You could tell this was not the MINI Countryman's first visit to New York City. Here, under the lights at Chelsea's capacious Milk Studios, the Countryman worked the crowd, magnetizing all who looked its way and, with four doors open wide, beckoning them into its cabin. Rarely would the center of attention at a packed Chelsea soiree ever dare be so inviting, yet the Countryman made all feel welcome, the automotive equivalent of a seasoned, top-rate party host.
And truthfully, it was not the MINI Countryman first visit to Manhattan's trendy West Side, having made its North American debut last spring at the nearby Jacob Javits Center during the New York International Auto Show. But at Milk Studios, removed from the auto show's gaudiness and overpowered lighting, the MINI Countryman was free to shine. And shine it did.
On the eve of the MINI Takes the States road rally, New York's most fervent MINI enthusiasts were given an owners-only glimpse of MINI's new, ALL4 wonder. Before them, planted in the pressed-metal flesh amid provocative fashion photography from Italian master Tiziano Magni, was a specimen painted in light white with a black roof, and outfitted with Union Jack side-mirror treatments, dual rally lights, 18-inch five-spoke polished black wheels, a lowered front bumper, aggressive side-skirt scoops, a rear diffuser and a telltale "S" on the lift gate. This was not just a MINI Countryman Cooper S; it was all that, plus a John Cooper Works Aero Kit. This was a proper way to dress for a night in Chelsea.
"It's really the perfect car for New York," said party attendee Luis, who arrived from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in his MINI Cooper S. "It's got that higher ground clearance and profile that would really be perfect for the chopped-up pavement here." Luis is a MINI Takes the States veteran, having made the run in 2006 from Los Angeles to Miami, then up to Nashville, Tennessee for the MINI Music Festival before motoring home to New York. "I stuck around Miami to do some track driving at Homestead and Sebring, too," he said, referencing two of the American South's most challenging courses.
Luis was not the only MTTS rally luminary in attendance. Aurel recalled being in Miami in 2008, awestruck at how MINI owners kitted out their cars in the Dirty South. "It was incredible to see how they did up their cars," he said. "The customization I saw was really distinctive." When we tracked him down, Aurel was mesmerized by a MINI Takes the States Racing Challenge drive simulator, where a young MINI fan was putting his car through its paces on a Skip Barber Racing School track. "I had a MINI Hatch, but now I have a baby so we needed a bit more room. So a Clubman it was." In 2008, Aurel led a 60-car phalanx of MINI to Chelsea's mythical MINI Rooftop NYC - conceived by your friends here at MINI Space - which still gets discussed with reverence among New York's seen-everything style set.
Standing behind the MINI Countryman, admiring its flared haunches and fully enclosed chrome tailpipes, was Donna from New Jersey. "From the front the car looked like it was smiling at me, which just made me want it more," she said. "And I love the white color. It's the perfect shade."
Indeed, the MINI Countryman made many friends at its preview party. Even so, old allegiances die hard. Asked whether he might consider trading in his MINI John Cooper Works for a MINI Countryman, Jim from New Jersey stroked his chin, paused, then said, "Not a chance. It's a keeper." Was he sure? "Well... OK, maybe in a few years."
When the bartenders stopped pouring and the Detroit house stopped playing, the night was at an end. For a lucky few attendees, an early alarm would rouse them from their sleep the following morning, a bugle call to pour coffee, brush teeth, pack bag, lock house and motor westward - to Denver, Colorado, for the MINI Takes the States Festival, where we will write to you next.