A modern-day reincarnation of an automotive legend, the Mini confirms that good things still do, indeed, come in small packages. Coupe or convertible, Cooper, Cooper S, or John Cooper Works S, this sprightly, space-efficient 2+2 has been grabbing headlines and hearts since being introduced for as 2002, two years after the marque was acquired by BMW. Like its forebear, which sold over five million units during four decades in production, today's Mini sets precedents for style, packaging, and just plain fun.
Expanding, literally and figuratively, on the look of the original, the Mini Cooper maintains the classic two-box form, but with a stronger structure, smoother contours, bolder details, and better aerodynamics. Although it's grown, the Gen-II Mini still spans a mere 143.1 inches nose to tail. Short overhangs and a relatively wide track create a sporty stance that rightly indicates its superb handling skills. All versions come with alloy wheels. Cooper variants have conventional 175/65HR15 tires while S and Works models ride on 195/55VR16 run-flat rubber -- and forfeit their normal temporary spares. A variety of color combinations (roof, body, mirrors) and exterior treatments (fascia, stripes, foglamps, wheels) allow owners to personalize their car from the factory.
The Mini cabin is a visually enticing realm where body-color metal, black plastic, argent trim, and chrome accents do look remarkably cool. Sadly, it's also a land where style often takes the measure of ergonomics. Everything you really need to drive the car is pretty handy, including well-positioned pedals and a leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel on a tilt column. However, the design and location of much of the supporting cast leaves a lot to be desired, starting with the standard black-on-silver instrumentation.
In ancestral homage, the Mini has a large speedometer located in the middle of its dash while the tachometer -- with a tiny LCD velocity display -- lies dead ahead of the thick-rimmed wheel. Despite its scale, numerous warning lights, odo readouts, and fuel and temperature sub-gauges in its lower margin seriously impact the main speedo's readability. Fixing the problem requires the Chrono Package, an option that puts proper versions of both main gauges back where they belong and fills the center ring with lesser items. Switchgear residing below the center stack -- which also houses controls for the Mini's standard AM/FM/CD audio and air conditioning systems -- is equally grim. There, finger-foiling metal loops further obstruct ill-positioned toggles for its power windows, doorlocks, foglamps, and optional stability control system.
On the positive side of the ledger, the Mini's six-way manually adjustable front buckets are a driver's delight. Covered in leatherette, they're firm yet comfortable and superbly supportive. The 50/50 split folding "bucketed" rear bench is less endearing; its ability to carry even smaller adults being largely dependent on the size of the person sitting dead ahead. With both seatbacks down, cargo space more than quadruples, rising from a petite 5.3 cu ft in the coupes we drove to a more usable 23.7. Save for a climate-controlled locking glovebox, interior storage is modest in scale and marginally useful for anything larger than a cell phone or sunglasses. Dual 12V powerpoints do add some function.
Engineered to BMW standards, the Mini's protective powers include a strong unit body, seatbelts with pretensioners/force limiters, dual front/front-side/side-curtain airbags, ABS with Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Cornering Brake Control, plus a tire-pressure monitor. The Cooper S adds traction control, and all versions offer optional stability control. Convertibles have fixed rear rollbars.
Mini motivation comes from three 1.6-liter DOHC I-4s. The base Cooper carries a naturally aspirated version that makes 115 hp and 111 lb-ft of torque, while the more enthusiastic Cooper S has a 168-hp supercharged/intercooled alternative with 46 percent more twist. The top-line John Cooper Works S version -- now available factory-direct, as well as a dealer-installed option -- uses intake/exhaust/electronic upgrades to bump those output figures to a scintillating 207 and 182, respectively. Standard Cooper transmission is a Getrag five-speed manual, while S and Works models come with a six-speed G-spec gearbox. A ZF CVT automatic and Aisin six-speed Steptronic autoshifter also are available for Cooper and S variants, respectively. Traction control is standard on all supercharged Minis, and a limited-slip differential optional. Stability control is offered across the line.
The Mini delivers three flavors of pure fun, in ascending order of magnitude. While the base Cooper makes most of its points from agility rather than accelerative thrust, the Cooper S and Works versions send a supercharged adrenaline rush back into the driver's seat every time you tip the throttle. Where a Cooper convertible with CVT takes just over 10 seconds to hit 60 mph, an S Works Coupe nails that mark in just over six. The automatics are a welcome option for the traffic-challenged, but the added control and precise linkage of the slick-shifting manuals makes them the only real choice for hard liners.
Handing is equally brilliant, even in the well-reinforced but slightly less-rigid convertible model. Razor-sharp reflexes do exact a ride compliance penalty that's even more noticeable in S and Works cars, which have the stiffer Sport Suspension Plus and offer optional 17-inch wheels with 205/45 run-flat tires. That said, superb balance and direct steering ensure that any Mini has the tools to smartly dispatch even the twistiest bit of two-lane tarmac. On the limit, the nose will push under power and the tail will slip a bit on a lift. But responses are progressive and controllable, especially in cars with the stability setup. Fortified with Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Cornering Brake Control, the Mini's ABS discs have a firm, linear feel that commands loads of fade-free stopping power. And the factory-installed Works upgrade adds even more capable sport brakes.
For those who demand ultimate driving fun every time out, the Mini's got "must have" written all over it. People with plusher bottoms and more genteel tastes may decry some of the compromises this diminutive dynamo exacts. But coupe or drop top, baseline or Works wonder, a uniquely exhilarating character elevates the Mini far beyond mere transportation. While you can look at a new Audi A3, Scion xA, VW New Beetle Turbo, or even a Mazda Miata MX-5, in the end, a Mini investment will pay maximum fun-to-drive dividends.
Arguably the most fun-to-drive, affordable car in the world today, true believers will find the Mini's plusses far outstrip the inherent shortcomings.
Adorable style Tenacious handling Spunky attitude
Cargo space Rear seat room Ergonomics (Form-over-function interior design?)
The John Cooper Works Package becomes a factory option as well as a dealer-installed extra. New colors, interior trims, wheel designs, and a cosmetic/functional Checkmate Package also make an appearance.
Primary Mini packages include Premium (multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, Panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control, trip computer, plus harman/kardon stereo--S/Works only), Sport (stability control, special wheels, foglamps, plus sport seats on Cooper Convertible and Xenon headlamps on S/Works), Cold Weather (heated seats/mirrors/headlamp washers), Convenience (auto-dimming mirror, rain-sensing wipers, auto-on headlamps, Homelink), and Checkmate (cosmetics, stability control, wheel upgrade, sport seats, plus Xenon headlamps on the S). Many Package items are available as single options, as is leather upholstery, a navigation system, sport suspension, and park distance control (standard on Convertibles).