A weekly guide to all that’s rotten about car ownership, plus some good bits
I popped into my local Mini showroom the other day, a neat, black Art Deco style bijou building befitting the Mini nomenclature. A pre-owned orange Austin Mini was my first car. As a student I explored Scotland in it for three weeks and slept in it. If you’ve already sorted at that remark then you know it was hellish uncomfortable but it was a hoot to drive, bus angled steering wheel and all. It cost me £265 which I thought a king’s ransom.
The Mini marque, owned by BMW since they departed our shores taking the Brits best brands with them, is a roaring success for the German engineers. I was very impressed with what I saw. Moreover, BMW is deleting diesel versions – no point of diesel in such a small car – and there’s an electric version due late in 2019. That will free up more interior space in a car amusingly bigger than some SUVs. Expect a range of 120 miles on a single charge, acceptable for a plush city car.
In no special order, BMW’s Mini can alter all the ambient instrumentation illumination and ambient cabin light to any colour in the rainbow. You can have deep purple door handles, gauges, and footwell lights. Lovely. The racing seats are heated and don’t bend like those in the original Mini. You can order a glass roof, or if you prefer automatic gear shifts to laborious stick shifting there’s paddle shift gears on the steering wheel.
The over-sized central round screen can do anything your i.Phone can do, and it might even make you cup of coffee. If you prefer, you can throw speed and sat-nav up onto a small glass screen dead ahead of you on the top of the dash. So many novelty gadgets. What a revelation. As I said only last week in this column, car makers are adept at making ours cars nicer to be in than our living rooms, and twice as comfortable.
My problem is my height. Unless I cranked the drivers seat down a few notches – ‘crank’ – no electric adjustment? – I couldn’t get in. When inside, snug in the sensual gripping leather seats, I noticed the letterbox window. I’d have to have a Mini with a glass roof to compensate for the feeling the roof was supported by my head.
The car to have in the mini’s vast range is the Cooper S, plus all the trimmings. It has speed for overtaking, and lots of interior pizzas, plus drop the rear seats and unlike the original Mini with its tiny boot filled with a spare wheel, it offers commendable space for carting luggage, shopping, or rubbish to the municipal dump. If your load carrying needs include children there’s an estate version with five doors, but I can’t help thinking buying an SUV is a better choice.
Given the old Mini to reinvent, the first thing BMW’s (then) American designer, Frank Stephenson, acknowledged was our arses are much bigger than in the past, and he wasn’t thinking only of Americans. The old Mini seats were inadequate to the task of supporting all our Kardashian lard.
Stephenson’s process of design is the traditional one: sketch pad to computer graphics, to clay models, and finally test models. He says the advantage of working with clay is that you can feel the transitions and feel where there is too much surface or more surface needed. “You can almost design a car blind, because you don’t have to see it, you have to feel it, and by feeling it you feel if it’s right or it’s not right” The man is an artist.
Stephenson next realised the old Mini had no room to meet modern safety standards such as crumple zones and air bags. Getting in and out was a pain if you were tall, or short backed but with long legs. So, bigger it swelled. There are Mini’s to suit all tastes, vanilla Mini’s, super-fast Minis, station wagon Minis, drop-top Minis and very silly shaped Minis to prove you’re a dork with your money.
Mini has announced it is overhauling the trim structure of its entire model line-up, streamlining the range and getting rid of several diesel variants in the process. Good thinking. Staples of the Mini range such as the Pepper Pack and Chili Pack, offered since the re-launch of Mini in 2001 are axed, with the standard kit of each Mini boosted, and the same options offered for the same price across all model ranges.
I’m sure they are taking a leaf out of Fiat and its enormously successful Fiat 500, also designed by Frank Stephenson, a car boasting a million combinations to personalise it.
If you have cash to bash on a new Mini you select their Mini body style – three-door hatch, five-door hatch, Convertible, Clubman or Countryman – and then an engine. A 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol in two states of tune for One and Cooper models, a more potent 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit in the Cooper S – my choice as aging boy racer.
As I write this I learn BMW are rethinking their entire Mini range, and possibly tying up with a Chinese company to help keep costs down. The move will certainly take production out of the UK. No wonder sales of new car have dropped 20%.
A new Mini starts at over £16,000 and rises to under £30,000 for a fully laden status symbol. My advice is, unless a good tax deal for you, shop around and buy pre-owned.
GROUSEY’S FOOTWELL FINDS
Not anither wan!
Yes, our English neighbours have come up with another vanity project to syphon our taxes and bless this union of equals, the equal of HST London to Leeds, the Dome, and invasion of Iraq. Plans for a new six-lane toll tunnel under the Thames that will almost double the amount of traffic that can cross the river east of London are unveiled. I can’t think of a reason I’d want to go under the Thames rather than over it by bridge, but the £6.8billion Lower Thames Crossing will be expanded from a four-lane to six-lane highway and at 2.4 miles long will be Britain’s longest road tunnel, according to the latest proposals. (What, not the Queens Thames Crossing? Motorists will have to pay a toll, it’s not Scotland, after all! Officials say it will open in 2025. Meanwhile the east coast road from Middle England to the capital of Scotland is still a bumper-to-bumper two lane trunk road after 50 years of lobbying Her Majesty’s Fabulous Union for a motorway.
New Porsche 911
The Germans are still producing Porsche 911’s, the car that evolved from a VW Beetle. I owned one many years ago, back then a small, compact sports car. I left it in a mews garage overnight with the roof open, and the gaga pensioners living above failed to call in a plumber when a water pipe opened, filling my Porsche and killing it stone dead by drowning it in smelly water by morning’s light. I took it as a sign from the Almighty not to dabble with status symbols. Today’s 911 is one wide girth heavyweight, as wide as a pair of oxen pulling a cart. Increasing the size of a 911 and flaunting it is the same as a woman getting breast augmentation. What’s the point? To the uninitiated the new 911 will look exactly like the old 911. And that’s the way its been since the 911 first appeared, evolutionary design. There are updates to the bumpers, headlights, door handles, mirror housings and tail-lights, noticeably thinner than before and connected by a full-width light band. The changes inside are more significant, with the adoption of a new dashboard and centre console. Would I want one if I was wealthy? Nope. The first day parked in Tesco’s mean-sized bays will see a door dented by a hair-brained envious oik.
20 mph speed limits
Has Edinburgh’s 20 mph speed limited on inner city roads proved a success Year One? I don’t think so, unless you feel drivers acquiring a new anxiety of being caught doing the old 30 mph is a success. One of my cars has a large engine which hates going slowly. It kangaroos under 25 mph. The small engine Smart car has no issues but I find I’m doing 30 mph in a blink out of habit. Vehicles fart more noxious gases at low speed. That diesel taxi belching acrid blue smoke is a death wagon as its passes your bus stop. A lower limit respected does have benefits. You stop quicker when that idiot opens his parked car door as you approach, and pedestrians are a little safer when jay walking all over the place. Sadly, all those 20 mph signs painted in white circles on roads that turn into 30 mph 300 yards later, but the stupid driver in front thinks it’s 18 mph all the way, are a pain.