Mini tradition endures, even in “Maxi” form

November 12, 2019 by
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The 2020 Mini Countryman is larger and more powerful but proved its kinship with our 2007 model during an impromptu road-test.

By John Gilbert
Ever since I was a little kid, our family gave our cars nicknames. Betsy is the one I remember best, for a sturdy old 1946 Dodge . Since then, I’ve always had relationships with cars I’ve owned, some great, some not so great. For the last 10 years, however, the most memorable car we’ve had has been a little red 2007 Mini Cooper.

It has been so loyal, trustworthy, and dependable, it could earn a Boy Scout endorsement. I last wrote about how it carried my wife, Joan, my older son, Jack, and me home from the Twin Cities airport through the worst overnight blizzard of the winter, to the safely and securrity of the Gilbert Compound, up on the hill just up the North Shore of Lake Superior from Duluth. The joke was on us, to a point, because I couldn’t readily see the tiny switch on the other side of the floor shift lever and was unaware the switch indicated that the traction control was off. I just thought the icy undercoat of all the snow made our trek extremely slippery and hazardous. All the way from the Twin Cities, slithering around on the freeway in whiteout conditions, my adrenaline on red-alert, and we made it! Imagine how easy it would have been had the traction control been turned on!

I’ve test-driven a couple of Mini Coopers in the decade since we bought that Mini with only a few miles on it, and I’ve been impressed. The 2007 model came out a year after BMW had taken ownership of the proud marque and smoved its production to Europe, with a BMW 4-cylinder.My wife, Joan, has pampered that car, hand-washing it to be put  back in the garage. Next time I see it, she’ll be hand-washing it again. It took a lot of convincing to get her to allow regular or mid-grade gas into it, instead of the premium she prefers.

Our 2007 Mini Cooper has been a loyal friend for a decade of winters — odd key fob and all.

As it turned out, our 2007 Mini secured for us a few days in a 2020 “Mini Cooper S Countryman, ALL4,” courtesy of Motorwerks BMW in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley. There is no dealership in Duluth, so we make periodic trips to Motorwerks when we need to give our Mini factory scrutiny, if it can’t be handled by Foreign Affairs in Duluth. We didn’t want to leave our Mini with a babysitter, even a factory-supported babysitter, but we agreed to swap it for a 2020 test-drive for a few days. Here’s why:

The Mini has the weird little electronic ignition switch and door key. You hit the tiny edge of the key fob to unlock or lock the two doors, and then you insert the fob into a little slot on the dash, next to the push-button to start the car. Or shut it off. Our key fob has taken a beating over the decade, and we only had one.

Joan, who does most of the Mini driving because I’m usually in test-drive vehicles, also likes to do work around outside our rural hilltop home, and she was digging around one day in July and got some honest dirt on her jacket. When she came in, she tossed the jacket into the washing machine with the next load. Came out clean as a whistle. And so did the Mini key fob, which happened to still be in the pocket of her jacket.

We agreed that going through the washing cycle was probably not on the list of accepted maintenance tricks for that key fob. Joan carefully dried it out, opening it and using a hair dryer, and bought it a new tiny battery, and we tried it. Hitting the little switch made a meaningful click, but would not unlock the doors or the hatch. it would, however, start the car. Strange. When we hit the lock part of the switch it worked. Too well. We stood there, marooned, with the key fob in hand and the Mini parked in the garage in its well-scrubbed red paint, and its doors and hatch locked. We had no choice but to ultimately call AAA. Impressively, they had a fellow at our garage door within minutes, and he pried his way to slightly open the window and reach a long rod inside the Mini to unlock the door.

Then we found a quirk in the Mini’s personality, fortunately when it was still warm enough outside that we had the driver’s window open. If you very carefully left the doors unlocked, when you walked away it might lock itself. We left the driver’s door window open 4 inches so we could reach inside without calling AAA again. You might even hear it click from 30 feet away, and feel thankful the window was slightly open.

Roomy interior, AWD lift Countryman above normal Mini Cooper coupe.

We also knew we would have to get set up with a reconfigured or new switch, so we tried everywhere, but everyone told us it could only be done at a Mini dealership. We made an appointment at Motorwerks, which I had to cancel, and they said not to worry, we could just drive up and have it taken care of.

It became our ritual to leave the driver’s side window down those 4 inches — just enough to fit my forearm through to reach in and unlock the door with the inside latch. We figured we would have the switch reconfigured, but it wasn’t that easy. To reconfigure the key,  we had t0 go to a dealership, and have your title, driver’s license, credit card, and all the meaningful information required to, I suppose, change citizenship or travel to Canada and return some day. We had a section of old carpeting we carried on the floor of the back seat, so that if it rained, I could drape the grippy bottom of the carpet piece on the roof and let it hang over the open part of the window to keep it dry inside. You could drive it anywhere, but if you closed the window, you realized the importance of reopening it before exiting. So we fixed a little steick-on note onto the door as a reminder.

If car-buyers are turning to trucks and SUVs, BMW-owned Mini Countryman meets the test.

When it got cold enough to not leave the window open, Joan and I informed Motorwerks we were coming, and drove down from Duluth to the Twin Cities. When we pulled in, they carefully examined the key fob and were very puzzled. Why would the key operate the ignition, lock the doors, but not unlock them?

Then we learned that Mini key fobs cannot be reconfigured. Jake, our service writer, was very patient and accommodating as he fetched the service manager to discuss it with this unhappy customer. They explained that when the car is new, you plug the key fob into the ignition for the first time, and it is electronically configured for life. Matched to that car. We had no choice but to get a new one, which was really available — in Chicago, for a mere $284!

It would take a day or two to get it to Motorwerks, and they generously offered us the option of taking a “loaner” car until ours was ready, so we could drive home and then drive back down in a few days to get our Mini.

We also found out that there was never the need to bring the car to Motorwerks! They could have mailed the new key to us in Duluth, because the first time we plugged it in, it would configure itself. But if it didn’t work…well, we didn’t want to risk it. It was more than impressive when Jake rolled out our loaner — a brand new 2020 Mini Countryman — equipped with a supercharged 2.0-liter engine and all-wheel drive. We didn’t need the extra room, but it was very nice to have the quite enormous second seat and storage area, and the Mini Countryman performed very well for the four days we drove it like our own.

Comfortable leather bucket seats and modern connectivity are new Mini assets.

There are some significant design differences. One is that the old Mini has the oddity of a giant speedometer in the center of the dashboard; the driver gets a tachometer in front of his line of vision. The new car has the speedometer in the customary location, straight ahead, and a large navigation screen in the middle. Excellent comfort, good, responsive power, nice balance, and I had to think that AWD would be fantastic when snow and ice reach the North Shore.

Jake called, our car was ready, and everything seemed to work well. I drove down, dodging cones and barrels on the freeway-construction maze to get there. I was able to register 28.9 miles per gallon for the time I had the Countryman, curtailed as it was, under the circumstances. The new Mini Countryman would be fun to own, and a worthy Minnesota vehicle in the Great White North — although our much lighter, if older, Mini delivers over 36 miles per gallon on the freeway.

Modernized instruments on 2020 Mini show nav and back-up screens where speedometer used to be.

Motorwerks did a comprehensive job of going over everything in our trusty Mini, and we appreciated the recommendation for noticing the need for a little exhaust work, a reminder that our Nokian all-season tires are showing wear — down to 5/32 of remaining tread, and the engine air cleaner and the cabin microfilter needed changing. We had them replace the filters, and climbing in, the Mini felt like coming home. No satellite radio, but a CD player, and I had brought along a dozen of my best CDs to play on the way home.

When we got to November, the daily absurdity of being 25 degrees below normal because of our Arctic air mass meant it was a relief to no longer need to keep the driver’s window open a fourth of the way, because hypothermia is not on my most-wanted list. And the new key fob is really new-looking and gives us functions that have never been used. Also, the key fob is so clean,  there’ll be no need to run it through the washing machine.

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