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TheCarConnection.com's editors drove the latest MINI Cooper, Convertible, and Cooper S hatchback to bring you this hands-on road test. In the companion full review, editors studied reviews from reputable Web sites, and have compiled opinions and quotes to help you find the best MINI shopping information possible. TheCarConnection.com also compared the MINI Cooper and Convertible to other vehicles, to give you choices when it comes time to buy.
The 2010 MINI Cooper/Convertible returns for the latest model year unchanged, and to enthusiasts that's perfectly fine. The MINI Cooper lineup brims with personality and a timeless flair, and in any version-hatchback or convertible, base or turbo or John Cooper Works-it's a delightful car to drive. With a base price of $19,500 for the Cooper hatchback, $23,000 for the Cooper S hatchback, $24,950 for the Cooper Convertible, and $27,850 for the Cooper S ragtop, it competes against the likes of the Volkswagen New Beetle and the Mazda Miata, making possible inroads with Ford Mustang shoppers.
For this year, or really since the hatchback was revamped in 2008, the MINI Cooper's styling hasn't changed much. And it doesn't need to-it's a picture-perfect homage to the original MINI, though it's grown considerably larger for the modern era, with its 15-inch wheels outsizing the original 10-inchers, and the higher front end couching all sorts of safety gear. It's a little kitschy-the smiling grille, the wide patches of chrome, the bug-eye headlamps-and utterly endearing. Convertibles lose the roofline that sets the MINI's wedgy stance, but the top design apes it closely, and a wide band of chrome at the shoulder line is a smart touch. Cooper S models get a slightly bulged hood to accommodate their turbochargers-and of course, all MINIs can be personalized with a dizzying array of paint colors, decals, fabrics, door and dash trim pieces, and body add-ons. Inside the MINI Cooper has a dash that's wild with circles, winged shapes, chromed switches, and a 160-mph speedometer sitting dead center, not in front of the driver. It's interesting to look at, but less enjoyable to actually use-at times, clever overkill, and that's before you add your own color and trim scheme to the fray.
MINI's charming driving personality shines through the clutter. The base engine is a 118-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder, which MINI claims will push the Cooper to 60 mph in about 9 seconds, and to a top speed of 126 mph (124 mph in the Convertible). The base engine in the MINI Cooper has highway fuel economy of up to 28/37 mpg, dropping 1 mpg highway with the Convertible. It's fine for puttering around town, with enough urge to merge deftly into highway traffic. The Cooper S models upgrade to a turbocharged 1.6-liter engine with 172 hp, which drops 0-60 mph times to 7 seconds flat and raises the top speed to 139 mph (or 1 mph less with the Convertible). Fuel economy dips to 26/34 mpg. For enthusiasts, the turbo engine's the obvious choice; it's far livelier, with a rorty induction growl, as well as turbo whine and thrust on demand. The dealer-installed John Cooper Works kit raises the turbo's output to 189 hp and torque, at times, to 200 lb-ft; 0-60 mph times fall here to 6.5 seconds. A six-speed manual is standard on the MINI Cooper, while a six-speed automatic is an option; it's offered with a sport-shift option that adds paddle shifters to the Cooper S. The manual is a pleasure to row, much more so than the old gearbox. The gearshift has a longer throw, but its heft and response are much finer-and it just feels better in tune with the MINI's mission.
A front-driver, the MINI Cooper sits on front MacPherson struts and a central-arm rear axle in back. It's an unusual design for a small front-wheel-drive car, but it helps the MINI's ride smooth out a bit while maintaining its tossable handling. Even on the sport-tuned suspension with 17-inch wheels, the ride improves noticeably. The Cooper's electric power steering could use a little less zip and a little more realistic feel, but it's pretty good, as far as these systems go-so long as you don't punch the Cooper S' sport button, which makes the steering feel darty. Fifteen-inch wheels and tires are the standard rolling stock, but 16- and 17-inch wheels are options; the Cooper S has standard run-flat tires, which degrade its ride quality a bit, inducing some impact harshness and nervousness over rough roads.
Two passengers will fit well in the 2010 MINI Cooper and Convertible, while back-seaters have every reason to complain. Even six-footers will find the driver's chair supportive, with plenty of head- and legroom. The tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps a lot, as do the sculpted, high-back seats. The front seatbacks get scooped out, but they can't help much when it comes to backseat room. That remains a place for occasional riders in a good mood-especially in the convertible, which feels even narrower at the shoulders with the top stacked behind. The rear seats fold and lock down to boost cargo space from 6 cubic feet to 23.3 cubic feet, and there's a two-position shelf to divvy up the space. The Convertible has a cargo pass-through and a dual-piece tailgate that opens wide to carry a reasonable amount of luggage. Visibility, though, is an issue even in the ragtop; even without passengers, rear headrests cut into straight-back visibility on the Convertible. Hatchback drivers will see little out of the MINI Cooper's tiny rear window, too.
Six airbags, anti-lock brakes, and stability control are standard on the MINI Cooper lineup, and the Convertible has pop-up roll bars that deploy along with airbags if a rollover is detected. Traction control is an option on the Cooper S models; it has its own off switch for sporty driving decided by your limits, not some computer's. Hill Assist helps owners launch the car safely on inclines. The MINI Cooper gets mostly four-star crash ratings from NHTSA and a five-star rating for rollover resistance; the convertible hasn't been tested. Notable safety options include xenon headlamps, parking sensors, and run-flat tires.
The base MINI Cooper and Convertible don't provide comprehensive standard equipment, but the options and custom-detail offerings from MINI let drivers tailor their cars to an exquisite degree. Each MINI Cooper includes a round keyfob that takes the place of a metal key, and an on-off ignition button; ambient lighting; power windows, locks, and mirrors; an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary jack; and on convertibles, a fabric power-folding roof that opens and closes in 15 seconds at speeds of up to 18 mph. The ragtop also has an Openometer, a gauge that keeps track of how long the car's roof has been down. A premium 10-speaker stereo is optional, as are a difficult-to-use, joystick-controlled navigation system, a USB iPod interface, and Bluetooth connectivity. And of course, MINI offers a huge list of paint, trim, and tuning options-everything from a Union Jack decal for the roof, to painted wheels, to the John Cooper Works package of turbo, suspension, handling, braking, and wheel/tire upgrades.