"HOW DO YOU LIKE THE MINI?" a voice booms from on high. God himself is checking in on me, automotively speaking? No; up above, through the open sunroof, is the maniacal face of a Metro bus driver at the wheel of his behemoth in the next lane; my brand new loaner Mini Cooper is like a really cute turd his vehicle might have taken.
"It's fabulous!" I shout. I don't even like other people, but the Mini infects you with a helpless enthusiasm, like a mild, fast-acting drug.
"WANNA TRADE?" he bellows. Funny.
People are going ape shit for the new Mini. It looks like a giant robot baby's bootie; its much-lauded "retro" styling is in the manner of Ian Fleming futurism, all round dials and shiny surfaces and spy toggle switches. One woman on Capitol Hill cannot get over the salad-plate-sized speedometer, lodged in the center of the dash in homage to the old British Mini, big enough for the people in the next car over to read: "It's so CUTE!" she says, helplessly, over and over.
The new Mini, like the new Beetle before it, is cute all right and is reducing people all over the place to smiling, gurgling idiots. Everyone's got a question, everyone's got a story: Over in the tiny town of Moclips on the Olympic Peninsula, a guy tells me he took a road trip in an old Mini years ago—"I left part of my heart in the Okanogan on that trip," he says.
He, like everyone else (and I mean everyone; though this will surely abate, right now if you drive a new Mini, you are a de facto representative of BMW, the company that makes it and that loaned one to me), wants to know how it drives: It hauls. In the city, it has you racing around like an insane, somewhat dangerous and definitely annoying teenager; on the open road, well, ditto. The Mini will go 70 in second gear before the rpms top out, and it will go there fast enough that you can play at drag racing a top-of-the-line BMW for as long as they care to entertain your hubris. The ride is smooth, and the tiny car's low center of gravity makes you feel like you're going 100; and if you are going 100, the ride's still smooth and you feel like you're going really too fast, which you are, but then you go a little faster. Still smooth. The steering's remarkably quick, the brakes likewise. It sticks to curves like white on rice.
You can park it anywhere. The seats are more comfortable than you can believe (the front seats, that is; the back seats are comfortable for any double amputees you may be transporting). The stereo is great. The frighteningly compelling, George W. Bush-esque ad campaign—"Let's motor"—begins to make a frightening amount of sense.
OK, so the parts that look like chrome turn out to be shiny plastic. So repairs might end up being expensive. So the power steering pump whines audibly when the windows are down, like a not-so-distant leaf blower. It is small and it is cute, and in smallness and cuteness, there is power and grace. In the Mini, there is the smarter, poorer person's BMW. It is also destined to become the gift for every girl graduating from high school on the Eastside. That's OK; at least they won't be getting SUVs.
You can drive the new Mini in Tacoma—whoo hoo! Call Northwest Mini, 253-284-MINI, or go to www.miniusa.com. They cost $16,800- $24,000; mpg is 28 city/37 highway.