Mini makes sense, even in “maxi” form

John Gilbert

 

Our 2007 Mini Cooper, as it handled winter with ease, before key-fob gremlin decided to lock the doors. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Our 2007 Mini Cooper, as it handled winter with ease, before key-fob gremlin decided to lock the doors. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Ever since I was a little kid and my parents gave our family cars nicknames — Betsy is the one I remember best, for a sturdy old 1946 Dodge — I’ve had relationships with cars. There have been some great ones, and some not so great. For the last 10 years, however, it has been known through this column that I’ve had warm feelings for a little red Mini Cooper.

It has been loyal and trustworthy and dependable, which is more than you can say for a lot of people you might know, and I wrote about how it carried my wife, Joan, and me home from the Twin Cities airport through the worst overnight blizzard of the winter and safely to 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 to even have a chance to know that the switch indicated that the traction control was off. 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 I switched the traction control on.

Replacing key fob led to brief but appreciated test drive in a Motorwerks Mini Countryman AWD. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Replacing key fob led to brief but appreciated test drive in a Motorwerks Mini Countryman AWD. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Driving a large Mini is acceptable, as long as you agree to eat "jumbo shrimp." Photo credit: John Gilbert
Driving a large Mini is acceptable, as long as you agree to eat "jumbo shrimp." Photo credit: John Gilbert

I’ve test-driven a couple of Mini Coopers in the years since we bought that 2007 Mini, and I’ve been impressed, but the 2007 model was the year after BMW had taken over the proud marque and started building them in Europe, with a BMW 4-cylinder.We have pampered that car. Mainly Joan has. She will hand-wash the car to put it 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, because she wants premium.

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 Golden Valley. There is no dealership in Duluth, so we make periodic trips to
Motorwerks when we need to give our Mini factory care. We didn’t want to leave our Mini with a babysitter, even a factory-supported babysitter, but we agreed to the swap for a few days. And here’s why:

The Mini always has had tis weird little ignition switch and door key in one. It is electronic, so you hit the tiny corner of the key fob to unlock or lock the two doors, and then you have to insert the fob into a little slot on the dash, and hit the push-button at the same time, to start the car. Or shut it off. Now, our key fob has taken a beating over the decade we’ve used it, and we only had one. Joan, who pampers that Mini like you can’t believer, does most of the Mini driving, because I’m usually in test-drive vehicles. Joan also likes to do work

New Mini Countryman has luxurious leather interior. Photo credit: John Gilbert
New Mini Countryman has luxurious leather interior. Photo credit: John Gilbert
.Sporty cockpit shows new placement of speedometer. Photo credit: John Gilbert
.Sporty cockpit shows new placement of speedometer. Photo credit: John Gilbert

around our rural hilltop property, and she was digging around one day in July and got some dirt on her jacket. She tossed the jacket into the washing machine and it caught the next wash. Clean as a whistle. And so was the Mini key fob, which happened to still be in the pocket of her jacket.

We agreed that going through the washing machine was probably not on the list of accepted maintenance ce tricks for that key fob. Joan carefully dried it out, bought it a new tiny battery, and we ventured out. Hitting the little switch made a meaningful click, but would not unlock the doors or the hatch. it would, however, start the car. Strange. We used a hair dryer and carefully dried it out, with its new battery, but it would not unlock the doors. We had no choice but to call AAA. Impressively, they had a fellow at our garage door within minutes, and he was able to get inside the Mini.

We left the driver’s door window open 4 inches so we wouldn’t have to call AAA again. Then we found a quirk in the Mini’s personality. If you very carefully left the doors unlocked, when you walked away it might lock itself. You might even hear it click from 30 feet away, and feel thankful the window was slightly open. We also knew we would have to get set up with a reconfigured or new switch, so we made an appointment at Motorwerks. I had too cancel it, though, 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, or even order a new one. But it wasn’t that easy. We checked with the best car repair shops in Duluth, and the answer was unanimous: To reconfigure the key fob in a Mini, you must 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 buy a space capsule. 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. You could drive it anywhere, but when you closed the window, you realized the importance of opening it before you got out. So we fixed a little note sticker onto the door as a reminder.

Finally, Joan and I drove down on a Monday a couple of weeks ago. We informed Motorwerks we were coming, and when we pulled in, they carefully examined the key fob and were very puzzled. Then we learned that Mini key fobs cannot be reconfigured. Jake, our service writer, fetched the service manager to discuss it, but what happens is that when the car is new,, you plug in the key fob for the first time, and it is configured for life. Matched to that car. We had no choice but to get a new one. A new fob was really available — in Chicago, for a mere $284! It would take a day or two to get it to Minneapolis, and Motorwerks generously offered us the option of taking a “loaner” car until ours was ready, then drive back down and pick it up.

Readily identifiable,from the front, the Mini Countryman stretches into a worthy family hauler. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Readily identifiable,from the front, the Mini Countryman stretches into a worthy family hauler. Photo credit: John Gilbert

We also found out that there was no 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 a brand new 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 eat and storage area, and the Mini Countryman performed very well for the four days we drove it like our own.

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, and a large navigation screen in the middle. Excellent comfort, good, responsive power, nice balance, making me 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, but I have to admit it was curtailed for time, under the circumstances.

Motorwerks did a comprehensive job of going over everything in our trusty Mini, and we appreciated the recommendation for a little exhaust work, a reminder that our Nokian all-season tires are showing wear — down to 5/32 of remaining tread. I requested that they replace the engine air cleaner and the cabin microfilter. 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.

It's a relief to no longer need to keep the driver's window rolled down a fourth of the way, because hypothermia is not on my most-wanted list. And the new key fob is really new-looking and clean -- there'll be no need to run it through the washing machine.