21st Century British Icons
Germans may be credited with inventing the automobile, and Americans with popularizing the car, but the British have certainly done their share to impart a sense of occasion to the motorcar. The word itself implies a wafting, serene drive in the British countryside but the diversity of cars storming out of England belies this conception. British cars have taken on every form, from the late oddball three-wheeled Reliant to the screaming silver-and-black McLaren MP4/16 that’s Mika Hakkinen’s favorite drive. All current F1 chassis except the Ferraris are made in the U.K.
The first British invasion took place after WW2, when Americans brought home with them the MGs and Lotus Elans that they enjoyed so much in Britain. The compact, agile roadsters were a counterpoint to the huge, waddling American convertibles.
Fast forward to the present. Most British carmakers may have been taken over by foreign companies, but instead of killing off the brands, the new owners have wisely let their charm and distinct driving characteristics come through. Now the world is set for the first British car invasion of the 21st century. Let’s scan the horizon, beginning at the small end of the scale.
The Austin Mini was the world’s first supermini. It not only embodied the name; it created the spirit! The Mini revolutionized small cars when it was born, eyes bulging, in 1959. Its tiny bodyshell contained a cabin that was roomy for four persons. The transverse engine and front wheel drive helped free up the space. The car soon sported other variants like the Cooper, which went on to win rallies and the loyalty of millions of followers worldwide. Like the Beetle, it remained in production until the late 1990s—a lot of the Minis continued to be exported to the Japanese, who seem to love most things Brit.
The 2001 Mini looks just like the original, but there the similarity ends. The Mini is thoroughly modern, inside and out, but lavished with retro touches to make the car look and feel unique. Exterior styling cues make this look just like a 21st century take on the original. The large headlamps and wide grille may look familiar, but the inside the round lenses hide xenon headlamps and behind the grille is a twincam 1.6 liter engine good for 90 bhp on the Mini One, 115 bhp on the Mini Cooper, and a full 163 bhp in the Cooper S. The spats (mudflaps) on the fenders are carbon fiber. Options include a navigation computer and Harman/Kardon sound system. Surprised that all of these can come on a Mini? Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that this Mini is actually a BMW.
The Mini was the only car that BMW retained when it sold the Rover group in 2000 for all of £1. BMW certainly did a great job on the styling. The wide stance, unbroken sweep of the glasshouse and wheels-at-the corners approach make the car look much larger than it really is. In reality, it measures a diminutive 3626 mm long, 1687 mm wide and 1416 mm tall, compared to the Toyota Echo’s 3615 mm / 1660 mm / 1500 mm.
The roof is painted your choice of black or white: meaning it will be a different color from the body, a styling trademark Matchbox owners will remember from the original. According to the chief designer Frank Stephenson, this was deliberately done to make the roof look like it was placed on top of the body, perhaps like a lid on a cookie jar.
Time then to open it and see what goodies it has to offer inside. The cabin contains many unique touches, like the huge centrally-mounted speedometer, and the rev counter and secondary gauges sprouting from the top of the steering column. The steering wheel itself is a meaty two-spoker with a large Mini badge in the center and buttons for the audio and other devices. The styling theme for the interior is that of a rally Mini; that is, with a roll cage: the door pulls reside in a large silver oval, and below the center console are two silver struts that connect to the floor. The center console’s switches are magnificent: metallic toggles that will almost convince you that you’re charging down the streets of Monte Carlo while you’re actually blitzing across EDSA.
A Mini would not be a Mini if it didn’t have the madcap handling and tenacious grip that made the original fun to drive, as well as a winner of numerous rallies against much larger opponents. With BMW’s Z-axle suspension in the rear (same as the new 3 series’), and McPherson strut front, the Mini should provide a compliant ride as well as entertaining cornering.
Straight-line performance is an adequate 10.9 seconds for the Mini One, 9.2 for the Cooper. The supercharged Cooper S should be in the low 7 or high 6-second range.
The best part is the Mini starts at just £10,300, PHP760,000 at today’s exchange rate…that’s a bit cheaper than a Civic VTi-S. Hmm…you’d have to weigh the Civic’s size and usefulness versus the Mini’s handling and design, but if BMW can bring this car here with the pricing intact, we predict an instant hit on their hands.
A 1-series BMW is reportedly in the works but for now this is BMW's sole fighter in the lightweight division. It pits retro style against the futuristic utilitarianism of the Merc A-class and Audi A2, and in the battle to sell 100,000 units a year, the odds for it are good indeed.
MGF and MG sedans
If BMW retained the Mini when it sold Rover, and Ford snapped up Land Rover, what happened to the rest of the lineup? Well, they’re now known as MG sedans.
The Rover sedan lineup had been floundering for a long time, even back Rover was owned by Honda and the sedans were based on the Civic and Accord. They didn’t quite hit the mark either under BMW. Now that the company’s independent, things are beginning to look promising.
No longer posing an in-house threat to the BMW lineup, the sedans have finally found their personalities: definitely sporty. Spoilers and aero add-ons have been grafted onto the previously sedate lines of the Rover 25, 45 and 75, but the MG ZR, ZS and ZT, as they’re now known, look like they were born to look sporty. Perhaps BMW couldn’t help but imbue these cars with racing genes. Making sure the MGs drive as well as they look is the job of Peter Stevens, who styled the McLaren F1.
The MG ZR has spawned a rally version, the ZS a touring car racer. If that’s not enough, MG has even launched an assault on Le Mans this year with a purpose-built prototype racer. The ZT also comes in a slick wagon body, and it should right on the tailgate of the Volvo V70 T5.
The MG lineup wouldn’t be complete without a roadster, and indeed there is the MGF. The MGF has a midengine layout that should offer sharp handling. Engines include a variable-valve timing 1.8 liter generating 145 ps. One shortcoming is that despite the midengine design, the MGF isn’t as sharp-handling as its rivals like the Lotus Elise. With a few more tweaks from its new engineers, particularly in the styling department, the car could yet emerge as one of today’s most popular roadsters.
Jaguar, never quite as troubled as Rover, has enjoyed a resurgence ever since being taken over by the Ford Motor Company. Uncle Henry has wisely left the Brits to design and engineer the cars, with the proviso that the cars do share major components like platforms and engine blocks, and some interior parts like switchgear with the blue-oval badged cars. Ford’s expertise in manufacturing and quality assurance has greatly improved the reliability of the Leaping Cats.
The latest assault by Jaguar on the luxury market is in the red-hot compact segment, currently inhabited by the likes of the BMW 3-series, Mercedes C-class, Audi A4 and Lexus IS sedans. The X-type seems like the kind of vehicle that will carve its own niche. The Audi looks cool and futuristic, while the 3, C-class and IS go for a bit of a bad boy image. For its part, the X-type mines the Jaguar heritage for all it’s worth, looking very much like a smaller version of the XJ sedan.
Underneath the X-type is, no surprise, a Ford chassis: it’s the Mondeo! To rescue this car from the Mundane, er, Mondeo, Ford decided to endow the X-type with four-wheel drive, with rear-biased handling. The Mondeo chassis is no slouch and it’s an excellent starting point for the sharp handling combined with cosseting ride that we’d expect from a Jag. Engineers have tweaked each chassis component to ensure that this car will behave like a Jaguar.
Engines are also Mondeo based, with a 2.5 liter V6 as standard, with the 3.0 powerplant as optional. Both of these are Jaguar tuned, of course, and the 3.0’s has already proven itself to be more than adequate in the S-type. With a lighter chassis, expect the
But then, mechanicals aren’t really the reason why you’d buy a Jag over a BMW, are they? It’s the styling that’ll get you. The X-type follows the traditional four-headlamp arrangement of previous sedans, particularly the XJ. The lights though are much smaller and oval, to produce a more modern look. The rectangular grille is again traditional Jag, leaving the S-type alone with its unique oval grille. The rounded-off roofline though is similar to the S-type, as are the rounded taillights. If the goal was to make this car look like a genuine Jag and not a Ford, then the designers have succeeded.
The interior continues the Jaguar hide-and-bark theme, and though it doesn’t quite come up to the standards of the XJ, it does look much more opulent than a C-class or IS200. The classic Jaguar layout now includes a satellite-navigation screen and trip computer, which surprisingly look quite at home with all that wood.
The X-type is expected to start at about $30,000 and give its German and Japanese counterparts a good run for their money. The competition may be purer in origin, but throw in four-wheel drive and the Leaping Cat on top of the hood, and the Cat just might end up on top of the heap.
Rolls-Royce and Bentley
What about Rolls-Royce and Bentley, the quintessential British cars, once hailed (or at least advertised) as the “Best Cars in the World”? Ownership of the brands caused a large squabble between BMW and VW. When the wishbone broke, BMW was left holding the Rolls-Royce portion, and VW the Bentley marque.
BMW has not said much about its plans for Rolls, aside from its V12 engine powering the latest Silver Seraph. The Rolls name still implies ultimate luxury, and surely BMW will create a formidable opponent for Mercedes’ upcoming Maybach.
VW has been more creative with Bentley, resurrecting the marque’s roots as a maker of powerful, even intimidating cars. The Continental T is a more powerful version of Bentley’s coupe, and as such it’s no surprise. Exciting things do seem to be in store, though. Bentley unleashed its stunning concept car the Hunaudières in 1999. Named after the 300-km/h straight in Le Mans, the Hunaudières is VW’s vision of what the Bentley marque is capable of.
The midengined sports car bristles with technology, including an 8-liter engine. This is no truck engine, mind you, but an all-aluminum 16-cyliner W16, which is made up of two banks of eight cylinders joined together. About the size of a conventional V8, the W16 generates 623 bhp and 760 Nm of torque. All that torque is channeled to the four wheels via a 5-speed gearbox. It’s just a design concept, but hopefully Bentley will show us more exciting production models.
Auto Prominence has been dreaming of marketing the Rolls brand here, but they probably should concentrate first on giving VW more than its nearly nonexistent Philippine presence.
Aston Martin Vanquish
We couldn’t stop scanning for the British invasion without first glimpsing a supercar. All 100 McLaren F1s have been spoken for, so the next best thing would have to be the Aston Martin Vanquish.
Not that the Aston Martin is something you have to settle for. For starters, it carries that glorious badge, so much so that even James Bond played driver to Oddjob in the DB5. (‘DB’ for David Brown, who purchased the company from its founders Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford in 1947.) Aston Martin has always been one of the most exclusive marques, both in price and performance. Also now a part of the Ford family, it has gained the financial capability to produce striking new models like the Vanquish.
Then there’s the car itself. As the name implies, the Vanquish intends to conquer all of its opponents, including the formidable Ferrari 550 Maranello. Like the Maranello, the Vanquish has a front-mounted V12 driving the rear wheels. Those wheels are 19-inchers, with Yokohama 255/40 ZR front tires and 285/40 ZR rears. Double wishbones at all four corners and huge disc brakes, 355 mm at the front, make sure the Aston hugs the ground.
The Vanquish’s angry grille opening and muscular rear haunches are an excellent contrast to the Maranello’s soft, feminine curves. Underneath the bulging carbon fiber chassis, the Vanquish has a 6-liter engine pumping out 450 bhp and 550 Nm of torque! That asphalt-ripping torque is channeled through a 6-speed semiautomatic gearbox. Borrowing a page from the 360 Modena and going one better than the Maranello’s five-speed manual, you get to shift up or down with a flick of either paddle mounted behind the steering wheel. Best thing is that you can specify your Vanquish as a 2+2, so you can frighten the wits out of three of your friends at one time.
The only thing more exciting will be when McLaren unleashes Adrian Newey to create his ultimate road car. The F2? The AN1? Can’t wait for that one.
British carmakers may have been taken over by “foreigners,” but the British cars are poised to conquer the world! Now for the million-pound question: Will any of these invaders make it to Philippines? The Jaguar surely will, although we hope the local distributor remembers come pricing time that this is supposed to be the affordable Jag. The only other one with a chance to make it is the Mini, as it’s being marketed by BMW. With BMW resolving to stay active and innovative, we can almost see the Cooper slicing its way through Manila traffic. A Civic-priced piece of British design married to BMW engineering? Hope it won’t be too good to be true.
By Jason Ang | Photos Courtesy of Mini, MG, Jaguar, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Aston Martin