All-Star: Mini Cooper

There's no conspicuous consumption here. If you look at the numbers, the Mini is a modestly priced, front-wheel-drive hatchback with great fuel economy. But we're here to tell you that it's actually an exotic sports car masquerading as sensible transportation.

There's some irony at work here. Alec Issigonis's original Austin Mini arrived in the early 1960s as a reaction to the Suez fuel crisis of the late 1950s, but then the switched-on excitement of the '60s transformed the little front-wheel-drive car into an icon of counterculture style. In the same way, the retro-look Mini Cooper embraces the sensible values of practical transportation while subversively delivering a sports-car experience.

To begin with, only a sports car could get away with as much style as this. The Mini's aggressive stance and taut, muscular sheetmetal keep it from looking like a cute cartoon, while a wide-ranging selection of accessories, paint choices, and wheels ensures that every Mini is an intensely personal expression of its owner's tastes.

And, just like a sports car, the Mini's personality is determined by its power and weight. This is a compact, lightweight package, and it darts into corners without hesitation, the signature of sports-car performance. Meanwhile, the 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine is only modestly powerful, whether in supercharged guise or not, but its crisp, mechanical verve encourages you to make the most of what the tach has to offer.

And yet, unlike a sports car, the Mini can function as simple transportation when it has to. The doors are wide, the multiadjustable driver's seat is comfortable, and the interior easily can be reconfigured to afford optimum cargo capacity. You don't even have to open your wallet very wide to operate this car, so fuel prices be damned. The Mini is a pleasure to own as well as a joy to drive, and it might be this sensible side of its personality that makes us love it so much.

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