Small Wonder BMW's eye-catching Mini is loaded with retro charm.
By Alex Taylor III

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Remember Miata mania? Every so often a car comes along that causes a public sensation. Back in the early 1990s thousands of people fell in love with the Mazda Miata, a modern sports car that evoked memories of classic MGs and Triumphs. More recently drivers swooned over Volkswagen's New Beetle and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. All three cars have similar characteristics: They stir nostalgic feelings, they're very affordable, and they appeal to a wide range of buyers.

This year you can get ready for Mini madness. A spirited reinterpretation of a 1960s European city car, the BMW Mini has just gone on sale in the U.S., and already there are unmistakable signs that it is going to be a huge crowd pleaser. Nobody pays less attention to cars than residents of New York City, but when I drove a preproduction Mini Cooper through Manhattan, I almost started a riot. Slaloming the car around construction sites on the Avenue of the Americas, zipping cross-town through Central Park, and then cruising down the West Side Highway, I got high-fives and thumbs-up all along the route.

There's a simple reason for that attention: The Mini looks like no other car on the road. Though it's a foot and a half shorter than the Beetle, it's as wide as a midsized sedan, giving it uniquely stubby proportions. The wheels are placed at the farthest corners of the body, further emphasizing its bulldog stance. From the front the Mini has a face that you could describe as almost human, with a tall windshield spanning two widely spaced headlights and a large oval grille. This is a car that says, "Hug me."

Climb inside, and you're surrounded by an interior that has the updated ambiance of a 1930s Pan Am Clipper. Aluminum-tone trim surrounds the vents, armrests, gearshift lever, and cup holders. The switches are old-style toggles, with modern safety guards to protect the occupants in the event of a collision. The most prominent elements accent the vintage theme: the large, center-mounted speedometer and the handsome winged Mini emblem on the steering wheel hub. The overall look is fashionable and engaging, though you have to wonder whether some of the fussy details will retain their appeal a few years from now.

Behind the wheel of the Mini, you can concentrate on the driving, and that's where the fun begins. With two adults onboard, the car is peppy, and the five-speed manual shifter is so well balanced that it feels like an extension of your arm. The low center of gravity and absence of body overhang mean that the Mini corners like a roller skate. The big surprise is the ride: For a small car, the suspension does a remarkable job of soaking up the bumps. But people who feel intimidated by large SUVs won't be comfortable inside, because the Mini stands only about as high as the door handles of a Lincoln Navigator.

Fully equipped, the 115-horsepower Mini Cooper goes for just under $20,000, while a sportier S version with a bigger engine (163 horsepower) will cost you about $23,000. That's pricey for a little car but reasonable for a vehicular fashion statement. The Mini is made in Britain by BMW, an offspring of the German automaker's five-year ownership of Rover cars. Only about 20,000 a year are headed for the U.S., where they will be sold by just 70 BMW dealers. With supplies that tight, expect the Mini to keep turning heads for a good long while.