A new Mini, all plushed up as even the cheapest Minis now are, will cost you pounds 8,995. This is clearly a lot of money for an ancient design with fundamental shortcomings in smoothness and silence, even if it has been updated to suit some modern demands, and it is also a lot of money for something so small. But that is not the point. Today's Mini is not a serious small car, a serious solution to problems of urban auto-overcrowding. It is a toy, an accessory, a bit of fun. A lot of fun, in fact.
But with the demise of the Mini in its role of space-efficient, Minimalist, forward-looking transport solution (its late designer, Sir Alec Issigonis, would have wept if he had known what would become of his brainchild) comes this question. Is there a future for the really small car? Is it relevant? Is it a great idea waiting to be rediscovered?
Mini excepted, the truly diminutive motor-car no longer exists except in Japan and Italy. Or not even Italy, in truth, if you define a car's nationality by where it is made, for Fiat's Cinquecento is made in Poland, where labour is cheap and the market for Minimalist motor cars is relatively strong. Tiny cars exist in Japan because their owners don't have to prove they have access to a parking space - which is a big advantage if you happen to live in a Tokyo high-rise - but this is an artificial market condition. Given a free choice, Japan's small-car owners would no doubt prefer something bigger.
Cars that are only fairly small are big news at the moment, however. Last week the Geneva Motor Show was buzzing with opinions on Rover's Spiritual and Spiritual Too concept cars (which, despite appearances, do not in fact hint at the real Mini replacement, which is due in 2000), and on Mercedes Benz's A-class, which goes on sale later this year. But the real next Mini won't be as small as the original, and the A-class, for all its clever, "one box" design and genuine room for four Nineties-size adults, is also considerably more than Mini-sized.
Then there is Ford's weird-looking Ka, just launched but yet to be wholeheartedly welcomed by the "early adopters" beloved of marketing folk.
It seems small, but looks can deceive. Next to a Mini, it's vast. Seat's new Arosa and its imminent Volkswagen-badged counterpart are not much smaller than the Polo to which they are related, while the arrival of the rear-engined Mercedes "Smart" car, a joint venture with the Swatch watch company (and truly small), slips ever farther away.
The fact is that car-makers don't want to build tiny cars any more. Such miracles of miniaturisation cost nearly as much to build as a normal size car, because the construction processes are similar whatever the car's size; and they can cost more to develop, because they demand more ingenuity of their designers. But none of this cuts much ice with the car buyer; if a car is small, it should be cheap. That means paltry profits for its maker unless the car sells in vast numbers, and the reward is not worth the effort.
Besides, today's car buyers aspire to grander things. Living standards are high, and there's relatively more money to spend than there was in the Sixties when a basic Mini was a viable family runabout. People like to show their affluence, and won't accept the noise, the discomfort and - obviously - the lack of space that go with a tiny car. If they can't afford a new, larger car, they will buy something second-hand instead. That was a risky strategy in the Sixties, but it makes perfect sense today because cars are better built and more durable.
Then there is the safety angle. Tiny cars are not good to crash in, because there is less structure to crumple before you do. It is this, more than anything else, that drives designers to distraction. Other aspects of modern life militate against microscopic motors, too; parking, for example, is increasingly defined by marked bays, cancelling a tiny car's size advantage. The prognosis is clear. Cars smaller than today's "superminis" - smaller than a Fiat Punto, a Ford Ka, a Peugeot 106 - are doomed to failure.
And that is a great shame, because a tiny car can entertain like nothing else. You can nip through traffic gaps that cause thrombosis to a bigger car's progress; you can revel in the agility on a twisting road that comes from minimal weight and quick reactions to the controls; you can enjoy the obvious ingenuity of the car's designer. Too bad; the tiny car's time has gone, just like that of the bubble car before it. The Mini has been reduced to a nostalgia-tinged irrelevance, and soon it will die. Note its departure well, for we shall not see its like again.
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