Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that: “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” What a shame it is that he didn’t live long enough to buy himself something with a heap of torque so that he could smoke his way across a continent or two. Anyone capable of such prophetic gearheadery back in 1879 clearly understood the key ingredient to any road trip, however long or short. Namely: that the destination is irrelevant. The only valid reason to conjoin points B and A is the journey–the potential for adventure and discovery that lies between key-on and shut-down. And no, B before A isn’t evidence of acute dyslexia, it denotes the start and end of this particular trip: Barcelona to Andorra. Because, even adhering to the wisdom of R. L. Stevenson, road trips need certain fixed parameters–otherwise they become rambling, shabby affairs.
Now, Barcelona you and I know about. The beaches, the climate, the crazy-looking church, the incessant partying. But Andorra is an unknown: a place I had never visited. There is something undeniably exotic bound up in the notion of a European principality. It conjures up images of surgically optimized tax exiles who flit between caf and casino. Red Italian machinery littered on street corners like Toyota Priuses at a Hollywood film premiere. Beauty and wealth melded in such concentration that it would be tasteless were it not for the fact that most of us are jealous of such trappings.
There is nothing tasteless, however, about the vehicle chosen for this task. The Mini has been a global sales phenomenon. BMW sold more than 150,000 of the 2002-2006 Minis in the States, a number that exceeded sales estimates twice over. When the car was first launched, BMW executives were pilloried for contorting the core Mini value of space efficiency into haute couture. Tackle the same execs now on the subject of inadequate rear legroom and trunk space, and they will produce an impressive balance sheet for your perusal.
Photographer Tom Salt is waiting outside the Barcelona airport in this latest, newest Mini. His last telephone correspondence informed me that the car was blue. There are two other Minis lurking among the sea of taxis, but neither is the correct color, so I walk around until I find a blue Mini. And yet it’s not until I see Salt that I can be sure it’s the correct car. As face-lifts go, it doesn’t even qualify as a nip and tuck. Mild tweak just about does it justice.
But then, why fiddle for the sake of fiddling? If Mini sales have dipped over the past twelve months, it’s because people became aware of a revised model on the horizon. Of Mini’s half-million customers, I wonder how many would question the styling of their beloved car? Perhaps a handful. It would be churlish to criticize BMW for leaving things be.However, it would be equally wrong not to take the opportunity to ask why a car carrying the thriftiest of photographers and a journalist with a modest wardrobe demands that they pile their wares onto the rear seats because the trunk is so tiny. If anyone is expecting the new Mini to offer more practicality than the old Mini, they will be disappointed. It remains one of the world’s few two-plus-two family hatchbacks. But the Mini also remains infectious, the automotive equivalent of an obnoxious, impish child you can’t help but adore.
We nose it away from the airport, Salt briefly attempting to make sense of Barcelona’s erratic series of ring roads before we give up and take what I like to call the penultimate resort: a general heading based on signposted information. France is north of Spain; we want to go north, so France it is. The last resort, by the way, is always the sun. This means that only competent amateur astronomers should dare take on Barcelona environs at night.The Mini isn’t intended to be an especially relaxing cruiser, and this 172-hp Cooper S is true to form. It has a slightly confusing set of ambling attributes, most notably a chassis and steering mechanism a bit at odds with the character of the powertrain. The new Mini, just like its predecessor, has a very fast steering rack–but it makes for an irritatingly responsive multilane tool. There’s no sneeze factor here: twitch your left index finger and the Cooper S has eyes for the next lane, and possibly the one after that. And all this liveliness is juxtaposed next to a delightful new turbocharged (not supercharged like its predecessor) four-cylinder engine, whose gutsy delivery belies its weenie 1.6-liter capacity.
This creates an odd physical sensation for the driver: upper body braced between the bolsters of the excellent front seat, in a permanent effort to control any extraneous wheel movement, and everything south of the pelvis relaxed, with all that midrange flexibility available at the flinch of an ankle.
The curiously named town of Vic is to be our overnight stop. It sits on the final flat Catalan landmass, just before evidence of the lengthy geological ruckus between Spain and France begins to rise in the distance. Vic is remarkable for one reason only: it is either so heavily industrialized that the macro-climate surrounding it is saturated with methane, or it has the most flatulent human/bovine population in southern Europe. Either way, we leave the stench behind and head for the clean air of the Pyrenees.
It’s still too dark to enjoy any scenery, so we aim southwest on the C25, cursing the colossal, centrally mounted speedometer that, even with its lighting dimmed, still looks like a 1970s electric fire at night and proves to be an unwanted distraction. As the C25 nears Sallent, we head due north to the C1411 and Berga. Then, as the first signs of impending daylight arrive and shortly after we have amused a local gasoline vendor with our quite pathetic attempts to communicate using his language, it dawns on us that we’ve made a significant find.
Significant finds are the elixir of travel. They are the things you happen across or stumble over: stuff missed by generations of cartographers that still feels undiscovered. We’ve wended our way over some rotten surfaces to a point about twenty miles outside Berga–a village called Sant Lloren de Morunys, whose correct pronunciation is so tricky even indigenous folks suffer a bruised tongue each time it’s attempted. Two roads run from this place, one north and one west. All traffic is naturally cajoled by the signs to head north, but we aim for the westerly route–and straight into some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. Why did I not know of this place until now?
The road is narrow; too narrow for prolonged hammering. Usually, this would render it unsatisfactory for the purpose, but sometimes a landscape matters more than any chance to decipher the dynamic merits of a new hatchback. We lope along for the next twenty-five miles, seeing few other vehicles, jaws sagging at the undiminished, rocky beauty of the place.
Fun is, rightly, an integral aspect of the Mini’s DNA, and this revised car is just as infectious as its predecessor. Steering that seemed overenthusiastic on the autostrada is right on the money through these searching, mountainous passes. But its real achievement is the level of feedback it manages despite being electrically assisted.
Composure is the other foundation on which the new car garners real respect in the Mini tradition–despite the modest power output of the Cooper S, there are few sports cars that could dispense of it on these roads.
Having a full 192 lb-ft of torque available from 1600 rpm to 5000 rpm means gear selection isn’t as critical as it ought to be in a small- capacity hatchback. This car is notably punchier than the old supercharged S, even if the claimed 7.1-second 0-to-62-mph time and 140-mph top speed appear similar. More impressive is the way the front axle maximizes the shove away from tighter turns: there’s no limited-slip differential fitted on our car (it’s optional), and yet the traction control is triggered only by abject hooliganism from the driver. And it’s when you’re indulging in these delights, leaning on the 11.6-inch front discs, wondering why all performance hatchbacks don’t benefit from a 2492-pound curb weight, that you forget the crummy packaging.
But perhaps not the ergonomics. As Salt takes advantage of yet another chasm below us, there’s a chance to sit in the cabin and have a prolonged look around. And you know what? It must be one of the least logical cabins in a current production vehicle.
The central speedometer has grown. Looking at it is like watching a film from the front row: your eyes have to focus on the area of interest, and that just isn’t very helpful in a passenger car. Then there’s the new center console: the heater controls work well enough, but the remaining switchgear appears to have been placed in a small bag, attached to a small incendiary device, detonated, and then glued in place where the pieces landed. There are fiddly little buttons everywhere. I found a few more each time I looked. The volume control for the radio is nowhere near the tuning knob. I am thirty-one years old, and I can operate an iPod blindfolded, but these controls I find baffling.
That’s because everything defers to style in the new Mini, perhaps more so than in the old car, whose controls were at least vaguely fathomable. Equally, I have no doubt that prospective customers won’t care about ergonomics.
Onward toward our destination. The C1313 cuts through the valleys between Lleida and Andorra, and we make the mistake of joining it late in its journey north. Mistake? Potentially fast-moving traffic must have been thwarted by trucks for at least an hour by the time the Mini joins the flow. Frustrations are bubbling over into some diabolical passing moves: the type that require oncoming traffic to drive into ditches. Here, the Mini’s other great strength shines through: it engenders universally positive reactions from other drivers. Even in such angry surroundings, people smile at it. But I don’t think for a minute that any of them recognize it as a new model.
The crossing into Andorra is small and low-key. I love browsing these European borders and observing the immediate changes. New fonts for all the signage, different police car liveries; marked differences from the country just yards away.
It would be a pleasure to inform you that Andorra blends its geographical location and status as a tax-free principality to create a Monaco for winter-sports fanatics. But as we drove around the capital, Andorra la Vella, it quickly became apparent that there are some grim sacrifices to be made if you want to avoid donating a portion of your earnings to the state each year. Like living in a retail hellhole. The place is littered with used-car showrooms and tire stores.
So we give up trying to find somewhere attractive to shoot photos and settle for an espresso and a slice of Andorra’s national dish–which appears to be pizza. Outside the eatery, among all this fiscal madness, the Mini still looks relaxed and confident. It has universal appeal. It is a better car than its predecessor, even if the differences are incremental.
And it is reassuring to note that having proved that destinations are always a disappointment, we have ahead of us such an enjoyable little ride in which to experience the best part of any journey: the drive home.