Haley’s comet has passed overhead again, or so it would seem, because my mother just had me arrange a new car for her. To preface this article it is worth mentioning that my mother suffers from what I like to call “look-aholism”. That is, she sees a car on the road that she likes and then she mulls it over repeatedly, until finally, something catastrophic happens with her current car and she is induced into buying a new one.
She started this trend with the Chrysler LeBaron convertible, by no means a looker, but nearly as gnarly as compared to today’s Sebring. It was a 1989 model, and before you ask, it was not the Maserati-produced version with the goofy removable hard top. It was the run-of-the-mill LE model with white exterior with maroon interior. I hated that car. Oh sure, it was a bit of fun to drive, but to sit as a passenger, especially in the back, where I inevitably got placed, was a painful experience. Exposed to the cool summer elements in the wild west of Nebraska, my senses were assaulted by the noisy, cold, and face-distorting speed produced by that 4-cylinder turbo racing down dirt roads at 80 miles per hour. So now you know the answer to the question: why not the Mazda Miata? Because my mother likes to torture her children in the back seat (a feature distinctly lacking in the Miata).
This LeBaron fantasy lasted some years until Chrysler released the PT Cruiser and a minor fender bender a la moi, which I blame over graveled roads of Nebraska and the LeBaron’s lack of anti-lock brakes. Regardless of who deserves the blame, the accident was an excuse to buy the new car of her dreams, a purple (or Cranberry if you are the anal type) PT Cruiser. Distinctly less fun to drive, thanks to the early models’ lack of turbo, the car also suffered severely from a rather pedestrian automatic gearbox. The interior was oddly less pleasant too with Chrysler opting for egg carton-quality plastics inside, notably a step backward from the LeBaron. The PT also was want for anti-lock brakes and that was no surprise considering Chrysler still opted to go cheap with disc brakes in the back. It should be no wonder to Americans that the company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. But for the PT Cruiser it has always been about the retro styling, and that was great for Chrysler. They sold a ton of these cars, but the thing about trendy styling is that trends are dynamic, and as Chrysler opted to leave the car virtually unchanged year after year, that retro look gradually lost its appeal and sales plummeted.
Clearly, the PT Cruiser had to go. But with the economy in the tanks, who can really go out and buy a new car? Following Europe’s lead, the Obama administration decided they needed to push a bill through Congress designed to jumpstart sales. Now some say that the government’s Cash-for-Clunkers program was an abject failure, but I say NEA! Truth be told, my mother has had her eye on a replacement car for about four years and that twinkle came in the form of BMW Group’s MINI Cooper.
Not long ago I flew up to Vegas and picked up a well-spec’d MINI Cooper S. For about $30,000 you too can pick up a MINI Cooper S with steptronic (read automatic) transmission, Sport Package (includes sport tires, traction control, Xenon headlights, bonnet stripes, and fancier rear turn indicators), Premium Package (Panoramic sunroof, multifunction steering wheel, auto climate control), and some sporty leather seats.
Normally the drive back from Vegas is fraught with traffic jams and drunk drivers, but I opted for the slightly safer route through Flagstaff. I am happy to report that with Golden Earring’s Radar Love blasting from my iPod, the drive back from the City of Lost Wages was a late-night, Red Bull and coffee-fueled, five-hour jaunt over the Hoover Dam, down through the mountains of Arizona, and into the Valley of the Sun was an unforgettable experience. The lightweight Cooper S with its 172 horsepower and 177 ft-lbs of torque easily blew by every car on the highway (Arizona is not exactly the American autobahn anyway) and still accomplished nearly 40 mpg using less than a tank of petrol. So with the right package – the sports package is a must – sporty and economical are together like we’ve never seen before in this car. Sure, some love the styling while others blast it for looking “old fashioned”, know this: whether you are blasting by Mazda RX-8 on the highways or careening around corners faster than a BMW 1er, for the smile on your face and the cash in your pocket, no car delivers like the MINI S.