Even though it’s a symbol of the exuberant ‘60s, the Mini was actually born to deal with the austerity of post-war England and skyrocketing fuel prices thanks to a crisis in the Suez Canal.
Since the beginning, the car has been about making the most out of little and now the brand is paying homage to its earliest triumph over the austerity with the MINI Cooper S Seven, a special edition model with a special color, tartan seats, 17-inch rims, and a name that honors the Austin Seven, one of the earliest badges under which the Mini sold in 1959.
Attitudes towards the ‘60s have changed over the years, though. Back in the early 2000s when the MINI launched, we had a view of the decade that mostly included the Beatles, sexual revolution, and Technicolor that could all be summed up with the onscreen japes of Austin Powers. A decade of excess reminded us, though, that the ‘60s actually sucked for most people. Instead of Austin Powers, now we have Don Draper. So can the MINI hold on to its outdated Austin Powers view of the ‘60s?
Well, like both Austin Powers and the Austin Seven, the MINI is a little out of date these days. Retro cars don’t really look like the MINI anymore and it’s been inflated to paradoxical proportions to keep people from discounting it on the metric of size alone. This one, a four-door model in Lapisluxury Blue — a color unique to the Seven — is trying its little heart out to stay alive in an industry increasingly enamored by huge SUVs.
Part of me thinks that giving the MINI an extra set of doors is like making a croissant with whole wheat flour. A croissant is candy. Admit that it’s all about flavor and go for the white flour. Why are you trying to make a pastry healthy and a MINI big? Admit that the MINI is all about being small and that the rear seats don’t get any bigger no matter how many doors it has.
On the other hand, maybe it’s like a gluten-free cracker. Really, the point of a cracker is to be a vehicle for cheese, and giving people with Celiac disease access to the wonder of cheese is a deeply humanitarian act. So maybe giving the MINI more doors is allowing more people to justify a small, zippy car. And ultimately, having seen the five-door next to the three-door, I can tell you this: the difference in size is slight. So maybe it is a gluten-free cracker after all.
ALSO SEE: 2017 MINI JCW Convertible Review
From the front seats, meanwhile — that is, the special leather and tartan front seat that’s only available in the Cooper S Seven — things don’t get any simpler. I respect the MINI’s commitment to kitsch. In fact, I like it. This is one of the least oppressive cars I’ve ever been in. Instead of a starter button, for instance, there’s a toggle switch that makes you feel like a dashing RAF pilot. The central infotainment screen is a big, happy circle. The steering wheel is chunky and weighty. You get the sense that designers won fights over accountants. But as with the ‘60s, the happy, shiny features hide some underlying problems.
Every single one of the infotainment controls is backward. What does a number do when it grows? It goes up. Why then does the up arrow on the steering wheel make the radio station’s number go down? Similarly, if you were scrolling a wheel, would you expect a clockwise turn to move up or down on a screen? Nope. MINI thinks it should go up. This all sounds petty, but when a computer defies your every command, I dare you not to lose your temper.
Even the gear selector in this six-speed auto goes backward, with upshifts being accomplished by pulling the stick towards you. There’s actual race-car precedent there, though (the logic being that acceleration pushes you back, so upshifts should go the same direction), and the decision shows a commitment to the idea that a MINI should have aspirations of raciness. I admire MINI for its dedication and it shows that the brand really understands itself. A MINI has only ever had to be small, fun, and fit four people. Even though BMW and MINI are pushing the definition of “small” to its utter limits, it is still technically a small car and it fits four, and because it wants to be a race car, it’s fun.
Get in and by the shift boot, there’s a switch that promises “sport” and it doesn’t let you down. It doesn’t have crazy amounts of power (about 190 hp), but what it has it gives generously, turning horses into G-forces with a thrilling ease. The front wheels grab the exit of a corner with all of the urgency and excitement of a couple grabbing at bed sheets so that before you know it, you’re far from where you started and your heart is racing. And yet it does that with the levity of Austin Powers, and none of the Don Draper darkness. Driving around town, despite the fact that you have an enthusiast’s car, you aren’t constantly facing existential threats or regrets. You’re just having a good time.
The Verdict: 2017 MINI Cooper S Hardtop 4 Door Review
We may not be facing a fuel crisis right now, but MINI is facing a size crisis. With tastes for big cars only growing stronger, MINI is having to make the best of its little car and it’s succeeding. BMW and MINI have had to make some decisions that I don’t necessarily agree with, but to an ends that ultimately justifies them. Five doors are too many for a MINI. Infotainment menus ought not to anger their users. Kitsch shouldn’t be cool.
But as expressed by the MINI, all of these flaws melt away, because when you’re dipping and diving through city traffic, enjoying your pleasant interior with pleasant friends, your day becomes a little brighter. And that’s more than I can say for a lot of more powerful, more expensive, and theoretically more sporting cars than this one. Unlike the stern, serious, Don Draper competition, the MINI is silly and light and genuinely amusing, like Austin Powers.
This thing has a great “green” mode that encourages you not only to not accelerate too quickly but also not to slow down too quickly. It’s all done with a slider that moves left to right with a sweet spot. Works pretty well as this thing got great fuel economy in the city.
Or at least it got great fuel economy until I discovered that leaving this thing in gear in Sport mode caused the engine to backfire and I decided that I should drive everywhere in the lowest possible gear.
The clamshell hood that opens over the lights is neat and I will never tire of it.
Here’s something I never thought I’d complain about: The MINI lacks for storage solutions. There’s nowhere to put your phone, your keys, or your glasses. The armrest cubby is also hilariously small.
No reverse cam (only parking sensors with a visual aid) is weird on a $40,000 car.