Northern California in a Mini

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On our way back to San Francisco after a day at Point Reyes, C remarked that “for some reason, all of our vacations seem to involve roads like this.” So true. At that moment, “this” was a torturous coastal road just east of Stinson Beach — you might have seen it in the one redeeming part of basic Basic Instinct, a car chase between two Lotus Esprits.
We had come out to San Francisco partly for work-related events, partly to see friends, and mostly to get out of Boston in the middle of March. I’ve been to San Francisco many times, but each time I return I’m once again reminded what an automotive fantasy land it is when compared with the northeast.
I grew up in Chicago and Vermont, went to college in Ohio, and have lived for the past eight years in Boston. These places don’t have much in common, but one thing they share is an abysmally poor environment for cars in the winter. The combination of frost heaves, potholes and salt make for such a harsh automotive environment that few winter-driven cars manage to last much beyond their 15th birthday.
This is one of but many reasons it’s always a pleasure to go somewhere else in the winter, especially an automotive fantasy land like California. When walking around San Francisco, it’s rare when you walk an entire block without seeing some kind of cool old car. San Franciscans manage somehow to ward off the salt coming in from the sea, and use their horribly rust-prone antiques all year round.
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The Mini at Point Reyes
The landscape north and south of the city is spectacular and beautifully preserved, save for a small number of windy roads that follow the terrain. For our drive to Point Reyes, we rented an automatic Mini Cooper convertible from Hertz (yes, it’s impossible to rent a manual transmission car) and set off.
This Mini wasn’t quite as engaging as the one we rented while driving through southern Spain last fall. The combination of an automatic transmission, plus the extra weight required to power and reinforce the convertible top together skim a few levels of fun off an otherwise appealing drive.
I also remain very disappointed with the interior. With the most recent updates, Mini moved the speedometer from the large center-mounted gauge to a smaller pod in front of the driver; but the only gauges remaining in the middle are an strange assortment of ancillary gauges like gas and coolant temperature — an odd choice for the most prominent feature of the car’s interior. The new 3-spoke steering wheel looks good, but the hard plastic spokes don’t provide a very nice surface to touch. The constant shuddering and shaking felt over uneven surfaces also really made me miss the rigidity of a fixed roof. Despite its flaws, the Mini was a great companion for a fun day trip.
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Muir Woods