San Diego Business Journal

The Mini Cooper is now going into its fourth year in the United States without any appreciable change. There certainly is an international team of designers, engineers and marketing executives planning a major revision.

This column is directed at that team. My qualifications for this task? I have driven every version of the car since its introduction, and my wife owns an electric blue Mini Cooper S.

First off, let's give credit to the BMW, Mini's corporate parent, for an outstanding accomplishment. As it looks now, the Mini will go down in history as easily the most significant automotive introduction of the first decade of this century. The car has been a hit and based on used Mini prices, it has significant staying power.

The No. 1 accolade for the current Mini is its absolutely wonderful design , an almost perfect marriage of form and function. The car looks as fresh and perky as ever. Of course, an essential part of the design is the car's size. The Mini created the market for a sub-compact luxury car. And while we've seen photographs of a larger Mini, don't do a larger version at the expense of the current version; the size is right.

The second most noteworthy aspect of the Mini's thrust into stardom has been incredible marketing. BMW knew how to capitalize on the car's perky personality. Although Mini's overall marketing budget is tiny compared to many consumer products, Mini executives knew how to reach its intended market with a message that has been fresh and compelling. For example, Mini has run a number of very small ads , not more than a couple of square inches , in the New Yorker, a magazine aimed at a sophisticated urban market.

The ads featured an image of the Mini actually running into the adjacent advertisement, distorting its typography. Naturally, the eye scanning the page jumps to the image of the Mini and its supporting text. The real message here is that the Mini fractures conventional thinking, which parallels the car's market position as a boundary breaker.

Let's look at some areas where there's need for change. We will concentrate on the Mini Cooper S, the high-performance end of the Mini spectrum and the model that has won the most acclaim. While the Mini Cooper S is an absolute joy to drive on a twisty mountain road, its suspension can be improved.

There's a real need for a revised set up that not only offers great handling, but also delivers a better ride quality. A long journey in a Mini Cooper S is not a really pleasant experience. No, Mini engineers don't have to turn the Mini into a Buick, but there are many examples of small sporty cars that offer great handling and a decent ride quality.

There's also room for improvement under the hood. While we like the power output, it comes at the price of considerable noise and vibration. Again, without scaring the Mini Cooper's sporty-car soul, a more refined engine can be revised.

While the Mini Cooper's exterior is a design tour-de-force, the interior could use a refresher course. In general, the interior looks too busy. I was particularly pained by what seems to be a trend to affix more blobs of silver plastic to every surface. Somehow Mini designers need to create a more elegant and simplistic design vocabulary for the interior.

Finally, Mini can do a better job in terms of build quality. Our Mini has a persistent buzz in the sunroof that seems to be eluding the best efforts of the local dealer. The Mini does not meet Japanese quality standards and we have experienced other niggling problems all associated with how the car was put together. There's a need for Mini engineers to spend some time on the factory floor and insure that the next Mini will proceed rattle-free through its lifespan.

Cordell Koland is an automotive journalist based in California & #353;s central coast. He can be reached at cordellkoland@mac.com.

Mini Cooper S

Price as tested: $26,300.

Engine:
Type: 1.6-liter, supercharged inline four.
Horsepower: 168 @ 6,000 rpm.
Torque: 162 lbs.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm.

Fuel economy, automatic transmission:
City: 25 mpg.
Highway: 32 mpg.

Curb Weight: 2,723 lbs.