2014 Mini Cooper Review
You wouldn't suspect it by the forced merriment in which Mini wraps itself -- more so than ever with the latest version -- but the third iteration of Mini-by-BMW has grown up. The more grown-up Mini no longer cuts the same dashing figure it once did, but it's significantly more pleasant to spend time with.
As one journeys further into adulthood, extra pounds and inches are harder to avoid. Friends and acquaintances retain their same physical features, but the proportions are a little off. So it is with the new Mini. Certainly, the design has been ever so carefully evolved to maintain the now-iconic look. All the key elements are present and accounted for: the large round headlights, the hexagonal grille, the upright taillamps, the floating roof. But they have been applied to a body that has morphed into something noticeably different than the first of the new Minis, which debuted back in 2002.
This latest generation sees its overall length grow by 4.5 inches, while width increases by 1.7 inches and wheelbase by 1.1 inches. Nearly half of the extra length is added ahead of the front wheels, as the car's once ultra-trim front overhang has ballooned to that of a more typical front-wheel-drive small car. Similarly, the windshield, originally very upright and close to the driver, is now more raked, and the dash has grown longer. The new Mini still looks like a Mini, but it is creeping inexorably toward the small-car norm.
The battle of the bulge
Mini engineers have had more success fighting weight gain, the true scourge of adulthood. Despite the new car's significantly larger size and increased level of equipment, the third-generation Mini carries at most only 70 more pounds than its predecessor. Base curb weight now ranges from 2605 to 2795 pounds (up from 2535 to 2712 previously). The better news for both the Mini Cooper and Cooper S is that new, BMW-sourced engines provide enough additional grunt to easily obliterate any additional pounds.
More power, better mileage
The Cooper S now uses a BMW 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder making 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, an increase of 8 hp and 30 lb-ft. That shaves 0.2 to 0.3 second off the car's 0-to-60-mph sprint, which is now down to 6.5/6.4 seconds (manual/automatic). At the same time, city/highway fuel economy jumps to 23/37 mpg for the manual and 28/40 mpg for the automatic (preliminary estimates).
When three beats four
The bigger news, though, concerns the base Cooper. In place of the previous naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, the standard Cooper switches to a turbocharged three-cylinder. Essentially the Cooper S engine with one cylinder lopped off, the three-banger displaces 1.5 liters and features the same direct injection twin-scroll turbocharger and BMW's Valvetronic variable valve timing and doubleVANOS camshaft phasing. With one fewer cylinder to feed, it's not surprising that the new Cooper easily tops its predecessor's fuel-economy ratings—by a lot. The outgoing model was rated at 27/35 mpg city/highway (1 less in both cycles for the automatic); the new car is expected to post ratings of 30/41 mpg (with the automatic reaching 42 mpg on the highway).
More impressive, though, is that the base Cooper is now a lot more fun to drive. Again, a glance at the numbers is illuminating. Compared to the old four-cylinder, the new turbo three musters an additional 23 hp and 48 lb-ft of torque, for a total of 134 hp, and 162 lb-ft. Whereas the previous car's 0-to-60 times were a torpid 8.4 seconds for the manual and a positively slothful 9.6 seconds for the automatic, the new Cooper zips to 60 mph in a much more energetic 7.4 seconds, with the automatic a tick faster at 7.3 seconds.
We drove the manual version, which also benefits from a new gearbox with short throws and very positive shift action. After the unpleasant clutch take-up we experienced in our Four Seasons Mini Countryman, we were very pleased by the easy modulation in our test example here. The six-speed's top three ratios are very tall, but this engine is flexible enough to pull decently from very low revs, as peak torque arrives at only 1250 rpm. Even at high revs, however, what's notable about the three-cylinder is that you hardly notice it; or, more accurately, that you hardly hear it. It's refined rather than raucous—that maturity thing again.
One area where we might have wished for a little more refinement is in ride quality. A harsh ride has always been the Mini's dirty little secret, the price you paid for its super-responsive handling (as well as a side effect of its run-flat tires). With an all-new suspension—albeit in the same damper-strut/multilink configuration—there was an opportunity to make some improvement here. That's particularly true now that the Mini offers the option of variable dampers ($500) with three levels of firmness. The switchable dampers are controlled by the standard three-mode driving system: Sport mode ("Maximum go-cart feel"), default Mid mode ("Typical Mini driving fun"), and Green mode ("Low-consumption driving fun"). Besides affecting throttle mapping, automatic transmission shift points, and steering effort, the three modes also can increase the damper firmness by ten percent or relax it by an equal amount. Alternately, sport mode can be configured to call up only the more aggressive chassis calibrations or drivetrain calibrations. Even with the dampers in standard mode, though, impacts are sharp, and the firmer sport setting adds a high-strung busyness on relatively smooth pavement.
Our mostly low-speed drive through Puerto Rico didn't provide the best setting to wring out the new chassis, but at first blush it appears to have preserved the brand's characteristic immediacy. The narrow roads combined with the locals' lackadaisical attitude toward the center line placed a premium on steering precision, and here again the Mini shines. An early adopter of electric power steering, Mini has always been an example of how to do it right. That remains the case with the new car. More so than in the past, however, the new Mini has an overall feel of solidity that's more in keeping with the cars of its parent company.
Shades of the 3-series
The chorus of creaking interior plastic one often found in past Minis was conspicuous by its absence in the two cars we drove. It no longer feels as if the interior's bold, circular styling is trying to keep you from noticing the cheap plastic bits. The cabin materials are much more BMW-like; the brand's rubberized, soft-touch black plastic—familiar to anyone who has spent time in a 3-series—has replaced the hard surfaces on the dash, the door panels, and the center armrest. At the same time, Mini has made several welcome moves toward normalcy in the interior layout. The window, door lock, and power mirror switches can now all be found on the door panel; you select the temperature and fan speed with three round knobs; and the speedometer joins the tach in front of the driver.
Still silly if you want to be
While the brand has given up some of its goofy ergonomics, that doesn't mean Mini's quirky idea of fun has disappeared. If anything, it has been expanded. A new LED light ring around the central instrument glows in different colors in reaction to various inputs. Mini's mission control returns (in which the car bursts in with cheery thoughts like, "Remember, always be Mini!"). There's also dynamic music and other oddities. Mercifully, they all can be called up or shut down via the new iDrive-style controller. The greatly enhanced suite of connected capabilities—integration of Twitter, Facebook, and other apps along with the more traditional music services—is either ridiculous or essential, depending on one's demographic. Other available new technologies include adaptive cruise control with braking assist, a backup camera, automatic parking assist, adaptive LED headlights, and a head-up display.
Sophisticated new equipment, a nicer interior, more rational ergonomics, and a quieter ride are some of the more pleasant effects of a Mini that has grown up. It has done so while maintaining its driving character and—in the base Cooper particularly—increasing its responsiveness. It may not have quite the same wrapped-around-the-driver feel of its smaller predecessors, but the Mini enters adulthood with its personality intact.
2014 Mini Cooper
- On sale: March 2014
- Base price: $20,745
- Engine: 1.5-liter I-3 turbo
- Power: 134 hp @ 4500-6000 rpm
- Torque: 162 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
- Drive: Front-wheel
- Curb weight: 2605/2675 lbs (manual/automatic)
- Cargo volume: 8.7 cu ft
- EPA fuel economy: 30/41 mpg city/highway, 30/42 mpg city/highway (manual, automatic)