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05-28-2003, 12:05 PM
From today’s NY Times (28 May):

Alexandre Klabin is a mild-mannered, polite young man, the kind of fellow who opens doors for strangers. But, once a day, he allows himself a measure of wickedness.
He pulls out of a parking spot, peers into the rearview mirror and watches as a normal-size car — say, a Honda Civic — tries five times to fit in the same spot.
Invariably, the driver gives up and the car pulls away. That's because Mr. Klabin has vacated a "Mini spot" — a 12-foot-long parking space on New York streets that now conveniently holds the shortest car in America, the new Mini Cooper, with more than an inch to spare.
I feel guilty when I take big spots," Mr. Klabin, 25, said sheepishly. But his Mini-guilt is quickly displaced by Mini-anger: "Nobody respects you in the street. They just cross over you because you're small."
Delivery trucks and cantankerous cabs did not deter Mr. Klabin and more than 500 other drivers from buying Mini Coopers in Manhattan since March of last year, when BMW's revamped version of the British classic made a debut in New York.
In fact, the New York market ranks first in sales among the 48 markets in the United States. So New York Mini sightings are increasingly common, even outside the early Mini enclaves of the West Village and Park Slope.
"It's become like this infectious disease out there," said Theresa Galvin, 44, a grant program manager from Park Slope. "I was thinking I've got this cool car. But everybody's on to the same thing."
Smallness is a relatively foreign concept to American car culture. And it is true that driving in the Mini makes potholes feel like canyons and S.U.V.s look like monster trucks. But the boxy, slick, toy-like car can fit into New York City parking spaces previously unseen. And it can dart in and out of tight traffic. "When a car crosses in front of you, especially a taxi, you always have room to escape," Mr. Klabin explained. "It fits where other cars don't."
In New York, Mini owners take their size-pride to new levels of petulance when asked about S.U.V.'s.
"They're useless around here," scoffed Dr. Charles Lamberta, 55, a dentist who drives his Electric Blue Mini to work in Manhattan from Long Island every day. "It's like driving the Chrysler building."
If everyone had a Mini, he said, "we could double the parking spaces in New York."
Mini lovers point to its airplane-like dashboard (complete with toggle switches), its fuel efficiency (28 city miles and 37 highway miles per gallon), its four-star federal safety rating (with six airbags tucked in each one) and its relative cheapness (its starting price is $16,000, though add-on features quickly add on).
The new Mini's appeal eerily mirrors that of the original Mini, which first hit the streets of England in 1959.
"It was a really radical design," said Stephen Laing, curator of the Heritage Motor Centre, a museum and archive in Gaydon, England. "It wasn't just a car. It had a personality about it."
That first year, 20,000 pioneering Brits bought the car. (About 24,000 Americans bought the new Mini in its first year here.)
Sir Alec Issigonis designed the car on the heels of the 1956 Suez Crisis, after gas rationing prompted the British motor industry to search for a fuel-efficient car.
The old Mini — or "real Mini," as enthusiasts jealously call it — made automotive design history. In the interest of creating space, Sir Alec planted the engine transversely instead of north to south, and this is now the layout of most small- to medium-size cars.
BMW acquired the Mini brand in 1994, but the old Minis stayed in production until 2000, and 5.4 million were sold in the car's lifetime. The new Mini rolled out in 2001.
"Mini's kind of new to you guys in the States," said Mr. Laing, the British curator, with a hint of mirth. "I guess it's kind of an education for you."
If anyone is ready to do the educating, it is Chris Sell, 37, originally from Rugby, England. Mr. Sell lives in Park Slope and he owns a 1973 Mini he shipped from England in December 2000. He is one of six "real Mini" owners who belong to the Mini Club of New York.
"Somebody walked over it," he said, pointing to a footprint indented on the purple hood in March. "It adds to the character, I suppose."
He has watched as the new Mini surfaced on Park Slope streets. He even considered buying one, but the price of the super souped-up version — $29,500 — threw him off.
"I was talking to the wife about it and she said we can't afford it," said Mr. Sell, who owns the Chip Shop in Park Slope, a British eatery with Mini regalia on the walls.
His advice to new Mini drivers: "You've got to take on the personality of the car, which is small and inoffensive. You can't get road rage with a Mini."
But his advice may prove unnecessary. New Yorkers seem eager to take on the meek Mini persona. The owner's manual suggests that Mini drivers give each other the thumbs up when passing in the street, and New Yorkers actually comply.
These New Yorkers are excessively eager to talk about their cars, using Mini-propagandistic words like "motoring" instead of driving. (Of the nine Mini drivers contacted for interviews — four with notes left on windshields — all called back within hours, some repeatedly.)
They are soft and emotive when discussing their cars, which they tend to name, said Dana B. Hagendorf, director of marketing for BMW of Manhattan.
"It's almost like they're buying a pet," Ms. Hagendorf said. "I've never seen anything like it."
Such was the case when Pamela Simpson first saw her Chili Red Mini.
"It was love at first sight," said Ms. Simpson, a television writer and producer who lives in Manhattan and does not tell her age.
"It is like the sexiest car I have driven," she said. "People go running up to it. One guy said, `Oh that red is so fabulous with your dark hair.' "
By comparison, Ms. Galvin's love-at-first-sight experience was bittersweet, tinged with the guilt of a torrid affair.
First, she preempts the story by talking about her former car with utmost regard:
"I would never badmouth a Corolla. A Corolla is a great car. This was more of an impulse thing."
But the day she drove her `95 Corolla to a Mini dealership in New Jersey was the last day she saw the car.
"I left it," said Ms. Galvin, who traded it in for a Black Mini Cooper she has since named "Dinte" because "it sounds English."
"This has never happened to me before," Ms. Galvin said of her new car romance. "We're married. This is a long-term commitment."