The Mini Cooper is sporty and fun. It’s practical as a two-seat 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 in the hardtop allow four adults. With the hatchback and folding rear seats, the Mini Cooper can haul reasonable amounts of gear. The convertible has less rear seat room and considerably less rear cargo capacity.
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.
This second-generation Mini Cooper was launched for the 2007 model year for the hardtop body style and 2009 for the convertible. 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.
To meet European environmental and fuel-economy requirements, BMW designed a completely new engine in cooperation with Peugeot. It produces approximately the same horsepower as before: 118 in the Mini Cooper and 172 in the Mini Cooper S. But horsepower is only part of the story. However, a new turbocharger in the Cooper S delivers 177 pound-feet of torque from 1600 to 5000 rpm, significantly improving performance.
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. BMW now owns the Mini, and revived the marque with an all-new car for the 2000 model year. It was redesigned for 2007.
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. The revived company plays off that heritage by offering high-performance John Cooper Works models that feature more power and tighter suspensions.
The second-generation of the modern Mini Cooper is still unmistakably a Mini. Even while updating the car for safety, mechanical, and manufacturing considerations, BMW designers were reluctant to risk messing with a successful formula. Anyone who is not already a Mini owner will have difficulty distinguishing the current Mini from the previous-generation (pre-2007) version unless the two are parked side by side. Nevertheless, not a single exterior panel is common between the two cars.
The front of the Mini had to be restyled to conform to more rigid European restrictions on exterior panel shapes for pedestrian safety. Then the remainder of the car was restyled as well to blend with the new front end.
Park two examples side by side and you'll see immediately that the headlights of the second generation (2007 and later) model are rounder, the hood flatter, the grille more prominent than those of the first generation. 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 taillights 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 longer. 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 first generation. One notable example is how the headlamp clusters are now firmly attached the front fenders, fitting through openings in the hood; where in the previous model the headlamps were built into the hood itself.
The convertible comes with a power canvas roof that opens at the touch of a button in just 15 seconds when the car is parked or traveling at up to 18 mph. There are no latches to operate. The convertible top has a heated glass rear window and a sliding roof function that opens just the portion over the front seats. It acts as a sunroof and can be opened at speeds up to 75 mph.
The soft-top maintains the same basic silhouette as the hardtop, though the 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 further around the sides of the car. Behind the rear seat, the convertible has a concealed Active Rollover Protection Bar that pops up in case of a rollover. When the convertible top is down, it rests at the back of the car and sticks up a bit, sort of like a makeshift spoiler. The look is fine, but it blocks the driver's lower line of sight to the rear.
The redesign of the Mini Cooper hardtop for 2007 and convertible for 2009 brought more visible change inside the car than outside. The interior still has a sporty feeling, though it is now a bit less extreme.
Like the last generation and the original, an enlarged round speedometer is mounted in the center of the dash. The tachometer is mounted on the tilt/telescoping steering column, moving with it as you adjust it up and down. The convertible also has a unique Openometer next to the tach. It's a meter that measures the number of hours you drive with the top down. Think of it as a measure of your enthusiasm for an open cockpit.
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 the driver and front passenger to find a comfortable position.
We found the seats comfortable for long-distance driving, with good support from the bolsters. The driving position is excellent.
Vision to the rear is quite good in the hardtop, but the convertible has a couple of issues. As mentioned earlier, the lower portion of the driver's line of sight to the rear is blocked by the convertible top when it's down. With the top up, the top blocks vision to the rear sides. Backing out of a parking spot is a hope and a prayer.
Upholstery and trim is very nice and there is a wide range of options. At one extreme, by electing sport seats with leather and contrasting cloth trim, along with metal accents and ambient lighting, the buyer can create a trendy, fast-and-furious cabin. At the other extreme, by opting for very-English leather seats with contrasting piping, trim panels matching the piping color, and real wood accents, an upscale British luxury car.
The heating and air conditioning controls in the base model are straightforward. The available automatic climate control system, which maintains a constant temperature dialed in by the occupants, is cleverly configured in the shape of the winged Mini logo.
The audio controls built into the speedometer dial are a bit too clever for their own good, in our opinion, 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. A similar knob in the speedometer is used to switch between radio presets. It can be confusing which knob does which. MP3 players can be connected to the audio system. A specific adapter for an Apple iPod is available. 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 could be better. 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.
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 DSC system. They are duplicated by a second panel of toggle switches above the center of the windshield to control interior lights, the available sunroof, and in the case of the convertible, the power top.
The toggle switches and the stalk switches for the headlights and turn signals are pleasing to look at and offer a satisfying feel in use, clearly benefiting from the BMW touch.
The rear seat of the hardtop is suitable for adults only for short rides and access to it anything but convenient. The convertible has considerably 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. So it's best to think of the Mini Cooper as a two-seater with emergency provisions for extra passengers.
With its large rear hatch and separate folding rear seatbacks, the Mini hardtop is quite flexible in configuration, though its overall size limits luggage space with the rear seats up to an airline roll-aboard and a brief case. With the rear seats down, there's 24 cubic feet of cargo space, more than enough for two passengers on a two-week trip, something we proved last summer.
The convertible has quite a bit less cargo space. It has a small trunk with only 6.0 cubic feet of space that isn't affected by the position of the convertible top. We couldn't even fit our roll-aboard suitcase back there because the opening was too short. The rear seats still fold down, though, and Mini claims that opens up 23.3 cubic feet of space. The opening is still short, though, so larger items won't fit but groceries will.
One of the great things about the Mini is that the hardtop has useful cargo space. It is also possible to put four people in it. The convertible, however, almost completely lacks cargo space and has a rear seat that is really only useful as a parcel shelf. If it weren't just so darn fun to drive, the convertible would be almost useless.
We've found the Mini Cooper to be sporting and comfortable at the same time. We've driven them on race tracks and on streets and highways around the world. This latest-generation Mini is easier and safer to drive quickly, benefits of changes to the suspension, the increased torque of the engine, and the electromechanically assisted steering. This is one of the most fun and responsive cars on the road.
The convertible is almost as sporty as the hardtop. This latest version handles better than the previous-generation (pre-2009) convertible thanks to a stronger body structure that allows for little cowl shake. In fact, we'd call it one of the stiffest convertibles on the market.
We found that the optional 17-inch run-flat tires combined with the stiff suspension on the Mini Cooper S convertible made it prone to pounding over bumps. We began to dread early spring potholes on Chicago streets. Our advice is to try the S suspension and the larger tires before you buy; they may make the ride too stiff for some tastes.
The latest engine was engineered by BMW and is being produced by Peugeot. It was designed to meet increasingly stringent European environmental regulations, which now focus on both mileage and CO2 emissions. Engines installed in Minis are manufactured in the BMW Hams Hall engine plant in England. Prior to 2009, the convertible had been using the previous-generation engine developed by Chrysler and Rover until 2009.
The current 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 it rates and EPA-estimated 28/37 mpg City/Highway. 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 rather than downshifting to second. 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 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 Cooper S 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.
In addition to its variable-ratio rack, the system can alter the steering effort. 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 greater rotation of the steering wheel results 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. It provides quick and stable stops.
The Mini Cooper offers agile handling and crisp performance and a distinctive bulldog appearance, the latter enhanced by a variety of trim and color options. We're traditionalists, so we prefer the hardtop over the convertible. Either way, the Mini provides the most fun per dollar of any car on the market with the possible exception of the Mazda MX-5.
Gary Anderson filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Amsterdam, with Barry Brazier in Barcelona, John F. Katz in Pennsylvania, and Kirk Bell in Chicago.