New & Used MINI Cooper: In Depth
2015 Mini Cooper S - Driven October 2014Enlarge Photo
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Possibly the best-known British volume car in the world, the MINI Cooper comes in several different body styles. The three-door hatchback, by far the best known, is the first to be offered in a new and redesigned generation for the 2014 model year. Other body styles, including a new five-door hatchback to come, will undergo the same transition over the next few years.
Resuscitated in 2002 with styling that emulated the famous 1960s original Mini, the BMW-owned MINI brand has expanded from its three-door hatchback original to encompass a convertible, an unusual small wagon called the Clubman with three side doors, two-seat Coupe and Roadster models, and a larger MINI Countryman compact crossover utility vehicle--the only one available with optional all-wheel drive. Each model has a John Cooper Works (JCW) version, which emphasizes performance.
Various MINI models compete with different small cars, although the Fiat 500 range comes closest to matching the MINI across several models. Reintroduced to the U.S. market 10 years after the MINI, the Italian small car too includes a three-door hatchback, convertible, and a hot-hatch Abarth version of each body style. There's also the Fiat 500L tall wagon, something of a competitor for the Countryman, and soon there will be a Fiat 500X with all-wheel drive to compete more directly as a crossover.
Other competitors come into play when the MINI Cooper is viewed as a style statement, from the Mazda Miata through the Nissan Juke, with the even-more-retro VW Beetle an obvious matchup as well. Given its price range of $20,000 and up, the MINI is less likely to compete against more value-conscious small cars like the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta, but it's not out of the question that they might be compared.
The new 2014 MINI Cooper hardtop model, as the three-door hatchback is known, is larger than either of the two previous generations--especially in the nose, which is visually longer and consequently alters the proportions of the whole car. It's larger in every dimension, though, including passenger volume and cargo space, but it's still both recognizably a MINI and substantially smaller than most other cars on the road.
For more information on the new third-generation MINI, see our 2014 MINI Cooper First Drive report.
Base versions of the MINI Cooper hardtop use a new turbocharged three-cylinder engine that displaces 1.5 liters and puts out 124 horsepower. The higher-performance Cooper S variant sticks with a turbocharged four, this one at 2.0 liters and making 189 horsepower. Either engine can be had with the choice of a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. While the auto is fine, we tend to prefer the manual, as it's better fitting with the MINI's spunky nature.
EPA-rated gas mileage sees a boost in this generation despite the size increase, with the most efficient model, the manual-transmission Cooper, seeing 34 mpg on the highway; the Cooper auto hits 33 mpg, while the Cooper S variants are not far behind, at 29 mpg for the manual and 31 for the automatic.
The handling remains flat and stick-to-the-road sharp, with better power steering and a tighter body structure adding comfort and security--not to mention all the latest modern safety features, whether standard or optional. Either engine is fun to drive, though we felt the three-cylinder's distinctive exhaust note gave the new MINI more personality. Except for sheer straight-line acceleration, where the Cooper S triumphs, either car delivers satisfying driving in a stylish package that remains as cheerful as the very first 1959 Mini.
The original 1959 Mini pioneered the front-wheel-drive “econobox” with a transverse front engine that has since become the standard layout for small cars. Small numbers were sold in the U.S. through 1967, and in Canada into the 1980s. Then, in 2002, the all-new and larger version proved that even U.S. drivers would purchase mini-cars, if they offered style, power, sporty handling, and good perceived value for money.
The first generation of the new MINI Cooper, sold from 2002 to 2006, was the first MINI sold in the States since 1967. Unlike its U.K. home market, which included an ultra-fuel-efficient MINI One model, it was only offered here in sporting Cooper trim and two model variations: The standard MINI Cooper, with a 115-horsepower, 1.6-liter engine, and the MINI Cooper “S”, with a 168-hp supercharged version of the same engine. A convertible was added for 2005. A five-speed manual gearbox was standard, and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) served the function of an automatic.
Completely redesigned for 2007 (the Convertible followed in 2008), the second-generation MINI Cooper closely resembled the earlier model but offered a number of feature and safety refinements. That MINI introduced a new 120-hp, 1.6-liter engine, which in the “S” model received a turbocharger that took its power up to 175 hp. A six-speed manual gearbox was standard, with a six-speed automatic optional. A high-performance John Cooper Works model was also available.
For 2011, the Cooper range was upgraded to 121 horsepower in base models through reduced internal engine friction, while the Cooper S increased to 181 horsepower with additional tuning. The John Cooper Works models from 2011 forward now rate 208 horsepower, and include an upgraded suspension and unique appearance items. Other updates for the 2011 and 2012 model years include freshened exterior appearance elements including a new bumper, a new set of interior and exterior customization options, and, for 2012, a new MINI Yours personalization program. A six-speed manual transmission continues to be the standard, while an automatic is available on the Cooper and Cooper S variants. John Cooper Works models remain manual-only.
The MINI Countryman crossover, launched in late 2010 as a 2011 model, also shares the same basic powertrain options as the rest of the Cooper range. It expands the Cooper range to all-wheel-drive (optional) and larger, more off-roady proportions. For 2012, a new two-seat Coupe model joins the lineup, again sharing the same engines, trims, and basic options as the standard Cooper, and soon, a convertible version of the Coupe, dubbed the Roadster, will reach retail sales as well. The Clubman wagon, launched a few years before, provides a rear seat that’s actually usable, due to its longer wheelbase versus the original coupe and convertible. They're really two-person cars despite the vestigial back seat.
On the 2013 MINI Cooper—and actually, on the entire MINI lineup, the brand made the formerly optional Bluetooth system and USB/iPod connectivity standard. There's also a special John Cooper Works GP edition on the way in spring of 2013.
Base-priced below $19,000 (though options add up quickly), the MINI Cooper has had few direct competitors in the premium mini-car niche, though the Fiat 500 aims right at it, as will the Audi A1—if indeed it is sold in the U.S.