Yeah, baby! 2003 Mini Cooper has enough flash to trounce flaws

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This Mini Cooper, British flag on the roof, is no stealthy spy car. Everybody wants to stop, stare, question, catch a ride.

"Is that the car from Austin Powers?" oglers ask at every street corner.

Uh, yes. Can I go now?

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Yet it's almost hard to be rude in a Mini today – as it was when the too cute VW New Beetle returned to the road four years ago.

But it's easier to be in a hurry. BMW, which now builds the Mini, worked hard to give it the road manners of the original built by British carmaker Austin in the 1960s. That car was a beloved underdog in races. The tiny, underpowered Mini never slowed down for corners and regularly took the checkered flag.

Be forewarned: This Mini is not that Mini. While BMW preserved the look and proportions, the new Mini Cooper is nearly 40 percent bigger, so it doesn't approach the original's hair-trigger reactions. With an interior chock-full of modern safety and electronic gear – airbags, navigation system, a continuously variable transmission – the new Mini actually feels more cramped than the old one. The back seat is next to useless. Even a 5-year-old's legs have no room.

The Mini Cooper comes in two styles, the base model, with 115 horsepower and rated 27 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway, and the supercharged Mini Cooper S with 163 horsepower rated 24/33 m.p.g.

The S model seems cut from a different cloth. It's muscular, solid, taut; the base Cooper is lazy and loose. To hustle the base car, you have to drive like you're mad at it.

Quality is suspect in both. Thrumming wheel bearings, whining steering, loose and missing interior parts marred two weeks of driving. The base Mini Cooper sells for a suggested $16,970, but expect to pay at least $21,000. The S lists for $3,000 more.

Either way, the details make the car: The dinner-plate-size speedometer in the center dash, the tachometer perched on the steering column, and the single backup light low in the middle of the bumper. Best of all, the top and mirrors come in black, white, or painted like the rest of the car. The Union Jack is an optional decal, as are the Stars and Stripes and a checkerboard.

Any way you order it, the Mini is a bargain fashion statement – if the dealer doesn't gouge.

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