anywhere. It quickly achieved cult status across the world.

Now that it’s being launched in India, I managed a quick drive in a couple of Minis around Oxford, where the assembly plant is located, to give you a first impression of what to expect.

The model we are getting in India is the Mini Cooper that will be available in two body styles, a hatch and a convertible, and with a choice of 1598cc petrol and diesel motors. Both can seat four adults, as long as the adults in the back seat are not too tall. Actually the best use for the back seat is as a place to keep your shopping.

Slam the doors shut and they close with a solid thump. The cabin is dominated by a centrally mounted speedometer that is a nod to the original Mini, but the controls can be frustrating to operate and seem to value from over function. Though this car celebrates British micro-car heritage, it is precise German engineering and construction underneath.

The 121bhp petrol motor provides enough of a kick for most folks and the 110bhp diesel has decent pace too, whit a strong mid-range. But it isn’t the muscle under its hood that’s Mini selling point. It’s the car’s agility. The steering is accurate and nicely weighted. The shift is precise and light. Body control is excellent and it changes direction keenly. Even the pedals bleed precision. Point it toward a serpentine road and you will be amply rewarded. It’s like a go-kart for adults. The downside is a rather firm ride, but that’s the price you pay for the Mini’s thrilling handling.

Now if you want even more style, get the convertible with the retractable roof. It’s not a hard-top but rather a conventional cloth unit, and it’s a clever little arrangement. Press the switch and the roof slides back 45cm to give a large sunroof-like opening. Press the switch again and the ‘Z-roof’ unlatches and scissors up and back to fold neatly behind the rear seats in 15 seconds. The downside is that rear visibility with the top down is very poor since it stacks up rather high. With the top up, it’s even worse.

The other Mini that’s going to be landing on Indian shores is the Countryman. At over four meters it’s over a foot longer than the regular Mini. It’s also 10cm wider and some 15cm taller than the regular hatch. The Countryman is also the first Mini to get two doors on each side of its body.

What the Countryman does that the Cooper doesn’t is provide a decent amount of passenger space. There’s plenty of head and elbow room for four adults, and the sliding 60/40 split rear bench is comfortable even for taller passengers.

The extra size and weight has had a penalty on the performance, since it is powered by the same engines. Though it is not as brisk as the Cooper, it will cruise happily in the fast lane all day.

Despite being bit slower and less nimble, many of the Countryman’s traits are unchanged from its smaller sibling. This includes the hefty steering, the mechanical clack of every gear change, and the stiff-legged ride. You are sacrificing a bit of driving pleasure but you get to share the fun with two more adults rather than kids.

The Mini offers a staggering level of customisation, and you can specify just about everything. In fact the company says that no two Minis that come off the assembly line are the same. Though it is unlikely that we in India will be able to specify from the complete basket of options, you can still expect a generous list of customization options.

Now comes the most important part – the price. The Mini is going to be an import, so expect the price to be high. The base Mini Cooper retails at about Rs 12 lakh in the UK. Add our customs duty and you know what to expect. There are plans to assemble them here at a later date, but till that happens, be prepared for sticker shock.

The premium hatch is territory that Fiat with its 500 and Volkswagen with the Beetle have been on before. And they didn’t exactly set sales charts on fire. Will the Mini be able to buck the trend and carve out a niche as a premium hot hatch?

The Mini offers something that the Fiat 500 and the VW Beetle didn’t – driver involvement. It is a seriously fun and involving car to drive. A car that will bring a smile to the spirited driver’s face. And sometimes you can’t put a price on a smile.

Source : Autocar January 2012

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