The Irish Mini Owners Club enjoyed the countryside and their Minis during a recent 1,000-kilometer rally.
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Drivers on the rally didn't have to fill up often in these fuel-thrifty little cars.

Drivers stop for lunch, and very nearly take over the parking lot, after a long morning of travel.
I was driving the narrow roads of southern Ireland, but my mind was on American drivers.

I was certain some of us, fed up with the rigors of driving and owning pricey sport-utility rigs and looking for a new fashion statement, would welcome the low-cost, little Mini I was in.

After all, with a quick maneuver, this Mini—priced at $10,000 to $11,000—deftly squeezed into a tiny parking spot at a hotel. Later, it easily took up residence on a small town street in a parking space not much bigger than a piece of sidewalk.

It needed few fill-ups and, no matter how hard I tried, whenever I walked up to the white 2000 Mini Se7en two door, I couldn't keep from embarrassingly blurting out how "cute" it was.

Peppy Go-kart of a Car
This last-production-year Mini that traces its roots directly to the Mini napkin sketch of creator Sir Alec Issigonis could have that kind of effect, if you let it.

It helped, of course, that I was driving in Ireland as part of a rally put on by the cheerful members of the Irish Mini Owners Club. In this part of the world, where smaller vehicles populate the roads, I didn't have to weave between Ford Expeditions and Chevy Suburbans.

But even if I had been forced to drive with the "big rigs," the test Mini's exciting ride and handling would have been a boon.

The 1275cc four-cylinder engine in the Mini sent this lightweight car scampering energetically along the roads. Working the four-speed manual transmission kept the Mini's performance zippy, though I did keep looking for a fifth gear, out of habit, as the revs were loud and high in the top gear.

With what seemed like carefree glee, the front-wheel-drive Mini easily pulled through corners under strong acceleration. Other drivers had described these cars as go-karts. Now I knew why.

As I scooted around curves, I also understood why the Mini made the other rally drivers so cheerful.

Bumps and Bounces Prevalent
The car had impressive headroom inside, yet it didn't feel top-heavy or unstable. Wheels were in the traditional Mini position—as far out to the corners as possible.

But road bumps came through loud and clear and I sometimes saw other Mini drivers bouncing around, like rag dolls, in their vehicles. I figured I must have looked like that on occasion, too. One veteran Mini driver said she routinely "braces" when she's headed for big bumps.

I'd be less than honest if I didn't say I fretted a bit over the safety of this quirky, little car with just one airbag. In the 2000 model year it was standard for the driver. The front-seat passenger was at the mercy of the pilot.

Spartan Interior
The dashboard was barely there by American standards. What passed for the dashboard was more like a small shelf with a flat face and a few dials on it. And my positioning behind the non-adjustable steering wheel made me feel like a bus driver.

The barren interior design continued on the doors. Yes, there were impact beams inside the doors for side-crash protection. But I didn't exactly find the size, thickness or weight of the Mini's doors to be that reassuring.

And wheels on the Mini Se7en were the base 10-inchers. White body-color paint helped dress them up, but they still looked like toy wheels to me, especially compared with the larger 15-, 16- and 17-inch wheels that predominate on U.S. vehicles.

The back seat, designed for two, isn't as tight as you might expect. Headroom was surprisingly good, and legroom was commendable.

But the seat cushion and seatback were flat and thin and not as supportive as I would have liked. And there were no rear head restraints.

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