The Mini Cooper delivers agile handling, crisp performance and an interminably cute bulldog appearance in a tidy, efficient, front-wheel drive package, with plenty of space and comfort for front seat passengers.
The number of Mini Cooper body styles has expanded to include Hardtop, Clubman, Coupe, Convertible, and Roadster versions, all similar in terms of mechanicals, structure, front sheetmetal, and interiors. All ride on the same 97-inch wheelbase except the Clubman, a stretched version that rides on a 100-inch wheelbase.
The styling of the Mini Coopers was freshened for 2011 with new bumper, tail light and wheel designs. The front ends were also reshaped to meet new requirements for pedestrian safety.
For 2012, updates for the Mini Cooper models were confined to cosmetics, including a new line of trim options aimed at giving owners more opportunity to individualize their cars. Offered as a new collection of custom options called Mini Yours, the choices include a two-tone leather-clad instrument panel with fancy stitching; a two-tone leather steering wheel; Soda pattern Lounge Leather upholstery; 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels; and new interior and exterior colors.
The 2012 Mini Baker Street and the Mini Bayswater are special edition Hardtop models with expressive design features and exclusive equipment influenced by contemporary London style as the city prepares for the Olympic Games. Mini Baker Street is oriented around the fresh, youthful style of the brand, and comes with the 118-hp Mini Cooper engine. Mini Bayswater is focused on the sporting verve and agile handling for which the Mini is renowned and is available with either the Mini Cooper engine or the 172-hp Mini Cooper S engine.
The Mini Coopers are powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine available in three levels of power output. All Minis are available with an optional 6-speed automatic.
The Mini Cooper models come standard with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 121 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. This engine works best with the standard 6-speed manual transmission, which adds to the sportiness and makes the Mini Cooper fun to drive. Acceleration performance isn't quick but it's adequate. The Mini Cooper delivers excellent fuel economy, earning an EPA rating of 29/37 mpg City/Highway, or 28/36 mpg with the automatic. Premium gasoline is required, however.
The Mini Cooper S models come with a turbocharged version of the same engine that generates 181 horsepower and a substantial 177 pound-feet of torque, making it one of the world's most powerful engines for its size. All the Minis are fun to drive, but in Cooper S trim they deliver exhilarating performance and nimble handling that's most easily appreciated on a twisty back road. With all that torque, this engine works well with the automatic though we still prefer the manual for sportiness. In spite of the significant performance difference, fuel economy is still excellent, earning an EPA-estimated 27/35 mpg or 26/34 mpg with the automatic. Premium gasoline is required.
The Mini Cooper Hardtop is quite practical when viewed as a two-seat car with cargo capacity. The front seats are very comfortable and supportive seats, and they are large enough to accommodate all sizes of drivers and front passengers. With its hatchback and folding rear seats, the Hardtop can haul reasonable amounts of gear. It has a two-place rear seat, but it is hard to climb into and offers very limited leg room. The back seats are best left for small children or, better yet, stuff.
Those who want more room might choose the Mini Cooper Clubman, which is essentially a small station wagon. The Clubman is 9.4 inches longer overall than the Hardtop, and 3.2 inches longer in wheelbase. The extra wheelbase converts to more rear legroom, making it more practical for rear-seat passengers. Access to the rear seat is eased by a third, rear-hinged door on the passenger side. The Clubman also features side-hinged swing-out doors at the back, for easy access to the cargo area, though they don't improve the appearance.
A wide range of styling options allows owners to personalize their cars, and it's a major part of Mini's appeal. The choices cover upholstery style, material and color; exterior graphics; trim pieces; ambient lighting; and exterior paint, including contrasting colors for the roof. Functional options include high-end features like adaptive Xenon headlights, rear obstacle warning and a navigation system. The basic Minis are reasonably priced, starting under $20,000. Check too many options, however, and the ticket can soar into luxury territory, approaching $40,000.
The most expensive Minis are the high-performance John Cooper Works models. The JCW models play on the brand's heritage as a multiple rally and touring-car racing champion in the 1960s. With 208 horsepower, 192 pound-feet of torque and ultra-firm suspension tuning, the JCW package turns the Mini Cooper into a little hot rod, just the thing for charging up the Monte Carlo stages. The JCW package is available for all models (except the Mini Countryman crossover). For 2012, the Mini Cooper JCW performance package includes the aero body kit as standard equipment.
Mini Coopers offer a great combination of style, driving fun, low operating costs and practicality. Engineered by BMW, Mini Coopers come standard with as much safety equipment as any small car available.
Mini Cooper Hardtop ($19,500); Cooper S Hardtop ($23,100); John Cooper Works Hardtop ($29,900); Clubman ($21,200); Clubman S ($24,900); John Cooper Works Clubman ($31,400); Cooper Convertible ($24,950); Cooper S Convertible ($27,950); John Cooper Works Convertible ($34,100)
The Mini Cooper lineup has multiplied since this second-generation version was launched as a 2007 model. Each new variant has been a bit different than the standard two-door Hardtop, as Mini calls the hatchback version. Yet none of the subsequent models will be mistaken for anything other than a close sibling to the chic, irrepressible cute Hardtop, or for that matter any Mini model sold since the brand was re-introduced in 2000.
All Mini models were freshened a bit front and rear for 2011. The updates include new bumper designs and tail lights, and five new wheel designs. Also, the front ends were reshaped, primarily to meet new requirements for pedestrian safety.
The Mini Convertible closely resembles the standard Hardtop, and matches its dimensions. The soft-top maintains the same basic silhouette as the Hardtop, though the heated glass rear window is tilted farther forward. The rear side windows are about a third of the size of those on the Hardtop because the cloth top wraps farther around the sides of the car. When the Convertible top is down, it stacks at the back of the car. The look is fine, but it blocks the driver's lower line of sight to the rear.
The Convertible's insulated fabric roof opens at the touch of a button in just 15 seconds at speeds up to 18 mph, which is very convenient. There are no latches to unhook, simply press the button. A sliding roof function opens just the portion of the top that's over the front seats. It's like a big sunroof that can be opened at speeds up to 75 mph.
The Clubman is identical to the Mini Cooper Hardtop from the front bumper to the back of the doors. Of its 9.4 inches of added length, 3.1 inches are located behind the doors and in front or the rear wheels, increasing rear legroom by a roughly equal amount. Another 6.3 inches are found behind the rear wheels, for more cargo space, but the Clubman still manages to keep a wheels-pushed-to-the-corners look.
The two biggest changes with the Clubman, compared to the Mini Cooper Hardtop, are the substitution of split rear barn doors at the back and the addition of a rear access door on the passenger side. The right-side access door, called the Clubdoor, is a rear-hinged demi-door that doesn't open independently of the front passenger door and provides easier access to the back seat. At the rear of the car, the handles for the split rear doors are placed together where the doors join. The rear glass is fixed and does not open.
Mini Cooper S models are distinguishable from the standard versions, no matter the body style. Black mesh grilles replace the shiny bars, lower brake ducts with optional chrome frames guide cooling air toward the brake discs. Most noticeable is the chrome-ringed hood scoop on Cooper S models.
The current group of Minis represents the second generation of the re-launched brand, but Mini heritage dates to the late 1950s. The original was a landmark design by Alec Issigonis for the British Motor Corporation. With its transverse front engine, front-wheel drive and surprisingly roomy interior, it changed the game in minimalist transportation. It became even more famous for winning the Monte Carlo Rally. Production of the original Mini finally ended in the 1990s.
BMW revived the marque with a totally new Mini Cooper in Europe for the 2000 model year. It was completely redesigned for the 2007 model year.
Mini interiors were updated for 2011 with new features and materials and improved noise counter-measures, and the 2012 Mini Yours line of optional upgrades lend an opportunity for owners to personalize and upgrade their cars. Mini affords numerous interior trim options that can give each one an individual character.
All Mini Cooper cabins are charming with excellent finish. The plastics have a quality look and feel. This also goes for the base Leatherette upholstery (vinyl). Multiple leather options are available, including a cloth and leather combination, a full leather option, and the glove soft Lounge Leather with contrasting piping, similar to classic British sedans. Ambient lighting is standard on most models, and it softly illuminates the door panels and footwells with subtle LEDs. The driver can change the color of the lighting across a spectrum from soft orange to crisp blue.
Despite diminutive exterior dimensions, Mini cabins are surprisingly spacious up front. Even a 6-foot, 5-inch driver can be comfortable in the front seat. The basic manual levers, controlling height, seatback rake, and front-rear travel, allow just about everyone to easily find a comfortable spot.
The Mini driving position is excellent. We found the seats comfortable for long-distance trips, and they're nicely bolstered to keep you in place when you inevitably hustle through the turns. The available sport seats are even better.
A round, plastic transmitter replaces a conventional ignition key. It slides into a slot next to the steering column, and the driver fires the engine by pressing the adjacent a start/stop button. The button is cute and inoffensive, but no more effective than a standard key. The optional proximity key allows the driver to leave the transmitter in purse or pocket and just press the start button. We'd prefer a traditional key, but that's not an option.
All models follow Mini's sporty tradition of a big, round speedometer in the center of the dash. The tachometer is mounted on the tilt/telescoping steering column, moving with the wheel as it's adjusted it up and down. The Convertible has a unique Openometer next to the tach. It tracks the number of hours you drive with the top down and displays the owner's enthusiasm for open-cockpit motoring, a cute feature.
Heating and air conditioning controls sit below the speedo, and they're straightforward in base models. The available automatic climate control system is cleverly configured in the shape of the winged Mini logo. The switch layout is generally effective, though sometimes it's a bit too clever.
The audio controls sacrifice ease of use for design symmetry. The tuning knob is centered with most other audio buttons at the bottom of the speedometer, while the volume control sits further down the center stack, closer to the HVAC controls. At first, you may find yourself changing the station when what you really want is to turn up the volume. The integrated design of the audio controls makes it nearly impossible to fit any aftermarket sound system, and the buttons are obviously plastic, with a matte-gray in finish, and detract from the otherwise high-quality interior appointments.
A retro touch, chrome toggle switches that look like something out of an airplane or racecar cockpit, are positioned at the base of the center stack to control the windows, auxiliary lights, and stability-control system. The toggles are duplicated above the rearview mirror to control interior lights, the optional sunroof and the Convertible top. The steering-column stalk switches for wipers and turn signals are pleasing to look and satisfying to use.
The navigation or Mini Connected systems add a rectangular 6.5-inch video screen in the central speedometer, with a digitally generated speed needle around its perimeter. Maps are stored on a built-in flash drive. Both Mini Connected and the full nav system add Bluetooth connectivity and a USB port, and they make it easy to integrate mobile devices. Audio can be streamed via Bluetooth, and album cover artwork and mobile-phone caller lists can be displayed on the monitor. BMW is a leader in this area.
Interior storage space is not abundant, but it's adequate. There are bins in the door panels, map pockets on the front seatbacks, a small center-console bin and an average-size glovebox. The glovebox can be cooled with the air conditioning, and it's enough to keep a bottled drink reasonably cool, or to keep chocolate bars from turning to mush. The optional Center Rail storage and fastening system replaces the standard center console with two aluminium rails running lengthwise through the middle of the interior. Various accessories, including cupholders, storage boxes, trays or armrests can be locked anywhere along the rails to the occupants' preference.
In the Mini Cooper Hardtop, the rear seat is barely habitable for adults, and only for very short rides. Access to it is anything but convenient. The Convertible has even less rear leg room, 28.1 inches compared to 29.9 inches, so adults or even children won't fit back there unless the front seats are moved far forward.
The Clubman offers more interior space. Its additional wheelbase length translates into additional legroom for rear-seat passengers, and those in back have more shoulder room, as well. The Clubdoor makes the Clubman's rear seat of the Clubman much easier to access from the passenger side. A slot was added on the door for 2011 that keeps the front seatbelt out of the way when rear passengers duck in. The third door is particularly handy for parents who need to deal with child safety seats.
The Convertible has the least cargo space of the Mini models. Room in the trunk doesn't change when the top is lowered, which is good, but there is only 6.0 cubic feet of space to begin with, which is bad, and hard to use, which is also bad. The rear seats fold down, and Mini claims that opens up 23.3 cubic feet of space. But that space is hard to get to, and big items won't slide in behind the front seatbacks or through the short trunk opening. In short, the Mini Convertible is an impractical car.
The Hardtop, with its large rear hatch and separate folding rear seatbacks, does better as a cargo hauler. With the rear seats in place, there's a miniscule 5.7 cubic feet of storage, enough for an airline roll-aboard and a brief case. But with the rear seats folded down, cargo volume expands to a readily accessible 24 cubic feet. That's more than enough for two passengers on long trip.
The Clubman provides a more usable 9.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and a shade-type, pullout cargo cover is provided. With the rear seatbacks folded, it presents a flat load floor and nearly 33 cubic feet of space. The Split Rear Barn Doors are hinged on the rear pillars and open out, providing wide access.
Forward vision is excellent in all Minis, at least when the road ahead is clear. Given the Mini's diminutive size, larger cars can block the view in the same way big SUVs can block the view from the driver's seat of midsize sedan.
Rear sightlines are good in the Hardtop. The Convertible has a couple of issues, however. When the top is down, the lower portion of the driver's rearward line of sight is compromised. With the top up, its corners block vision in the rear quarters. Backing out of a parking spot can be a challenge, making the Park Distance Control warning system an important option. In the Clubman, the line where the rear barn doors join is a bit of a distraction in the rearview mirror.
We've driven all the Mini Coopers on race tracks, streets and highways around the world, and rank them among the most fun and responsive front-wheel-drive cars available, enhanced by outstanding real-world fuel economy. All Minis have a basic sporting character. Yet most are quite comfortable as daily drivers.
The current-generation Mini, introduced as a 2007 model, is in nearly all respects a better car than the version that re-launched the brand in the U.S. as a 2001 model. It's even easier and safer to drive quickly, and benefits from changes to the suspension and increased engine torque.
For 2011, Mini upgraded its 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine across the line. The changes were aimed at improving efficiency, with less engine weight and friction, accessories that sap less power, and BMW's full, no-throttle Valvtronic variable valve timing. Still, engine output has increased slightly.
The 1.6-liter engine in standard Mini Coopers delivers 121 hp at 6000 rpm, 114 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm. The turbocharged 1.6-liter in Cooper S models generates 181 hp at 5500 rpm, with a minimum 177 lb-ft available from 1600-5000 rpm, plus an overboost feature that will deliver 192 lb-ft in short bursts. The extra-racy John Cooper Works models peak at 208 hp at 6000 rpm, 192 pound-feet of torque at 1850-5000 rpm plus an overboost delivering 207 pound-feet when needed. Measured by specific output, a technical label for the amount of power an engine delivers for its size, the Mini JCW four is one of the most powerful engines in any automobile.
Mini touts its new Mini Coupe (reviewed separately) as the quickest member of the lineup, but we think the Hardtop is the best body style from a driving standpoint. It seems the most fun to drive in the purest sense.
Mini says the Hardtop hits 60 from a stop in 8.4 seconds, which is not particularly quick, while the Mini Cooper S performs this feat in 6.6 seconds, which is quick.
The turbocharged Mini Cooper S engine reacts almost instantly to the gas pedal, with only the tiniest hint of turbo lag, and produces satisfying acceleration at all speeds. Its steady, even power delivery across a wide rpm range is impressive, as we've learned in a race track test drive, as well as public road experience.
Cooper S models come with a sport-tuned suspension, but their behavior is still quite refined, and more so than some other cars capable of similar track speeds. With a MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension, the Cooper S is flat and stable in corners, and absorbs small bumps and joints without discomforting passengers. With front-wheel drive, the car never feels at risk of spinning out, even with radical changes in throttle position or braking in the middle of corners.
A key factor in the Mini's sporting feel is its electromechanically assisted steering, which uses an electric motor, instead of a hydraulic pump, for steering assist. Despite the fuel-saving electric power assist, the steering shaft is still mechanically connected to the steering box, so the driver continues to enjoy great feel for the road. This system also varies the steering ratio and effort according to speed.
The effect of the electric steering is most apparent in tight, slow parking lot maneuvers, where very little effort or wheel motion is needed to make large changes in direction. In comparison, at highway speeds an equal rotation of the steering wheel results in smaller and less sensitive directional changes. Another advantage of electrically assisted steering, from the performance perspective, is that steering ratios can be optimized for various portions of a curve, and not just varied with vehicle speed. In the Mini, this means that the initial turn into a corner is cushioned slightly, so the car doesn't feel as go-kart twitchy as the previous generation. It feels a bit numb on center.
The 6-speed automatic transmission works reasonably well with both the standard and turbocharged engines. Paddles on the steering wheel let the driver override the automatic and shift manually; and when the driver stops using them, the transmission reverts to Drive, picking the gears itself. Automatics also come with a Sport mode button that switches to a more aggressive shift algorithm that holds gears longer to keep more power on tap. On all models, the Sport button quickens throttle response and chooses a quicker steering ratio.
The 6-speed manual gearbox offers more driver engagement than the automatic and wrings the most from the Mini's small engine. We strongly recommend the manual for the low-powered base models, and prefer it for the high-powered models. It's crisp, precise, and makes the driving experience more fun.
Mini brakes are first-rate. The four-wheel discs are large for cars of the Mini's weight, and they provide quick, stable stops with good, consistent pedal feel. They're also managed by one of the slickest control programs in small cars. Both the base and S models benefit from Mini's brake cornering control, which can use the ABS to apply individual brakes to inside wheels to help get the car through a corner.
The Convertible is almost as sporty as the Hardtop. This latest version handles better than the previous-generation, thanks to a stronger body structure that substantially reduces cowl shake and body shimmy.
The Clubman is nearly as fun to drive as the regular Mini Cooper Hardtop, and its extra length is an advantage in some ways. The longer wheelbase makes the Clubman a bit more stable in turns. The Hardtop is slightly more eager in quick changes of direction, but the Clubman is still nimble compared to similarly sized cars in tight quarters.
On the road, most drivers should find the Clubman a little more comfortable than the Hardtop. The longer wheelbase makes for smoother ride quality. If ride comfort is a top priority, the Countryman should be the Mini Cooper of choice.
Tires play a crucial role in the Mini ride-quality equation, and there is a variety of tires to choose from. All-season tires on the smaller rims deliver the most comfortable ride. This is most obvious in the Convertible, which tends to emphasize road shock and shakes. The run-flat performance tires on the Mini Cooper S Convertible with a Sport Package made us dread the early spring potholes blooming on Chicago streets. Be sure to actually drive a car with the sports suspension and big rims, regardless of the Mini variant, before buying. They may make the ride too stiff for some tastes.
The Mini Cooper models are nimble and visually unique. In Cooper S trim, they are quite fast. There is plenty of room for the passengers in front, but the Clubman is the better choice if the rear seat will be used for people. Prices range from just over $20,000 for a basic hatchback up to $40,000 for a loaded Convertible. Any way you choose, the Mini provides as much style and sheer fun as any small car extant, and even more personalization options.
Kirk Bell reported from Chicago, with J.P Vettraino reporting from Detroit.