San Francisco : It's been 35 years since the last Mini was sold in the US. Now BMW is getting ready for the launch of the MINI here in this famous city with its hilly streets. In untypical English-like weather dozens of dealers, media and technicians are learning about the new car's heritage and discovering first hand from people, such as Paddy Hopkirk, what the car is all about. By John Rettie.

In what has been one of the most anticipated launches for several years jaded media and industry professionals are impressed by the tremendous genuine depth of the emotion for the MINI that is forthcoming from the US managers and the German designers. Only a handful of the US based auto media have ever driven a classic Mini so they do not clearly understand the emotions involved. Nonetheless after driving the car on the winding country roads north of the city they come away impressed with the car's handling and individuality. Comments such as: it's so cute and I was never once scared despite the wet and slippery roads are heard again and again. Attendees note how many people notice the car on the street and give them a thumbs up. The reaction to the car from the general public is similar to what they received when they first drove the New Beetle and the PT Cruiser.

All of this bodes well for BMW's MINI division in the US.

For the past few years the team has grappled with how to launch what is effectively an all-new brand in such a large country. Early surveys showed that the old Mini only had a 2% awareness. Normally this would be viewed as a major hurdle, but when one realizes that means over 6 million people are already aware of the MINI's heritage it's not a bad starting point.

Only 10,000 of the original Minis were ever sold in the US between 1960 and 1967 yet there are 12,000 still on the road today as so many were privately imported by fans of the classic Mini. Now BMW USA plans to sell 20,000 MINIs per year. Tom Purves, the Brit who runs BMW USA, admits that they've underestimated demand. He says that other countries are also asking for more cars but the Oxford factory is hampered by its current 100,000 cars per year capacity. He just hopes that US dealers, who by law can charge what they like, do not gouge the public with high markups.

It was quickly discovered during research that the MINI would appeal to those living in major metropolitan areas so it made the decision to concentrate on those areas with just 70 dealers much easier. (It's pretty much a rule that you need a minimum of 700 or so dealers to cover the whole country for a mass market vehicle.) Fifty dealers will have their showrooms open when the MINI officially goes on sale on March 22. Each of these select 70 BMW dealers have had to build separate showrooms to sell the car and the large collection of motoring accessories such as wheels, lights, decals, luggage racks, etc. In addition, in keeping with the "fun" theme that surrounds the MINI experience, dealers will also offer a wide variety of motoring gear such as shirts, pins, pens, other gadgets and even a jacket with removable chamois leather sleeves. Presumably this can be used by a loving owner to keep his or her car clean at all times.

BMW USA has gone as far as hiring a fashion designer from New York to work on MINI gear in-house. A boutique approach to marketing premium brands along with accessories has worked wonders in other industries with companies such as Apple Computer and Harley Davidson. One MINI executive even suggests that MINI dealers could make more money from selling accessories than from selling the car.

Even though the MINI is the shortest car sold in the US its stance on the road is so strong, with its wide track and relatively high roofline, that everyone says that the car feels and looks bigger than its dimensions suggest. This is good news in a country where most drivers think that bigger is better. It should help dispel the fear so many car owners have of driving a small car among the monstrous SUVs on the roads.

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BMW has elected not to import the MINI One as it feels it does not offer the performance or handling that people will expect. Consequently it is positioning the MINI Cooper as a premium small sedan yet it has priced the car at a competitive $16,850 plus tax. The Cooper S, which goes on sale at the same time as the Cooper will start at $19,850. Both cars offer a high level of standard features including air conditioning, six airbags and a six-speaker stereo system. Alloy wheels are standard and a white or black roof is available for no extra charge. Larger alloy wheels, upgraded seats, leather upholstery, sunroof and a number of other options are available as individual options or in packages. Even a Union Jack or a Stars and Stripe flag decal for sticking on the roof is available. A few months after the initial launch a CVT automatic transmission with a six-speed Steptronic semi-automatic mode will be made available. This will obviously be a much-needed option in a country where a minority of drivers, even enthusiasts, opt for manual transmission.

In keeping with the MINI's premium image the car comes with a comprehensive 4-year/40,000 mile warranty plus free maintenance for the first 3-years/36,000 miles.

Judging from the buzz surrounding the launch of the new MINI Cooper in the US it looks as though BMW will have a winner on its hands. One California dealer reports he already has a 15-year-old boy and a 72-year old woman on the waiting list. Just like the classic Mini, it looks as though the new MINI will become an iconic car that appeals to wide cross section of buyers. This is not true of most car brands in the US where an old person would not buy a Hyundai, for example, and a young person would not be "seen dead" in a Buick!