For the person behind the steering wheel, however, all was sweetness and light. The supercharged 1.6-liter four-banger provides plenty of mid-range torque and makes a sweet sound that reminded me of the gear whine in an original '60s Mini Cooper. The standard six-speed manual transmission is slick and a joy to use, and the Cooper's handling is worth the entry price alone. The steering is beautifully weighted, and the car has exquisite front-wheel-drive manners, apart from a tendency to spin its wheels furiously if you choose to disable the traction control system. Creative director Richard Eccleston said: "This is the closest anything has come to the thrills of driving my old Mini Cooper (the real one!). The throttle response is instant, and the steering is very direct." Any gripes were directed against the tires, which online editor Mike Dushane and road test coordinator Jason Bradley didn't think were good enough. The Dunlop SP Sport 5000s weren't as grippy as Dushane likes, but they relinquish grip very progressively. We kept the car on its standard sixteen-inch wheel-tire combo in deference to Snow Belt roads, although one or two drivers still felt the car was very stiff-legged.
About three-quarters of the way through its year with us, we sent the car back to Mini Cooper central in New Jersey for fitment of a John Cooper Works kit. To the uninitiated, this is essentially a power upgrade, taking the Cooper's 163 hp up to 197, thanks to a different cylinder head, a new supercharger with Teflon-coated vanes, and a replacement exhaust system that has sexy chromed exhaust tips. It also costs a handsome $4500 plus installation, a price more than 1600 U.S. Cooper S buyers have forked over willingly since the package went on sale last year. (Our local dealer, Motor City Mini of Shelby Township, Michigan, quoted us $1387 to fit a Works kit.)
The Works kit certainly gives the Cooper S more pep, with notably more mid- and top-end urge. Technical editor Don Sherman discovered that the 0-to-60-mph time improved from 6.7 to 6.4 seconds, and he shaved 2.3 seconds off the 0-to-100-mph time. The quarter-mile improved from 15.3 seconds at 93 mph to 14.9 seconds at 97 mph. Third-gear passing from 30 to 70 mph, which is much more important in the real world, went from 8.5 seconds to 7.9 seconds. If you really enjoy stoplight grands prix or spend time at track days or autocrossing, the Works kit makes sense, but our conclusion was that it was a nice but expensive luxury in normal use.
Over the course of its year, the Cooper S stood up pretty well and didn't cost a fortune to run. It averaged 27 mpg, and BMW includes free scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles. We inflicted $3547 worth of body damage when the Mini's front end attempted to cuddle up to a guardrail in the snow. (Several logbook comments criticized the Dunlop tires for a lack of snow grip, by the way.)
At the final service, we pointed out that there was a grinding noise just after the car was shut off, which turned out to be a collapsed crankcase ventilation hose, while a loose wire was rubbing against the fan blades. This was rectified under warranty. However, an irritating rattle from the rear hatch persisted through the last 10,000 miles with us and was never traced. Several readers also have suffered from this mysterious noise. Mini says there's a simple fix for this problem that dealers know about. The front seat fabric never recovered from an overnight soaking, the result of a staffer failing to realize that when you press and hold "unlock" on the key fob, the windows roll down. After 35,000 miles of hard use, the trim pieces were all still in place, but some of the aluminum-colored plastic had become quite badly scratched.
Overall, the Cooper S was a blast, never failed us, and was universally loved. Web intern Stuart Fowle said: "If I had $20,000, a Cooper S would be in my driveway right now. For this price, I can't think of anything that provides such a great all-around package." The Cooper S proves that you don't have to spend lots of money for access to great enthusiast motoring or BMW quality. It also proves that Americans will buy small cars-they just have to be the right ones.