Engineered by BMW, the Mini Cooper is a high-quality piece of equipment, as solid as any German sedan. And it boasts a multitude of passive and active safety systems.
Convertibles were added to the lineup for 2005. At the same time, all models were enhanced with new interior lighting, storage space and trim options, plus revised headlamps and tail lamps and a new grille. New manual gearboxes with revised gearing delivered improved acceleration for both the Cooper and Cooper S, and the S received a slight bump in horsepower.
For 2006, a new Checkmate trim package with exclusive interior and exterior modifications is now being offered for sedan models. And the John Cooper Works performance package can now be ordered as a factory-installed option or as a dealer-installed option.
Mini Cooper ($16,950); S ($20,600); Convertible ($21,450); Convertible S ($24,900)
The bulldog stance of the Mini Cooper remains distinctive, appealing and still fresh. The Mini is low, wide, and short, with short overhangs. The wheels are set as far out to the four corners as possible, enhancing stability in turns and on bumpy straights. The wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) measures 97.1 inches, longer than some small cars, yet the Mini is shorter overall than any other car sold in America, at 142.8 inches (less than 12 feet). The current Mini Cooper shares some of its basic design tenets with the original, but with one-third greater width, length and height.
The hood is wide, but short in depth, the product of unique design and manufacturing techniques. That, along with the big round doe-eyed headlights (which go up with the hood), are largely responsible for the common Oh-h-h, isn't it CUTE! reaction. Mini designers also threw in what they consider to be some voluptuous feminine curves and some masculine muscular bulges to cover all the visceral reactions. Thus the Mini is neither Guy Wheels nor a Chick Car. It is an engaging automotive device with an appeal that stretches across gender, age and economic status. Its horizontal roof, giving it that toaster shape, is functional: It provides adult headroom to anyone riding in either the back or front seats, something that arch-shaped body designs (such as the Beetle) do not do.
The rear is trimmed with an elegant fascia, while the front fascia has body-colored bumpers. The Mini Cooper has one exhaust tip exiting below the sleek rear bumper on the right side. BMW's attention to detail is everywhere. A small reflector on door jam alerts other drivers when you open the door at the side of a busy street. Big oval mirrors afford a good view behind, where all those slower cars can be seen.
Those mirrors must be used diligently in the convertible because blind spots can be serious, particularly with the top up. The many advantages in having a heated solid glass back window in a convertible is complicated by the need to fit that in to the folding requirements of the top. What suffers is the outward view to the rear quarters. Use your mirrors.
The Cooper S is distinguished by its hood scoop, sport bumpers, lower intake grille, aggressive side sills, wider wheel arches, and twin exhaust tips that exit from the middle. A rear spoiler trails off the roof, chrome brightens the fuel-filler flap, and an S logo shaped like a curvy road spices up the rear badge. Numerous other styling cues, including big eight-spoke wheels reminiscent of the classic Minilights, ensure that everyone who's anyone knows you sprung for the hot one.
The front seats slide and lift out of the way to allow rear passengers into the back of this two-door hatchback, and then they return to the original position. That makes loading rear passengers quick and easy. The seats have recliner levers on both sides for convenience.
The back seats are surprisingly roomy. There's plenty of headroom and the rear seats are scooped out to provide good support. Legroom is tight, but with a little cooperation from those in front two adults can travel short distances back there in comfort. The back seats are split and fold down for cargo versatility.
The Mini Cooper's interior is stylish and modern, and exudes quality. Prominent circles set the interior design statement. That large circle in the center of the dash, visible to anyone in the car, is the speedometer. A racy round tachometer is perched like an aftermarket muscle car unit immediately before the driver's eyes and tilts with the adjustable steering column. Toggle switches with little guards are arranged in a row near the bottom of the center stack. They operate power windows, power locks, front and rear fog lamps, and the electronic stability control system. A pair of cup holders immediately in front of the shifter will hold a pair of grande cappuccinos if you squeeze them gently past the bottom edge of the dash.
The Mini Cooper benefited from a few interior enhancements for 2005, including new map lights and cascade lighting located on the center of the top windshield frame and illuminated door handles, all designed to improve night-time interior visibility. The interior door armrests were redesigned to allow you to put more in the door pockets. Also, the rear cup holder was enlarged, a tray was added under the center column, partially enclosing the area and another tray was added under the brake handle.
The interior is full of clever details. The optional automatic climate controls are shaped like the Mini logo, for example. The heater/air conditioner controls that come standard are attractive and work well, though the mode selector knob lacks the nice feel of the fan knob. Radio buttons are small, but easy to understand and operate.
The dash is neat and firm and has a high-quality leather feel to it. We like the trim on the front of the dash of the standard Cooper, but we're not sure we like the finish on the plastic trim that adorns the dash and doors of the S model. It's designed to look like brushed aluminum, but it looks more like smudged plastic, like your little sister put her sneakers all over it.
The low roofline means you have to stoop to see traffic lights overhead. (Traffic signals are mounted on poles in jolly olde England.) Sunroof lovers should love the dual-pane panoramic sunroof. Maybe we're not sunroof lovers. Only mesh covers the glass panels on the inside, letting the sun come streaming in even when you don't want it. Besides, the metal roof makes a better background for the Union Jack.
Dropping the top takes just 15 seconds. Amazing for a car in this price range is the single button control to raise and lower the top with no latches or handles to twist. The top is unlined.
A part-way mode on the convertible top leaves a section open at the front of the cockpit like a sunroof, granting front-seat occupants a view of skyscrapers, majestic peaks or the indulgent stares of truck drivers. This unique sunroof can be operated while tooling along at highway speeds. This appealing semi-open feature is possible because the first 15 inches of the top is a rigid panel; no flap
Drop the top on the convertible, and you may not even notice what the road surface is like.
These cars corner like go karts. It takes some very hard driving to exceed their cornering limits. The harder and deeper you go into corners, the more the Mini says more. It goes where it's pointed without protest. Even when rain was sheeting down and the pavement shimmered in rivulets, the Mini felt bonded to the surface.
As expected from a car associated with BMW, the Mini Cooper's steering is precise and immediate, though not as light as you might expect in a small car. With its sharp and accurate steering, it's easy to place the car exactly where you want it. The suspension (McPherson struts in front and multi-link rear) is designed to keep the car snug to the road. This means passengers feel broken surfaces, expansion joints and weathered pavement. The Mini's ride is not velvety, but it is secure. Somehow even on the roughest road, one that sets passengers popping like corn in a hot skillet, the Mini holds its direction like a gyroscope. Drivers like that. And make no mistake: The Mini is a driver's car.
The brakes are equally impressive Brake hard at speed and the Mini feels sucked to the earth and stops quickly. The four-wheel disc brakes (vented in front) come with four-channel ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), and Corner Brake Control (CBC). EBD distributes front-to-rear brake forces for improved stability and shorter stopping distances. CBC evens braking forces side to side, important when braking in the middle of a corner (usually a driving faux pas). Optional Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) applies the brakes at individual wheels and reduces engine torque when it senses you're skidding or not traveling on your intended path.
The standard 115-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder overhead-cam engine never feels deficient. It delivers plenty of power for most of us. Its acceleration performance may not plaster you to the back of the seat, but it has plenty of power for charging around on-ramps and can rocket onto the freeway. It gets an EPA-estimated 28/37 mpg City/Highway.
Shifting feels good and smooth. The Cooper comes standard with a Getrag five-speed manual transmission (new for 2005) designed for quick acceleration.
The Mini Cooper S uses a supercharged version of the same engine that produces 168 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. The S doesn't feel like a rocket off the line, but really comes into its own once it's rolling. The supercharger doesn't deliver the explosive thrust associated with turbocharged engines, but it accelerates hard, with thrilling performance when you nail it in the 30-60 mph range. The supercharged engine uses the same block, but features more cooling measures (an engine oil cooler and piston-cooling jets), lower-compression pistons (to reduce detonation), a special crank, special valves, and, of course, the roots-type blower. All this adds up to 40-percent more horsepower and torque and an EPA-estimated 24/33 mpg.
The S comes with a six-speed manual. The pull from the supercharged engine means it doesn't shift as elegantly as the standard Cooper, but it's quite tractable and easy to shift around town at low speeds. Sixth is a tall gear, good for fuel economy. The six-speed is a high-performance Getrag gearbox with double-cone synchros.
The S rides more firmly than the standard Cooper. It's fine for a driving enthusiast, but
The Mini Cooper is a well-executed piece by every measure. It's the total package that makes it an excellent value: appealing appearance inside and out, excellent performance, notable engineering, numerous safety devices and the simple delight of being in and around it. It gets excellent gas mileage and it will make your garage seem enormous.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondents Denise McCluggage reported from Minneapolis, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles and New York, Sam Moses reporting from Ireland, and Greg Brown reporting from Los Angeles.