Mini Cooper vs. Volkswagen GTI
The options you'd have to go without: Silver metallic paint, seventeen-inch wheels, leather seat bolsters, USB/iPod adapters
The better car: Volkswagen GTI
Verdict: There's no shame in the Mini, but pick your extras wisely.
On top of getting Americans to buy a relatively expensive compact, Mini has succeeded in selling all sorts of pricey options. Our test car had a healthy $5000 in what we'd consider rather peculiar extras.
You might have been wondering how we could compare the SX4 to a "base" Mini, even though the latter's sticker above that of a "stripper", and the answer is simple: almost none of the options (save for the aforementioned tires) have any affect on the car's comfort or performance. Unless, that is, you consider silver paint a go-fast extra or really, really want your Mini to talk to you. That's right, talk. Our Mini came with a $4500 Camden package, the centerpiece of which is some in-dash hardware that provides a nonstop and very cheeky commentary on your driving. To wit:
"This is engine. I want to make an announcement. I am warmed up and really, really ready for action!" "Fuullll thrrotttlle!"
""Be careful, everyone! It's raining out!"
A few editors found the voices novel and entertaining. Just as many couldn't stand them and shut the system off within moments of climbing into the car. Mostly though, we shrugged with indifference and wondered why anyone would spend $4500 on such a kitschy use of technology.
In contrast to this childishness, the Volkswagen GTI - in this case represented by our two-door four-seasons test car - could hardly be more adult. The base interior is quiet and logically laid out, and comes with upscale features like a touch-screen radio interface. It's also considerably quicker than the Mini, thanks to its much more powerful turbocharged engine. And even though this GTI is wearing upgraded eighteen-inch wheels shod with snow tires - a combination that has wreaked havoc on ride quality - the car was more adept at soaking up Michigan's plentiful frost heaves and mid-corner bumps than the budget BMW. To its credit, the cheaper Mini lands a few punches of its own. In particular, we found the gearbox slightly more precise and the steering more responsive, though the latter could be a result of both cars wearing the "wrong" wheels and tires. But there's no doubt, if you're looking for dynamic excellence for less than $25,000, the GTI is the right choice.