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, the Mini Cooper is large enough to accommodate all sizes of drivers and front passengers in comfort. The rear seats in the hardtop allow four adults. With its 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 than the hardtop. For those who want more room there is the Clubman, which is 9.4 inches longer in overall length and 3.2 inches longer in the wheelbase. Kind of like a small station wagon, the Clubman has side-opening rear doors and, for entry to the rear seat, a single, rear-hinged door on the passenger’s side.
Styling options allow owners to personalize their cars, with choices in upholstery style, material and color, and in trim panels, accent panels, and ambient lighting. Check too many options and the Mini’s price can raise quickly from economy-entry to near-luxury levels, but all Minis are well equipped for what you pay.
The 1.8-liter dohc four-cylinder engine is rated at 118 horsepower and 114 pound-feed of torque in the Cooper models and, with a turbocharger, 172 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque in the Cooper S models. It is available with a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. While all the Minis are very fun to drive, the Cooper S models deliver exhilarating performance and nimble handling that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
The Mini’s heritage dates back to the late 1950s, when it was conceived by the British Motor Corporation to provide the optimum in efficient, minimalist transportation. It was roomy for four adults and surprisingly 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. The Mini was sporty and fun to drive. Soon it was adopted by celebrities such as Peter Sellers, who drove one on screen as well as off. The Mini Cooper survived multiple corporate mergers and disasters; and by the time production finally ended in the 1990s, its pioneering transverse engine (mounted sideways, rather than lengthwise, to save space) had been imitated by most automakers. BMW now owns the Mini brand, and revived the marque with an all-new car for the 2000 model year. For 2007 it was redesigned into the current-generation version. The Clubman joined the lineup for 2008 and the convertible was added for 2009. For 2010, there are no significant changes.
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 suspension.
This second-generation version of the modern Mini Cooper, launched as a 2007 model, is unmistakably a Mini. The first-generation of the modern Mini Cooper was launched as a 2000 model. 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 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 farther 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 Clubman is identical to the regular Mini Cooper from the front bumper to the back of the doors. Of the 9.4 inches of added length, 3.1 inches are located behind the doors and in front or the rear wheels, thus lengthening the wheelbase by an equal amount. Another 6.3 inches are found behind the rear wheels, but the Clubman still manages to keep a wheels-pushed-to-the-corners look.
The two biggest changes from the regular Mini Cooper are the addition of a rear access door on the passenger side and the use of split rear barn doors at the back. The right-side access door, or Clubdoor, is a small door that doesn't open independently of the front passenger door and is meant to provide easier access to the third row. At the back, the handles for the split rear doors are placed together where the doors come together. The rear glass does not open.
Clubman comes with two-tone paint. The accent color found on the roof is carried over to the rear C-pillars, and it also extends down through the taillights and onto the rear bumper. Accent hood stripes can also be ordered.
Clubman and Clubman S models have their differences. The base model has a three-bar chrome grille, while the S's is black mesh. The S also has a larger lower air intake, also with a black mesh insert, a forward-mounted front hood scoop, larger wheels and tires, a chrome gas cap, and dual exhaust versus a single exhaust. The Clubman S also has two rear air intakes, while the base Clubman has none.
The Mini Cooper cabin is charming with well chosen interior materials. Though there are many plastics, they have a quality look and feel. The same goes for the base upholstery, which is leatherette instead of cloth. Three leather seating options are available, a cloth and leather combination, a fully leather option, and higher end English leather. Mini allows customers to choose from numerous interior trims to give each car an individual character.
In keeping with Mini tradition, a big 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-generation 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 6-foot, 5-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. The seats are nicely bolstered to keep you in place when you inevitably hustle through the turns. The available sport seats are even better.
Vision to the rear is quite good in the hardtop. The convertible has a couple of visibility issues, however. 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 challenge. In the Clubman, visibility from the front seat is good, though the line where the rear barn doors comes together is a bit of a distraction in the rearview mirror. Buyers in warmer climates might want to avoid the optional sunroof, as the shade is mesh and might not block out enough sun during the hot summer months.
The Clubman offers the most interior space of the Mini Coopers. Almost all the additional wheelbase length was translated into addition legroom for rear-seat passengers, and those in back have more shoulder room, as well. The rear seat of the Clubman is much easier to access from the passenger side through the Clubdoor than it is from the driver's side. Occupants sit down and into the seats, leaving plenty of room for two and creating more legroom than might otherwise be available. Rear occupants will only have a problem if the front seat occupants are really tall.
Cargo space in the Clubman is 9.2 cubic feet with the rear seats up, and 32.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. The Mini Cooper offers 5.7 cubic feet with the rear seats up, 24.0 with the back seats folded. The Clubman is available with a flat luggage floor system, which includes a covered storage bin.
On the passenger's side the rear-hinged Clubdoor allows much easier entry and exit to and from the rear seat. And, in back, the Split Rear Barn Doors, as they are called, are hinged on the outer sides of the rear pillars and thus provide a very wide and open access to the luggage area.
Upholstery and trim is very nice and there is a wide range of options. At one extreme, by ordering 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, it can have the look of an upscale British luxury car.
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 display of the same size, which has a central rectangular display screen surrounded by a digitally generated needle indicating vehicle speed around the perimeter. It has a 6.5-inch screen and comes with real-time traffic. The design works, but it looks out of place.
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.
The rear seat of the hardtop is suitable for adults only for short rides and access to it is 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.
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 much fun to drive, the convertible would be almost useless for anything but two people and a very small amount of luggage.
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 from 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 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.
The Clubman is just as fun to drive as the regular Mini Cooper. The Clubman's extra length may actually help in some ways. The longer wheelbase helps to smooth out some of the bumps and make the Clubman somewhat more stable in turns. We drove a Mini Cooper S and a Clubman S on an autocross and found the cars felt very similar. We think the Mini Cooper was slightly more nimble and more ready to react to quick changes of direction than the Clubman, but compared with other cars it's very nimble in tight quarters.
A variety of tires is available. 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 manufactured in the BMW Hams Hall engine plant in England. Equipped with BMW Valvetronic variable-valve-timing technology, it rates an EPA-estimated 28/37 mpg City/Highway. The base engine makes 118 horsepower. That's enough to accelerate the Clubman from 0 to 60 mph in 10.2 seconds, slow by today's standards, but the Clubman doesn't feel slow, and the power feels quite usable over 3000 rpm.
In Cooper S turbocharged trim with direct fuel injection, the 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 Clubman S is capable of a 7.2 second 0-60 mph sprint. That's just 0.2 seconds slower than the regular Mini Cooper S, which isn't surprising because the Clubman weighs only 177 pounds more.
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. With a MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension, the Cooper S is flat and stable in corners, and absorbs most bumps without discomforting passengers. Oversteer has been tuned out, so the car never feels at risk of spinning out even with radical changes in throttle or brakes in the middle of corners.
Both engines work well with the automatic transmission, and the S model's paddle shifters are easy to use. The automatic doesn't need to be put into a Sport mode to use them, and when the driver quits using them, the transmission reverts to drive, picking the gears itself. The Sport mode switches to a more aggressive shift algorithm that holds gears longer to keep more power on tap.
The manual gearbox offers more driver interaction and lets you wring more out of the Mini's limited power. We would definitely recommend the manual for the low-powered base model. It makes the driving experience more fun. The Sport button quickens throttle response and chooses a quicker steering ratio.
Electromechanically assisted steering, which uses an electric motor, instead of hydraulics, is used 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. This system varies the steering ratio and effort according to speed. 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 optimized for various portions of a corner, 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.
On the road, drivers will find the Clubman a little more comfortable than the base model. Since it was first released in 2002, the Mini Cooper has been known for its somewhat punishing ride quality, especially the higher performance S model. The Clubman's longer wheelbase helps to mitigate that problem, making the S model more palatable for more customers. Still, the Clubman S ride quality is not luxurious and it can be harsh over sharp bumps and potholes, but the ride is not as punishing as it is on the Mini Cooper S.
The four-wheel disc brakes provide quick and stable stops. Both the base and S model 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 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, but it's a matter of choice either way, and the Clubman offers a more spacious alternative to enjoy a Mini. Any way you choose, 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.