The Mini Cooper gives you a perma-grin |

The Mini Cooper gives you a perma-grin

Special to the DailyTo Montana and back in the Mini Cooper means taking an urban car out to the boonies.

Setting aside all rationality for a week, we decided that the most creative way to test the comfort, speed and huge appeal of the 2004 Mini Cooper – a vehicle so popular you’ll find yourself on a half-year waiting list if you want one of your own – by hitting the road and heading for Montana.After 1,500 miles of both freeway driving and Wyoming back roads so desolate you could count the hours between cars, it might seem like a better venue for running one of those big and soft luxury cars to the limit but … when the opportunity arose to get an exceptionally long test drive, the Cooper proved itself a capable and adequately comfortable cross-country machine.I won’t pretend for a moment that the new Mini, championed by appearances in films such as “The Italian Job” and “Austin Powers,” is really designed for Interstate cruising. More perfectly suited to urban scooting, the petite and peppy machine can turn on a dime – and you can park three of them in the same space as one Ford Excursion.

Combine that with an astoundingly approachable list price (just under $18,000, fully tricked out) and gas mileage (28 city, 37 highway) that seems like a typo when compared to that of most contemporary vehicles.Those attributes shine when the Mini runs the city circuit, with feisty acceleration blasting out of a torquey 1.6 liter, 16 valve four-cylinder engine and a tight, close-set five-speed transmission. To the outside world, the car looks like it might have the same interior space as a Geo Metro, if that. But BMW, which helped re-launch the quirky British auto a few years back, has apparently mastered some sort of warp in the world of physics and has produced a car that feels twice as big on the inside as it looks on the outside. There’s ample room for a regular sized-driver (plenty of head and leg space, too); two fully-sculpted back seats provide even more comfortable space, and there’s even a bit of luggage room underneath the rear hatch.

Oversized headlamps are part of the hood, which opens to reveal a small but amazingly engineered engine compartment. The car may also look like its entire upper third is a pure wall of wrap-around glass; smoked glass in the back actually hides smaller, inset rear windows and full support for the old-school satellite dish-sized roof.And while you may think that the Mini rides on 8-inch go-cart wheels, our model sported full-sized 16-inch alloy rims and performance-rated, run-flat 195/55 R16 tires that were grippy and comfortable during the long stretches on Interstate concrete.With rear wheels set as close as physically possible to the Mini’s back bumper and front wheels also far forward, the combination provides a stable wheelbase that made the car very fun to drive during curvy stretches.

Coupled with an oversized steering wheel, the Mini turned into a virtual performance vehicle on Gore Pass during the trip back to Vail. Those looking for tire-burning takeoffs may be better suited for the more punchy Cooper S; the basic Mini had adequate power in most situations (a tad underpowered heading up Vail Pass to Copper) and was capable of easy, extended 90 mile per hour cruising during the long stretches in Montana. You’ll experience substantial engine buzzing and a bit of fatigue if you keep that up for a long time, but it’s much easier on shorter stretches.Inside, BMW’s attention to sporty detailing makes the Mini even more attractive. Large, comfortable two-tone cloth sport seats provided plenty of support and could be eased into place with a curious ratchet-style height adjustment lever. Doors open almost 90 degrees for easy access and both front seats slide easily to provide fast entries and exits for rear riders.Inside those doors you’ll find the Mini’s only seemingly overdesigned feature, spacy elliptical insets which double as side-impact door beams but don’t act as particularly comfortable armrests.

The long dash is appointed in the same hard plastic as you’ll find in the Chrysler Crossfire; in keeping with classic Mini style, an oversized speedometer sits absolutely mid-dash, with an large tachometer perched on top of the steering column. At first, you’ll be tempted to constantly shift your eyes to the large speedo, but after a while you’ll find it more comfortable to use the small digital speedometer contained inside the tachometer – provided you want to monitor your speed at all.Chrome half-moon door handles require a double pull to unlock the doors, BMW-style; a large, climate-controlled glove box (Mini’s idea, not mine) also provides loads of room.Mini’s most intriguing aspect is a set of toggle switches on the center console which control windows and central locking (or ABS and other features, depending on the model); small, spaceship-styled stalks controlling the lights, signals and windshield wipers are also fun but functional.

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