The Mini bounces back to life ... but not as we know it

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The successor to the world-famous Mini was launched at the Geneva Motor Show yesterday. And, err, that's it really.

If the new bug-shaped car is, at first glance, a disappointment, this is because it has been virtually impossible for Rover, its maker, to repeat the sensation caused by the original car on its debut 38 years ago. Sir Alec Issigonis's legendary design has been in production, with remarkably few changes, ever since, and although the original Mini sells in fairly small numbers today, the car has remained a cult classic as well as a practical, if noisy, way of nipping through city traffic.

Just 10-feet long, yet seating four adults, taking a sizeable chunk of luggage, and immense fun to drive, the Mini was well-received since its inception, but was never a commercial success. Its original manufacturer, the long-defunct British Motor Corporation, was incapable of making a decent profit on the little car, even though it generated enormous publicity and goodwill in the early Sixties.

Taken up by fashionable photographers (Lord Snowdon), comics (Peter Sellers), Beatles (John Lennon), racing successfully in the Monte Carlo Rally and starring, along with Michael Caine and Noel Coward, in The Italian Job, the Mini was the car of the decade. Last year a poll of Autocar readers voted Issigonis's miniature masterpiece the Car of the Century, ahead of such historic and best-selling rivals as Henry Ford's Model T and Ferdinand Porsche's Volkswagen Beetle.

From certain views the new Mini looks rather like VW's retro-Beetle which goes on sale in Britain soon. This is probably less the result of BMW's ownership of Rover than the fact that an obsession with bug-like "organic" design has swept through motor-industry design studios over the past five years. The Ford Ka, Dagenham's new "super-mini", is clearly derived from the same school of design, as is the up-and-coming Mercedes-Benz city car. Graduates of the Royal College of Art's car-design school, which has nurtured the approach for 10 years, have spread the style-language to all four corners of the auto-world. The new Mini is not especially distinctive.

For better or worse, the 1959 Mini was largely the product of one man's design skills. Issigonis's car bounced on to the road on its tiny 10-inch wheels very much as its Smyrna-born engineer intended - free from compromise and the dead-hand of design committees and marketing studies.

The latest BMW-Rover Mini (the car will be branded as a Mini without reference to its makers) is the product of compromise. To an extent this is a relief: Issigonis initially refused to include a heater in the first Minis, because, or so this unrepentant functionalist argued, these would cause drivers to fall asleep. The raucous, anti-sleep BMC A-series engine that powered the Mini for many years will make way for a Chrysler engine built in Brazil.

Prototypes shown at Geneva include a five-door hatchback version, suggesting Rover is more interested in competing with the "super-mini" market. The original Mini occupies a slot in which it has become the only choice. Other upmarket bubble cars such as the Fiat 500, Datsun N600 and Hillman Imp have long since vanished. The latest car from Rover is a Mini, but not as Alec Issigonis, John Lennon and Twiggy knew it.