This second-generation version continues to generate smiles on the faces of passersby. That's an impressive feat given the first-generation models have been with us since 2000 and the current version looks very similar.
The Mini Cooper brings smiles to the faces of its drivers because it's a lot of fun to drive. It's also a practical car, with comfortable seats, useful cargo capacity, and an EPA-rated City/Highway 28/37 miles per gallon.
Inside, it's large enough to accommodate all sizes of drivers and front passengers in comfort. The rear seats are actually functional, if not capacious, allowing four adults. With the hatchback and folding rear seats, the car can haul reasonable amounts of gear.
The engine, styling, and the interior were redesigned for 2007, and there have been no further changes for 2008.
BMW offers a large range of styling options, with choices not only in upholstery style, material and color, but also in trim panels, accent panels, and ambient lighting. Check too many options and the Mini's price can rise quickly from economy-entry to near-luxury levels. But all Minis are well equipped for what you pay.
The Mini Cooper's heritage dates back to the late 1950s, when it was conceived by the British Motor Corporation in response to the Suez crisis to provide efficient, bare-bones transportation. It was roomy and comfortable. It was cheap to build, cheap to buy, and cheap to run.
But the Mini's fundamental cuteness lent it a sort of chic. Soon it was adopted by celebrities such as Peter Sellers, who drove one on screen as well as off. Like the U.S. Jeep, the Mini survived multiple corporate mergers and disasters; and by the time production finally ended in the 1990s, its pioneering transverse engine (mounted sideways, rather than longways, to save space) had been imitated by most automakers. The Mini was sporty and fun to drive.
Of some 6 million original Minis, the best-known were the high-performance variants tuned by race-car builder John Cooper. Multiple rally and touring-car championships, including overall wins at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964 and '67, assured the Mini Cooper 's reputation as a small but formidable force in motorsports. BMW now owns the Mini, and revived the marque with an all-new car for the 2000 model year. It was redesigned for 2007.
Mini Cooper hardtop ($18,050); Cooper S hardtop ($21,200); Cooper convertible ($21,950); Cooper S convertible ($25,400)
The front of the Mini had to be restyled to conform to more rigid European restrictions on exterior panel shapes for pedestrian safety, as well as to adapt to the shape of the new engine.
Then the remainder of the car was restyled as well to better blend with the new front end.
Park two examples side-by-side and you'll see immediately that the headlights of the 2007-08 model are rounder, the hood flatter, the grille more prominent than those on the 2000-06 version. Turn signals are now integrated into the headlight clusters, and bigger foglights (when ordered) are set into a simplified bumper where the turn signals used to be. Around back, wider tail lights and a wider trim strip on the hatch echo the changes up front. The beltline rises faster, too, giving the rear end a more tapered look. In general, the latest Mini seems broader-shouldered and more aggressive than the last, and so departs even further from the narrow and square original. It is a little larger, too, measuring 2.36 inches more in length. But we doubt most modern Mini buyers will mind or even notice.
In any case, close inspection of the exterior shows that in almost all areas, design and execution is upgraded from the 2006 model. One notable example is how the headlamp clusters are now firmly attached the front fenders while fitting through openings in the hood; where in the previous model the headlamps were built into the hood itself.
Audio controls have been moved from the center stack into the bottom half of the speedometer dial, and the heating and air conditioning controls have been compressed below it. These changes reduce the width of the center stack, which increases knee and leg room in the foot wells, answering a common complaint against the previous model.
For a car that has the smallest exterior of any four-passenger vehicle on the road, the Mini is surprisingly spacious inside. Even a six-foot, five-inch driver will be comfortable in the front seat; and the three manual levers, controlling height, rake, and front-rear position, allow both driver and passenger to find a comfortable position.
We found the seats comfortable for long-distance driving. The driving position is excellent. The few changes that were made to the seats for 2007, improving the shape and position of the bolsters, have only improved these characteristics.
Upholstery and trim was upgraded for 2007, as well, and the range of customizing possibilities expanded. At the one extreme, by electing sport seats with leather and contrasting cloth trim, along with metal accents and ambient lighting, the buyer can create a very trendy, fast-and-furious interior look. At the other extreme, by opting for very-English leather seats with contrasting piping, trim panels matching the piping color, and real wood accents, a more conservative buyer can evoke an upscale, almost Rolls-Royce appearance in the interior.
Heating and air-conditioning controls in the base model are straight-forward, but owners can also select the automatic climate control system, cleverly configured in the shape of the winged Mini logo, which maintains a constant temperature dialed in by the occupants.
The audio controls, now built into the speedometer dial, are almost too clever for their own good, sacrificing ease of use for design symmetry. For example, though the tuning knob is in the audio cluster, the volume knob is placed below the speedometer in the center stack, closer to the HVAC controls than to the audio controls.
External music systems such as an MP3 player can be connected to the audio system. A specific adapter for an Apple iPod is also available, and a Sirius satellite radio receiver is available as well, and its price includes a lifetime subscription. However, the integrated design of the audio controls in the speedometer dial will make it nearly impossible to fit any aftermarket sound system.
Cosmetically, the audio and HVAC controls are one feature that nearly every reviewer has criticized. Made obviously of plastic, with a matte-gray in finish, the controls could be described as refugees from a Buzz Lightyear remote control system. With their prominent positioning, they detract from the otherwise high-quality interior appointments.
A navigation system is optional, and if selected, replaces the central speedometer with a round screen of the same size, which has a central rectangular display screen surrounded by a digitally generated needle indicating vehicle speed around the perimeter.
BMW has carried forward from the previous model chrome toggle switches that look like something out of an aircraft or racecar cockpit. Positioned at the base of the center stack, these switches control the windows, auxiliary lights, and DSC system. Based on their positive acceptance in the previous model, the designers have duplicated them in a second panel of toggle switches above the center of the windshield to control interior lights and the sunroof, if fitted.
The toggles and other switch gear in the cockpit, and especially the light and turn signal stalks, have benefited from the BMW touch in the latest Mini, and are more pleasing to look at and offer a much more satisfying feel in use than before.
Though the rear seat wouldn't ever be considered comfortable for adults, and the access to it anything but convenient, changes in the contours of the rear seats have added about an inch of rear legroom, so that even adults can endure short rides back there.
With the large rear hatch, and separate folding rear seatbacks, the Mini is quite flexible in configuration, though its overall size limits luggage space with the rear seats up to a airline roll-aboard and a brief case. With the rear seats down, 24 cubic feet of cargo can be loaded aboard, more than enough for two passengers on a two-week trip, as we proved this summer.
The new engine is the major and most obvious change. To meet increasingly stringent European environmental regulations, which now focus on both mileage and CO2 emissions, the Tritec engine that had been jointly developed by Chrysler and Rover for the first-generation new Mini had to be replaced. Development of the new engine was jointly funded by Peugeot and BMW, with BMW doing the engineering design and Peugeot seeing to manufacturing considerations. Engines installed in Minis are manufactured in the BMW Hams Hall engine plant in England.
In base tune the new engine has the same capacity and produces approximately the same horsepower and torque as the previous engine. However, with BMW Valvetronic variable-valve-timing technology the new engine rates 28/37 mpg City/Highway in EPA estimates. And according to European testing, CO2 emissions are significantly reduced.
In Cooper S turbocharged trim with direct fuel injection, the new engine delivers very sporting performance. Its 172 horsepower is more than adequate in the lightweight Mini to generate speeds twice most legal limits, but the 177 pound-feet of torque, which can be over-boosted to 190 pound-feet for short intervals, and is available from 1700 rpm to 5000 rpm, is nothing short of marvelous. A sport button yields quicker response from accelerator and steering.
The turbo engine takes the Mini from 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, reflecting a slight turbo hesitation at the start, but producing satisfying acceleration at all speeds once in motion. Even on the track at Zandvoort, with its frequent elevation changes and notoriously tight hairpin corners, the car turned its fastest laps with the transmission left in third gear. And even with that performance, the turbo with manual transmission is still EPA-rated at 26 mpg urban and 34 mpg highway.
The Cooper S comes standard with a sport-tuned suspension, but its behavior is still much more refined than other cars capable of similar track speeds. Using the MacPherson Strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension adapted from the BMW Z4, the car is flat and stable in corners, and absorbs most bumps without discomforting passengers.
Though this model still has the same short wheelbase as its predecessor, and the same tight turning radius, BMW has retuned the suspension to reduce its oversteer potential so that even with radical changes in throttle or brakes in the middle of corners, the car never feels at risk of spinning out.
This feeling of composure has been heightened through the programming of the electromechanically assisted steering, which uses an electric motor, instead of hydraulics, to alter and enhance driver steering input. Because the steering is still mechanically connected to the front wheels, this system can't be called drive-by-wire, and the driver still has a feel for the road and the car's changing cornering force can be felt through the wheel.
However, in addition to its variable-ratio rack, the system can alter the steering effort required to make directional changes. This 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 larger changes in the wheel result in smaller and less sensitive directional changes.
One advantage of electronically assisted steering is that input/output ratios can be changed during the course of a turn, not just varying with vehicle speed. In the Mini, this means that the initial turn-in is cushioned slightly, so the car doesn't feel as go-kart twitchy as the previous model, but once a constant turning radius is established, it takes almost no effort to maintain the turn, regardless of speed.
Both the Cooper and Cooper S rely on the same four-wheel-disc brake system.
Since its introduction as a 2002 model, the Mini Cooper has offered a satisfying combination of peppy performance, distinctive bulldog appearance, and a wide variety of trim and color options at a very reasonable price. Though significantly re-engineered to meet environmental standards (and BMW's own), the most recent versions haven't changed this success formula, but simply improved on it.
Gary Anderson filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Amsterdam, with Barry Brazier in Barcelona, and John F. Katz in Pennsylvania