More familiar in urban habitats, the Mini showed grit on an adventure to Morocco, reports Sue Baker

"You'll be very glad of this tomorrow," promised the man who was tutoring us in what to do with a three-metre length of floppy white cloth. Rallying legend Rauno Aaltonen was to be our guide and mentor on a real-life 'Mini adventure'.

I had been invited to join him on a driving safari, exploring sand tracks in the Sahara, across terrain more familiar to camels than cars, and a world away from the natural high street habitat of BMW's born-again Mini. But first the Finnish driving ace, famous for his exploits in classic Minis including winning the Monte Carlo Rally, was schooling us in the art of making a desert headdress.

The next morning we knew why. Dawn rose to reveal the weird beige gloom of what appeared to be a dense mist obscuring the sculpted landscape of southern Morocco.

Sand-storms are common, and this was a particularly vicious one, briefly blanketing the terrain with millions of abrasive airborne particles that made any exposed skin feel instantly sandpapered. It didn't bear contemplating what it was doing to the cars' paintwork.

It made me grateful that while you can take a Mini out of suburbia, you can't take suburbia out of a Mini.

Suddenly the creature comforts of a well-upholstered cockpit seemed especially appealing, even though the air conditioning's filter was struggling to cope, and the fine sand gradually began to dust all the interior surfaces.

The adverse conditions, though unpleasant for driving, made it feel even more of an adventure.

We were in Erfoud, Morocco's sparsely-populated southern tip, to explore what Mini global marketing general manager Hildegard Wortmann enthusiastically called "the excitement of the Mini brand". There is no doubting the excitement, for BMW, of the car's sales performance. Since its launch (or should that be re-birth?) four years ago, the Mini's success has confounded even their most ambitious expectations. "At the beginning, back in 2001, we thought we would sell maybe 100,000 cars in a best year," Wortmann said. "Some colleagues thought we were being too ambitious pitching it at that level.

"But last year we sold 184,000 Minis in more than 70 countries and built the 500,000th car since launch. It's quite amazing."

It is indeed amazing that new Minis sell faster than even the iconic original ever did, keeping the factory on the edge of the Oxford ring-road going flat out to produce enough cars to meet demand. So what is the secret of the Mini's success?

"I think it is because of product substance," says Wortmann. "It has a little smile about it. With its short overhangs it has a go-kart agility and it is high quality in terms of safety. We are very aware of the Mini's heritage and we will stay very authentic to it with whatever we do with the brand in the future."

It is that go-kart agility, recapturing the fun element that was a trademark of the original car, that makes a modern Mini such an engaging drive. And although arguably over-priced, sold as a premium model despite its diminutive 12-foot size, its popularity is such that it holds its value well on a second-hand market awash with lower priced, similarly sized small cars.

But the economics of buying a Mini were the last thing on our minds as we headed south in a convoy of more than a dozen Cooper S cars from Erfoud towards the spectacular shifting sand dunes of Merzouka. The sensation of driving one was much more the point.

As we shimmied along, other Minis fore and aft, on archaic roads liberally powdered with gusting sand, it felt like being part of a re-enactment of The Italian Job gone African. In Erfoud, a dusty oasis of a town dropped into the middle of a rocky desert, the Minis contrasted starkly with the local traffic.

Most of it seemed to comprise ramshackle trucks, creaking buses and battered elderly Peugeots in a range of earthy colours, making a string of crayon-bright little hatchbacks inevitably conspicuous. As we drove deeper into the Sahara, traffic quickly thinned to non-existent, and our progress through the occasional villages was slowed by clusters of children lining the roadside to wave excitedly at what were almost certainly the first Minis they had ever seen. At the front of the convoy, Rauno Aaltonen led the way with brisk expertise, setting a cracking pace away from the villages.

Although better known for his prowess on ice and snow as a Monte winner, Aaltonen is also an expert at driving on baking desert sand as a veteran of African rallies. The desert is much more than just sand, it is liberally pockmarked with big holes, rocks and bumps that can make driving hazardous, in an environment where any breakdown is potentially nightmarish, he warned us.

"Once when I was rallying here in Morocco I had problems when a steering arm broke and I had to try to repair it," Aaltonen ruefully recalled.

"With the car jacked up, a sand-storm blew up and I was trying to undo wheel nuts with my eyes shut, because I couldn't see anything with all the sand blowing around. I don't recommend it!"

Sand driving is a good discipline for driving better on any terrain, he told us, explaining that the secret of driving safely on sand is to focus of your eyes far ahead and constantly try to anticipate what's coming. It teaches you to prepare rather than merely react. You need to plan where you are driving and improvise as the surface changes. A seat-of-the-pants feel for what is happening under the wheels is crucial.

Sand has a deadening effect on a car's dynamics, so every reaction comes with a delay.

To explore the effect of this, Rauno and his son Tino, also a rally driver, set up a series of tests out in the desert with the Merzouka dunes as a towering backdrop. One test, soon nicknamed 'Tino's Torture,' was a flat snaking course looping around on loosely packed sand.

It included a lengthy slalom and a series of long sweeping bends. It is hard work driving on a surface with minimal grip and a texture that fights against you. It became a wearying exercise in maintaining momentum and fighting to stay on course as the sand drags at the tyres and sets the car skating over the soft, shifting looseness of the surface.

Another test, quickly dubbed 'Rauno's Revenge,' was a tight track through the lower slopes of the sand dunes. You found yourself constantly sliding as the tyres fought for grip, and in a wieldy little car it's tough work to stay on course, but phenomenal fun once the Mini's DSC (dynamic stability control, also known in other models as ESP for electronic stability programme) was switched off.

"For all normal conditions it is a great advantage to have it helping you. Always keep it on for bitumen, and especially wet bitumen, or the wheels will start to spin and you lose sideways stability," Rauno urged.

"But on sand, you need to disable it to be able to keep the car moving. So for soft sand, mud or deep snow, switch it off. You get on much better without it on these kinds of surfaces."

North Africa was a long way to travel to discover that we Brits don't steer well, but that was the next lesson. As a nation, British drivers still cling to a habit rooted in the 1930s, according to Rauno.

"The way British driving schools teach it, feeding the wheel through your hands, is the silliest thing," he said. "We call it 'milking' the wheel. It goes way back to when no cars had power steering but they had great big steering wheels and you had to keep your hands where you could see ahead over the wheel.

"You don't need to do that any more. I want to urge British drivers, always keep a grip on the wheel, don't slide it through your hands. You should push it with one hand while you release the other hand, that way you always have a hold on the wheel and know where you are with it.

"If you don't do this, it is harder to drive on sand, and I guarantee you will spin on ice. Milking the wheel is one of the reasons why British people have trouble on slippery surfaces."

We tend to sit badly in a car too, he complains. "Worldwide, there are the same bad habits. People lean too far back, sit too far away from the wheel with their arms too straight, and that way they don't have enough control on the steering. People make fun of the old lady who is so close she is almost biting the wheel, but actually it's safer than being too far back. You should always sit relaxed with your arms bent, not stretched and tense."

Determinedly relaxed on the drive back to Erfoud, there was time to reflect on what a kaleidoscope of driving experiences you can pack into a couple of days. It had certainly been a hell of a Mini adventure.

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