BMW Mini Countryman driving adventure

Any roadie trip would always be exciting especially planned with a large group of friends. What’s more, when you could also try out a new car like the BMW Mini Countryman! This was a simple roadie trip from Klang Valley to Penang, Pearl of the Orient. The drive wasn’t so difficult as being on sales I need to drive about just about anywhere. So the journalist here was probably not a season outstation driver.

Nowadays with the superb PLUS highway the drive would be rather straight forward, unlike the days when I started driving from KL to Penang using trunk road and having to overtake lumbering big brother trucks and lorries, and sometimes there could be a stretch of them in a row making overtaking extremely difficult and dangerous!

Now with the highway, you only need to worry about feeling drowsy and falling asleep at your wheel. The long easy drive really dull your senses, so take breaks often to clear your head and freshen up as much as possible before continuing with your journey.

Big Mini adventure
Stories by Louisa Lim
Saturday May 21, 2011

Stylish hotel, check. Fantastic shopping, check. Cool ride, check. The perfect getaway is closer than you think.

“How many adults can you fit in a Mini?” I was kicking back with a glass of Chardonnay when a portly holidaymaker leaned in to ask me this. [editor: answer at end of article if you can’t wait to know! Cheers!]

It was a sweltering evening, and the models had just concluded their parade across the ultra-hip lobby of the Hard Rock Hotel. All eyes followed as they disappeared behind a wall decorated with candy-coloured Coach bags from the Summer 2011 collection.

On the move: The writers drove in six Minis, for 547km, from Kuala Lumpur to Penang.

A group of journalists, who were milling around the busts of George, John Paul and Ringo in their Friday best, resumed their giddy banter after giving a hearty applause. This was the culmination of the Perfect Getaway organised by BMW Mini, Coach and Hard Rock Hotel Penang. The invitation was e-mailed only a week before, but the itinerary was conspicuously absent.

What is the Perfect Getaway? And how do we pack?

“You just need to trust us,” BMW corporate communications manager, Sashi Ambi, told me at the start of the trip.

“All I’m revealing right now is that we’ll be travelling to Penang in the newly launched Mini Countryman, which is the first four-wheel drive Mini. Each of you will get a chance to drive it.”

Whoa, hang on a second. Drive? All the way to Penang? I never driven outside of the Klang Valley before, let alone to another state 350km away!

BMW Mini Countryman Dashboard
Some people like the cartoon-like dials and the splashes of colour inside the Mini.

“Actually, we’ll be driving up to Cameron Highlands for lunch before heading to Penang,” corrected Ambi.

“The route is 547km long, but don’t worry, we’ll pair you up with another journalist so it won’t get tiresome.”

I had no time to protest. Our shiny, new rides, shipped all the way from the UK, were already waiting outside. There were six BMW Minis in total — four Mini Countryman, a Mini Cooper and a Mini Cooper S — for the 12 of us.

We were supposed to swap cars along the way, so everyone could have a feel of the different models. As my gaze swept across the cars’ chrome accents and iconic silhouette, I realised that most people would kill to be in my position.

Speed trappings

The first car that, Yuki, my equally anxious co-driver, and I were assigned to was the Mini Cooper, a cute lil’ saffron-coloured thing.

Hopping into the jet-black interior, we were relieved to discover that it had an auto gearbox.

Each car was equipped with a picnic basket filled with fruits and drinks as well as a walkie-talkie, in case any one of us strayed from the convoy and got hopelessly lost. I volunteered to take the driver’s seat, hoping to get it over and done with quickly.

Handbags at New Coach Store First Avenue Shopping Mall Penang
Bag heaven: There is a wide selection of handbags at the new Coach store in First Avenue shopping mall, Penang.

Suddenly, a voice buzzed through the receiver: “This is the lead car. We’re going to make a move now. Remember, this is not a race. I repeat, this is not a race.”

With one foot on the brakes and another on the pedal, I launched the car into a forward lurch, almost rear-ending the red Countryman in front of us. I yelped and Yuki’s face turned a whiter shade of pale. It was a sloppy start.

Things began to improve as soon as we cruised down the North-South Expressway with the windows down, in true Katherine Hepburn-style.

We goofily sang along to the music of The Cure, Jimmy Page and Kim Wilde, ignoring the occasional stares and honks from other drivers.

The Mini convoy outside Hard Rock Hotel, Penang.
The Mini convoy outside Hard Rock Hotel, Penang.

“Time to take it up a notch, guys,” ordered the voice from the walkie-talkie.

The hilly backdrop blurred into one as I drove the car at full throttle. It was an exhilarating ride, and also a jittery one (we handled every bump with as much grace as a crippled ostrich). Still, we were young and free and invincible. The car has a way of doing this to you.

But of course, if you don’t already know, the Mini is more than a car. Don’t let the party poopers tell you otherwise.

Brief History of the Mini car

It’s been 42 years since the Mini first made its appearance as a response to the fuel shortage caused by the 1956 Suez Crisis and the challenges posed by the German and Italian Bubble cars, but its surprising trajectory into pop culture happened in the Swingin’ Sixties, when the likes of Mary Quant, Dusty Springfield, Lord Snowdon, Peter Sellers and all four Beatles took to it.

BMW acquired the Mini brand in 2000, fiddling and fettling with the insides until they had an improved version. I happen to love the cartoon-like dials and the splashes of colour on the dashboard, but I can see why some people prefer one of those generic Japanese rides to this (to match their generic personalities).

It was switching time. We hopped into the car behind us — an ivory-coloured Countryman with four doors and roomier interior — only to discover Ambi in the backseat.

“Are you sure you want to sit with us?” I asked my reluctant passenger. After a moment’s hesitation, he nodded.

Bam! I floored the accelerator, leaving a trail of smoke and gravel-dust in my wake. Pretty soon, we were on the narrow country lanes of the highlands, passing emerald green forests, Orang Asli and roadside huts. There was, however, no time to admire the beauty of it all. I was too busy navigating nerve-racking curves like a crazed reindeer. This was what Ambi called the “go-kart handling” of the car, and what I called “playing Evel Knievel”.

It took awhile before I figured out why Yuki and Ambi were gripping the edge of their seats: the large circular speedo to the centre of the dash read 170kph. Despite our reckless speed, however, the ride was smooth. So this was what half the population of UK had been raving about: a Mini with lower carbon emissions and more of everything else — horsepower, torque, and vastly better acceleration and fuel economy.

Talk about an engineering oxymoron.

Twelve hours and six switches later, Yuki and I pulled up to a cheering crowd at the entrance of the Hard Rock Hotel. We had survived!

Star gazing

“Did you know that there are no two Minis alike in the UK? If you go to the showrooms, they won’t show you the cars. Instead, they’ll show colour swatches so you can customise your car,” said Ambi over lunch the next day.

“My favourite mini has to be the Mini John Cooper Works in British racing green with a contrasting chilli red for the roof. It’s like a Mini on steroids,” he says.

The group was having a chow-down at the Hard Rock Cafe, home of the legendary 10oz burger and mashed potatoes. I had worked up quite an appetite after sleeping like a rock (no pun intended) for eight hours in a sexy, understated room that had its own Ipod docking station, DVD/CD player and a balcony. The 5th floor vistas were incredible — the sea was blue and the largest free-form pool in Penang even more so.

There were no rampaging rock stars around to interrupt my sleep, though. The only sounds I heard, almost disappointingly, were that of crashing waves and joyful shrieks in the morning.

Fabulous as all its 249 rooms and suites are, these do not hold a candle to the Kings Suite, a private, psychedelic homage to Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll (at least to my grandmother). With two bedrooms, a living space, a Jacuzzi and a private pool, it is the quintessential rock star pad and the perfect spot to escape from the pesky paparazzi, with or without your entourage.

I did not, however, catch sight of any celebrities, local or international celebrities. Word has it that since opening day, the hotel has only welcomed two truly famous guests: the duo from Air Supply. They stayed here during a Penang gig late last year.

“The next biggest act we’ll be receiving is The Wailers, a reggae band formed by the remaining members of Bob Marley & The Wailers after his death in 1981,” said Elisa Saw, marketing communications manager of the hotel.

“We’re very excited as these guys will be here for a one-night only concert at the poolside, playing songs that you’re probably familiar with like Get Up Stand Up and I Shot The Sherriff. It will be on June 19, a few days after our 40th anniversary.”

Who would’ve thought this chain of hotels and restaurants, which prided itself on youthfulness and fun, was already in its fourth decade?

It all began with a single café, which opened on June 14, 1971, in London. It was a regular enough restaurant, until 1979, when the owners received the gift of an un-signed guitar (a red Fender) from Eric Clapton. This prompted Pete Townshend from The Who to give one of his guitars, also un-signed with the note “Mine’s as good as his! Love, Pete.”

These days, Hard Rock’s archive includes over 70,000 items, most of which are stored in a museum called “The Vault” in London.

The Penang hotel, meanwhile, has 500 pieces of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia in its collection, including the familiar black robe belonging to James Brown as well as the black sparkle guitar that Paul Stanley from Kiss played on their farewell tour in Sydney. These were the true celebrities of the hotel, and it wasn’t unusual to spot a tourist (or two) staring starry-eyed at the glass cases containing them.

As dusk fell, it was the Coach fashion show that stole the spotlight. The label had recently launched its firs ever boutique in Penang at the First Avenue shopping mall, and wanted to give the public a firsthand glimpse of what’s in season.

Evidently, you won’t go wrong with anything metallic, perforated or pastel-coloured right now if you’re a lady. Meanwhile, men should stick to luxurious materials like canvas and leather, and nautical design in shades of navy blue, grey and brown.

Once the show wrapped up, all eyes gravitated towards the handsome Mini Countryman that was parked in the lobby.

How Many Adults Can Fit into a Mini car?

“So how many adults can you fit in a Mini with all its doors shut?” demanded the holidaymaker, interrupting my evening reverie.

“Ten,” I answered, taking a wild guess. “Twelve,” Ambi declared confidently.

To find out, the evening’s emcee stuffed as many well-fed females as possible into the Countryman. Everyone gasped in awe when he announced the magic number: 14.

A Mini isn’t so mini, after all. — The Star Lifefocus

o Follow Louisa Lim at Twitter/lolibites.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Blue Captcha Image


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.