Kids and adults alike can vividly recall Mr Bean's antics with his cute, almost toy-like, car from the TV series of the same name. By now most of us know that those are two famous British icons of their standing.

Of them, Rowan Atkinson, the one with the weird walk and the bulging eyes, is the actor and creator of the Mr Bean series. The other, the one with the four button-sized wheels, and the round, bulging eyes, is a British Leyland Mini 1000, an automotive icon from the fifties. What is lesser known is the common threads that link the two together.

Born around the same time that the original Mini was being conceived, Rowan is a huge car nut, owns a McLaren F1 car (or what remains of it) and studied in Oxford, the City that is as widely known as the heartland of the Mini, as it is for its academia. Both of them are quirky and quintessentially Brit. Both of them bring a smile to your face. And both of them are filled with surprises inside a rather compact package.

After Mind Your Language and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, ‘Mr Bean' was probably the next most popular British comedy series in India, making Rowan a household name. This year, the MINI will attempt to grab that kind of mindshare, after finally landing on Indian shores.

History

The Mini (it became all-caps after BMW took over) was one of the greatest examples of British automotive engineering. Long before the Japanese invasion of the small car segment, the Mini was developed as an attempt at solving the fuel shortages of the time. First launched in 1959, the Mini was a city car that maximised space inside the car with its wheel at each corner design and was expected to give as much as 50 miles per gallon of fuel.

Instantly recognisable, the Mini has retained its classic looks and its impish charm through decades of change in its design inspiration, its ownership and the pressures of modernity. Despite its original ‘fru-galitarian' inspiration, the Mini became a huge hit amongst the rich and middle-class alike. Over the years, the Mini became a lifestyle icon and a car that truly captured the ethos and culture of the British people. It still does, even today, despite the fact that its owner is German.

It is sometimes intriguing to think of how a tiny little car like the Mini of yore and the MINI of today can stir so much passion in our minds. As historians will recall it was said that more Mini owners give their cars names, as though it was their pet, than any other car ever inspired their owners to. Yes, as a car that barely stood higher than the average Brit's waist and sported 10-inch wheels (the Nano has 12-inch wheels), cuteness was a given, yet the Mini had a unique sway over buyers globally.

The MINI today

The MINI of today is very different and yet a lot similar in appeal. Over the years, the Mini has moved away from being a quirky, but affordable ultra-compact, to being the MINI - a luxurious, robust and upmarket brand. It is now even more of a lifestyle band to own, but what hasn't changed is the fact that it is a car that has been and is remarkably capable on the road.

Relative to its times, Minis and the MINIs have stood for performance far exceeding what their super-compact dimensions would have you believe. Superb handling characteristics and powerful engines that were still eco-burners have also been their trademark. But, it is not until you really sit in one of them and drive them around that you realise how much fun a MINI can be. They almost feel like road-legal go-karts, while they don't look much larger than golf carts.

The inside

To experience the road in a MINI and to soak in the culture of this car brand, I had travelled to Oxford, UK last month. I have sat behind the wheel in a Mini before, but it was a whole lot different to get to drive one after seeing them being built at the plant in Oxford. Driving around in a loop from the plant through short stretches of city roads, bylanes and country roads, I realise how easy it is to fall in love with this car.

The first observation you'd make is how the MINI of today is still so tiny, despite having grown in proportions compared to the original. But, step in and you'd be amazed at how roomy it still is. The dashboard has a funky layout, with centrally mounted instruments, chunky knobs, and the choice of trim and colours are all oriented towards being appealing to a young-at-heart audience.

Build quality of every MINI is superb – on a par with luxury automobiles that are much bigger – and of course, just like in case of the latter, the MINI too is extensively customisable. In fact, it is the most customisable hatch that there ever was.

That is a big reason why the MINI is such a lifestyle icon, because buyers can actually express their passion and creativity by customising their cars. Customisation and special editions are actually promoted by the company to ramp up the young image of the brand and it goes well beyond the Union Jack decals on the floating roof that we are all very familiar with. The MINI with the real Swiss cow-hide on its body panels (in these pages) is a classic example. There was one made last year with its entire body in chrome.

The drive

Driving the MINI hatch and the Convertible is great fun. They are both extremely nimble, quick on the roll and offer precise manoeuvrability under all conditions and speeds. There is no sense of hesitancy that I felt at even good speeds through blind corners on country roads. The Countryman is a four-door, is larger and more spacious – almost like a ultra-compact SUV.

I felt the Countryman's bulk when driving it, just that bit slower to accelerate and heavier on the road. But there is no dearth of the fabulous road-holding that the brand is famous for.

All three MINIs are tuned for performance that is almost on a par with luxury sports sedans. In keeping with their driver-oriented image the cars I drove in the UK were also fitted with six-speed manual gearboxes, though I am given to think that the ones that will be launched here will all sport automatic transmissions.

India plans

BMW India will be importing these three models– the MINI hatch (could be the MINI Cooper), the Countryman and the Convertible – later this year. After its official unveil and launch at the Auto Expo, the cars will be available through exclusive dealerships that are being set up even as we go to print.

Though these cars are offered with a number of petrol and diesel powertrains globally, in India initially, all the three models will be available with petrol engines only and their prices could range from Rs 15 lakh to Rs 25 lakh.

It is highly unlikely that we'd witness the MINI clocking up big sales numbers in India. That wouldn't be BMW's objective either. But it would still be a historic entry for this iconic British brand.

muraliswami@thehindu.co.in

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Keywords: Mini

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