THE MU­NICH JOB

Af­ter driv­ing a 1997 Mini Cooper and a 2016 MINI Cooper back to back, this writer re­alised that BMW pulled off more than just a “heist” when it “pinched” the beloved British mar­que.

Torque (Singapore) - - CON­TENTS -

WHEN­EVER any­one men­tions Mini to me, two cars come to mind: the yel­low one driven by Mr Bean, and the dark blue MINI in 2003’s The Ital­ian Job.

If you’re con­fused by my use of “Mini” and “MINI”, here’s the ex­pla­na­tion: Mini is the brand that ex­isted from 1959 till it was taken over by BMW in 2000 and re­branded as MINI.

Most petrol­heads I’ve spo­ken to see MINI as a pre­mium brand with cars which are fun to drive, but nowhere as af­ford­able as their an­ces­tors. Hard­core Mini fans, on the other hand, have few po­lite words to say on this sub­ject, since they feel that MINIs are not as won­der­ful as Minis.

It was al­ways dif­fi­cult for Mini lovers to con­vince me that they are right, for I had never driven a Mini till last year. Nev­er­the­less, I cleared these ar­gu­ments from my mind as I set­tled in be­hind the wheel of a 2016 MINI Cooper.

Hav­ing driven all three gen­er­a­tions of the MINI hatch­back, I im­me­di­ately felt at home in the car, de­spite it be­ing equipped with a 6-speed man­ual trans­mis­sion in­stead of a 6-speed au­to­matic.

The spot-on driv­ing po­si­tion also felt fa­mil­iar. There was plenty of head­room, and the seats were wide enough to ac­com­mo­date my well-fed frame. Com­pared to the pre­vi­ous-gen MINI hatch, the cur­rent one is a lot more driver-friendly, with the speedome­ter and tachome­ter placed atop the steer­ing col­umn. To me, the pre­vi­ous “Big Ben” speedo parked in the mid­dle of the dash­board is just an­noy­ing.

I also like the iDrive-based in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem. Con­trolled via a ro­tary knob, it’s a lot more in­tu­itive than the lit­tle joy­stick found in the car’s pre­de­ces­sor.

As I set off, I was grate­ful for the more pli­ant ride com­pared to the pre­vi­ous model’s. None of my bones were jarred over poorer road sur­faces, which I en­coun­tered fre­quently. What I ap­pre­ci­ated even more was how easy the gear­box was to op­er­ate. Shifts required lit­tle ef­fort be­cause both the throws and the clutch were light.

My progress in the three-door Cooper was equally ef­fort­less, thanks to the tur­bocharged 1.5-litre 3-cylin­der be­neath the bon­net. With 136bhp and a healthy 220Nm from just 1250rpm, the MINI felt very much like an ea­ger puppy.

And show­ing the car a se­ries of cor­ners made it feel even more ex­u­ber­ant. I mostly kept to the sec­ond and third gears to

en­sure plenty of pulling power. The Cooper’s front end had plenty of grip, so I could cut my way through ev­ery road bend.

Af­ter zip­ping around in the 2016 MINI, I was only too ex­cited to fi­nally hop into the 1997 Mini. I reck­oned the drive would be in­ter­est­ing, but I never ex­pected it to be hi­lar­i­ous, too.

As I walked up to the Mini, the first thing that struck me was how small it was com­pared to its mod­ern-day suc­ces­sor. In fact, the Mini looked adorably tiny and al­most car­toon­ish.

But the mo­ment I set­tled into the driver’s seat, I was sur­prised at how roomy the cabin ac­tu­ally was. Then, when I re­alised that I couldn’t ad­just my seat, I knew this wasn’t a car that adapts to its driver. It’s the driver who must adapt to the car.

Next, I no­ticed the al­most-hor­i­zon­tally an­gled steer­ing wheel and the weird place­ment of the brake and throt­tle pedals.

Steer­ing the Mini felt odd, but op­er­at­ing the pedals was down­right tricky. With the brake pedal placed so close to the ac­cel­er­a­tor, and the ac­cel­er­a­tor right be­side the floor pro­tru­sion, I had to turn my right heel to­wards the right to ac­cel­er­ate.

Get­ting the Mini up to speed took both ag­gres­sion and pa­tience. I had to be ag­gres­sive with the throt­tle, but pa­tient in wait­ing for the power de­liv­ery, as the Mini’s nat­u­rally as­pi­rated 1.3-litre 4-cylin­der was not a mo­tor that liked to be hur­ried.

All 63 of its British ponies had to be dragged out of their barn in or­der for any progress to be made. Once they were out, those horses had to be har­nessed by the vague 4-speed man­ual gear­box. When I asked An­dreas Lampka, MINI’s head of global prod­uct com­mu­ni­ca­tions who was rid­ing with me, what the gear lay­out was, he laughed and replied, “Just ‘stir’ the gearshift lever. They’re some­where in there!”

In­deed they were. Since I couldn’t feel them, I had to men­tally pic­ture an H-pat­tern and shove the gear­lever into each point. I winced each time I re­leased the clutch, but to my re­lief (and An­drea’s), I didn’t grind any gears.

At this point, my right foot was in an awk­ward po­si­tion, my right hand was busy “stir­ring” the gearshift lever, while my left hand felt like it was turn­ing a valve in­stead of a steer­ing wheel.

I thought the drive couldn’t get any more chal­leng­ing, un­til I dis­cov­ered that I had to slam on the brakes to get the Mini to slow down. I won­dered if the brake discs/drums were the size of es­presso cup saucers.

But once I got used to these quirks, I found the Mini to be a very sweet drive.

Its tiny size al­lowed me to not only dive into cor­ners, but chuck the car into them. And the per­for­mance was only limited by how fast I could move my arms/ legs/feet while driv­ing. Even more amaz­ing was how I man­aged to coax the Mini to 150km/h on the au­to­bahn. Sure, the en­gine was roar­ing like a freight train and the wind noise was typhoon-like, but sur­pris­ingly, the Mini felt rock-solid at that speed.

As it turned out, my big­gest prob­lem was the lack of air­con­di­tion­ing. Given ev­ery­thing I had to do, I had worked up a sweat just 15 min­utes into the drive, de­spite the weather be­ing a cool 10 deg C. When I asked An­dreas where the air-con con­trols were, he chuck­led and pro­ceeded to open the vents on the dash­board.

The chilly Mu­nich air didn’t cool me down, so I could only imag­ine what it would be like to drive a clas­sic Mini with­out air­con back in sunny Sin­ga­pore.

Hard­core Mini fans are go­ing to re­main ap­palled at how much big­ger, more com­pli­cated and more ex­pen­sive mod­ern MINIs are than the Minis of yes­ter­year.

But sooner or later, they’ll have to ad­mit (al­beit grudg­ingly) that BMW’s “Mu­nich Job”, which trans­formed Mini into MINI, was not only well ex­e­cuted but also nec­es­sary.

If this “heist” had not taken place, the beloved British brand wouldn’t be where it is to­day.

DRIV­ING THE CLAS­SIC MINI WAS MORE IN­TER­EST­ING AND HI­LAR­I­OUS, TOO.

Mod­ern Cooper’s turbo 3-pot was ef­fort­less, while the old Cooper’s 4-pot required both pa­tience and ag­gres­sion from the writer.

JULY 2017

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