A re new things always better? Not necessarily, if we are talking of cars. New usually means safer, greener, more idiot-proof, less demanding, better able to conform to ever-more-stringent legislation. It usually does not mean more individual, more innovative, or more fun.

If it did, someone would have reinvented the Mini. No one has - except for Japanese 'microcar' manufacturers supplying their home market. There is talk of a proper, modern Mini replacement on Rover's drawing board, a project encouraged by BMW (Rover's parent company); but until that comes about Rover is making do with the original, served up with some new sauces and toppings.

The latest of these is the Mini Cooper Monte Carlo. It is three decades since a Mini Cooper first won the rally, so this limited edition of 200 cars might seem a bit late in the day. But this year's Monte Carlo Rally once again numbered a Mini Cooper among its entrants, driven by the self-same Paddy Hopkirk who won in 1964.

He did not win this time (new things do at least tend to be faster), but the red car with the white roof went well until its alternator failed. Anyway, Rover is revved up enough about the experience to bring out this latest permutation of the 'car-as-toy' theme, a Mini Cooper with four extra rally-style lights across its front grille, four stickers around the body based on the design of the old Monte Carlo Rally plates, and a facsimile of the signature of John Cooper, creator of the original Mini Cooper, on the front wings.

The wheels, inspired by the Minilite design that was de rigueur on a Sixties rally car, get fat 165/60- section tyres and gunmetal grey paint for their spokes, and the seats are finished in red vinyl with cream cloth centre sections in the style of original Mini Coopers. The steering wheel rim, carpets, gear-lever knob and seat belts are all red, too (though if that is too much red you can have black bodywork instead).

It looks terrific. All cute and cuddly and purposeful and sporty, inviting you in to a Mini world where everything is small, noisy and hyperactive, where town traffic becomes an obstacle course of delight. A Mini bounces over bumps that other cars smother, and the driving position cramps your ankles painfully, but it does not matter. The bumpiness is not as bad as it used to be (some new things are better), and you can fit a proprietary kit to reposition the driver's seat farther back - if you do not mind the loss of rear legroom, already made minimal by the full-size seats fitted to today's posher Minis.

Then there is the layout of the switchgear, acceptable in the unergonomic Sixties, not so clever now. But this does not matter either; all the switches are there, and they all work in their own way. Put modern designs out of your mind and be diverted by other things, like the way the Mini goes.

It is not especially fast, but its old-fashioned engine has a crisp response and solid pull from low speeds that is often lacking in modern motors. It makes squirting through traffic all the easier and helps mask the large gaps between the gears, of which there are only four. The engine sounds reassuringly familiar, too, a mixture of intake roar (even though the old carburettor has been replaced by single-point fuel injection) and gear whine harmonising as the Mini noise always has.

But it is the blend of the punchy performance with the Mini's tiny size and sharp handling that makes it so engaging. It reacts astonishingly quickly: this is the lost art of steering, a two-way communication between driver and wheels. Show a Mini a series of bends, especially this Monte Carlo Mini with its grippy tyres, and it will scuttle through them like nothing else made today.

A Mini bombards your senses so intensely that you don't have to risk your licence to have a good time. True, the average, rational car buyer might prefer a little more comfort, space and civility; but that is not the point. The Mini is a plaything far removed from its original role of cheap transport. Why else would Rover now sell versions with wooden dashboards and improbably large seats, or nostalgia-tinged versions such as this Mini Cooper Monte Carlo?


Citroen AX Forte, pounds 8,860

By Mini standards the AX is soft and stodgy, by any others it is the lightest and sharpest supermini of all. This Forte version is the old AX GT with a few equipment changes and a useful price cut; the peppy performance from the 1.4-litre engine is untainted. Next year sees an all-new AX, which will be bigger and heavier.

Nissan Micra Super S, pounds 9,130

Built in Britain, this Micra has the same engine size as the Mini, and similarly cuddly looks. But it is a bigger car, much quieter and a good deal more comfortable. Faster, too, though its handling is a good deal less telepathic. Spoilers and alloy wheels work better with the Micra's globular shape than you might expect.

Peugeot 106 Rallye, pounds 9,095

This stripped-out, tuned-up 106 is bigger, noisier and faster than the Cooper, but equally entertaining with its agile handling and sharp steering. If you have ever wondered what it means to 'steer on the throttle', this car will show you.


Mini Cooper Monte Carlo, pounds 7,995

Engine: 1275cc, four cylinders, 63bhp at 5,700rpm. Four-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 92mph, 0-60 in 11.5 seconds. Fuel consumption: 35-40mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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