The Mini deserves to be voted Car of the Century. As the precursor to all cars with a transverse engine and front-wheel drive (which means most), it has a stronger claim to the title than big sellers such as the Model T Ford and VW Beetle.

It was launched 37 years ago as BMC's answer to the bubble car, and is still alive and bouncing, though dwindling in numbers. Just 20,000 were sold in 1995, against a peak of 318,000 in 1971. Introduced in 1959 as cheap wheels for the impecunious, the Mini has evolved in its twilight years as a retro funster for the well-heeled. The Japanese are its most ardent fans.

Confirmation that there's life yet in Britain's best loved car comes with a package of changes to see the Mini through to the next century. Cheap Minis are no more. At pounds 9,000 before extras, Rover's latest models are too expensive to compete with utilitarian runabouts such as the Citroen AX (pounds 6,350), Fiat Cinquecento (pounds 6,132), Kia Pride (pounds 5,489) or Suzuki Swift (pounds 6,720). Even Ford's new Ka costs much less.

Rover now sees its minuscule cube as a living link with the Sixties and a trendy means of self-expression. According to the blurb, customers can choose from a wide range of options to reflect their personality. If the purity of the original has been lost through embellishment, rest assured that its character has not.

Rover has resisted any temptation to do a face-lift on a design icon. Nor has it done anything about the car's atrociously jerky ride (the product of rubber-cone springs), or the uncomfortable knees-up driving position, justified by Issigonis with the immortal observation: "You need to be uncomfortable to be alert." Accept these deficiencies and the Mini is still great fun.

The Mini Cooper no longer has more power and zest than the ordinary Mini, more's the pity. Both versions have the same old raucous engine, dressed with modern electronics to raise torque and meet emission regulations. There's still no five-speed gearbox, but fourth (top) has been raised to cut noise, fuss and consumption.

Racing through the lower gears, acceleration is quite nippy. It's not straight-line speed that makes the Mini quick from A to B, though, so much as incisive steering, no-roll cornering and terrific agility. No rival scuttles along twisty roads - or nips through urban traffic - with greater alacrity. Ironically, the pounds 795 go-faster sports pack blunts top speed - a modest 84mph for the white-roofed, bonnet-striped Cooper. But what's lost on the straights, through the extra drag of wide-tyred wheels, is regained on the roundabouts.

Dip into the options list, which includes "classic" leather (pounds 500) and pearlescent paint (pounds 265), and the humble Mini will set you back more than pounds 10,000. Worth the money? Consider these three cheaper fun-car alternatives.

Fiat Cinquecento Sporting, pounds 7,054 Cute and budget-priced funster of the Latin Perpendicular school. The engine is buzzy but eager, the gear change nasty. Zest like a Mini, but more economical. Handles with spirit on grippy tyres. Well equipped.

Ford Ka, pounds 8,195 Trendy looks date the Mini's. Sluggish performance but the old 1.3 engine is quiet and refined. Handles brilliantly, rides smoothly, grips well. Much roomier and more comfortable than the Mini.

Citroen Saxo 1.4VSX, pounds 9,390 Not such a character as the Mini but otherwise superior, being faster, comfier and more civilised. Keenly priced hatch with nippy performance, excellent handling, ample room and practical layout.

Roger Bell

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