- Joyous to drive
- MINI authenticity, inside and out
- Built-in sunroof in convertible model
- Very small rear seats
- Over-assisted, numb steering
- Odd, often cheap-feeling controls
The 2011 MINI Cooper/Convertible runs the gamut from smart econobox to thrusty sports convertible--all with unmatched driving feel and expertly interpreted styling heritage.
Unchanged for the last three years, the 2011 MINI Cooper and Convertible get a range of updates for 2011, improving the formula without changing it. Full of personality and flair, the MINI Cooper is a fun car no matter whether you choose the hatch or convertible, base, turbo, or John Cooper Works. Starting at $20,100 for the base hardtop, $23,700 for the Cooper S, $25,550 for the base Convertible or $28,550 for the soft-top Cooper S, the car competes with Volkswagen's Golf and GTI, Mazda's Miata, Mazda3, and Mazdaspeed3, and can even find fans with those looking for a Ford Mustang.
For 2011, the styling gets minor changes, but doesn't stray far from the previous model's gold standard. Small exterior tweaks, new colors, trims and wheels, and a revised interior round out the visual changes. On the outside, updates for the standard Cooper include a larger lower grille, a revised front bumper, a taller hood, a new side marker look and larger fog lights, plus redesigned tail lights and an optional rear fog light. Cooper S models add functional brake ducts and a unique front bumper cover to the mix. The rest of the car--from the cute, retro look to the compact-yet-larger-than-the-original size--remains the same as last year's models. Both convertible and hatchback versions are availab2le, and though it loses the roofline, it retains the friendly face, wedge-like shape, and familiar looks of the hardtop. Interior updates throughout the Cooper lineup include redesigned two-dial audio controls, less chrome in favor of more black, and a range of new material and color options. The familiar MINI style remains, though for those that find it hard to use, that's as much a curse as a blessing.
Despite the busy interior and myriad options, the MINI's fun-to-drive personality shines through. Base Coopers get a 1.6-liter four-cylinder rated at 121 horsepower, a small rise over last year thanks to reduced internal friction. Cooper S models add a turbo to the standard 1.6-liter mill, gaining nine horsepower in 2011 for 181 hp total thanks to re-tuned variable valve timing controls. The John Cooper Works model stays put at 208 horsepower, using a higher-boost version of the Cooper S engine. Fuel economy for the base Cooper is solid for a sporty hatch at up to 29/37 mpg, with the Convertible trailing by 2 mpg city and 1 mpg highway. Upgrade to the Cooper S and the turbocharged 181 horsepower engine still manages 27/36 mpg with the manual and 26/34 mpg with the automatic. Given the small fuel economy penalty, enthusiasts will choose the Cooper S for its livelier drive and exhaust note. A responsive and slick six-speed manual transmission is standard, and a six-speed automatic is optional, and offers paddle shifters on the Cooper S.
Front-wheel driven, and sitting on MacPherson struts up front and a central-arm rear axle, the MINI Cooper's suspension design is unusual for a small hatch, but the arrangement takes out some of the harshness while preserving sharp handling. Even with low-profile tires on 17-inch wheels and sport suspension, the ride isn't bad. We find the Cooper's electric power steering to be less realistic and feedback-laden than we'd like, but it's still pretty good. Upgrades to the system for 2011 help reduce torque steer, as well. With the standard 15-inch wheels and tires, ride quality is fair, while the 16- and 17-inch options offer progressively stiffer feel. The Cooper S equips run-flats as standard, which compound the harshness over rough pavement.
Passenger space is fine for the front seats, with even six-footers finding plenty of room and support. The back seats, as with any true compact, are a different story: almost no leg room and poor access make them almost unusable for full-size adults. The convertible worsens the situation, stacking the top behind the rear passengers' shoulders. In the hatch, cargo space is fair at 23.3 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down, and there's a pass-through for larger objects with the seats up. Visibility can be a problem, however, as the beltline and rear passenger headrests are high and seating position low. Even in the Convertible, it's an issue. In the hatch, the small rear window adds to the problem.
With six airbags, anti-lock brakes, and stability control standard across the lineup, the Cooper is a safe small car. Though the NHTSA and IIHS haven't yet tested the 2011 MINI Cooper, the 2010 results from the NHTSA scored five-star rollover ratings. The Convertible hasn't been tested, but offers standard pop-up roll bars and automatic airbag deployment in the event of a rollover. Hill-start assist helps get things going on steep stretches, minimizing the chance of rolling into the car behind. Available safety options include Xenon headlamps, parking sensors, and run-flat tires (standard on the Cooper S).
Although there are a myriad of options available for any MINI Cooper trim, the base models of both the hatch and the Convertible aren't comprehensive in their feature sheets. If you're like most MINI owners, that's not a problem: you want to customize it anyway. The keyfob for the Cooper replaces a traditional key or ignition button. Standard features include power windows, locks, and mirrors; an AM/FM/CD player with auxiliary input jack; ambient lighting; and Convertibles feature a power-folding cloth top that takes just 15 seconds from open to close, and operates at speeds up to 18 mph. Optional equipment includes a 10-speaker stereo, joystick-controlled navigation system, USB/iPod interface, and Bluetooth connectivity. Once you've specified the equipment, it's open season on appearance tweaks with a huge range of paint, trim, decal, roof, and mirror options, plus a selection of performance and handling upgrades as well.