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Updated last year with new features and improved engines, the 2012 MINI Cooper soldiers on essentially unchanged. The pint-sized hatchback and convertible still packs plenty of personality, whether you choose the base Cooper, turbocharged Cooper S, or the aggressive John Cooper Works model. Competing with cars bridging the entry-luxury and hot-hatch segment, the MINI Cooper remains a unique choice.
A somewhat smiling face with large headlights, a short, rounded hood, and a flat-top roof combine to form the elemental MINI proportions--and they stay the same for 2012. Despite its tiny exterior cues, the 2012 MINI Cooper is actually quite roomy inside. That space is welcome, both for passenger comfort and for distance from the busy dash and center stack; the MINI is cute, but its interior is busy, particularly if you opt for the MINI Connected system and its included display and joystick control system.
Despite the busy interior look, it's a comfortable place to be--for front seat passengers--with soft seats and plenty of headroom. Materials are not as nice as you might expect given the MINI's price range, with hard plastics dominating the dash and control surfaces. Optional upgrades can spruce up the look and feel of the Cooper's interior, however.
At the core of the MINI Cooper experience, however, is the driving. From the base 121-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder to the 181-hp turbocharged Cooper S to the 208-hp John Cooper Works, the whole Cooper range is nimble, light, balanced, and entertaining to drive. Steering feel is very good for a front-driver, with minimal torque steer even in the more powerful models. There aren't many cars in the Cooper's class that offer this much fun, and the excitement just grows as you add more power and move up the range. Both the Cooper and Cooper S are available with a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions, while the JCW is only offered with a stick shift.
Both Cooper and Cooper S models offer very good ride quality in addition to handling well, but the John Cooper Works adds a touch of harshness, a trade-off most will find acceptable for the enhanced performance. Rearward visibility is an issue for all Cooper models, however, as the low seating position and high beltline block sightlines.
Despite the sporty focus, the MINI Cooper is also very fuel efficient, with gas mileage of at least 28/36 mpg (the manual transmission adds 1 mpg to both of those figures) in base trim. The Cooper S uses a bit more fuel at 26/34 mpg (again, the manual adds 1 mpg to each) and the JCW a bit more still at 25/33 mpg. Even the least efficient Cooper is still quite thrifty, thanks in large part to the roughly 2,600-pound curb weight shared through the line.
Light weight and compact dimensions don't stop the MINI Cooper from hauling a good bit of cargo, either. The hatch sports 23.3 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded down, and even with the seats up there's as pass-through for longer cargo.
Though the NHTSA hasn't issued full crash-test ratings for the 2012 MINI Cooper, it rates the hatchback's rollover resistance at a solid five stars. The IIHS scores the 2012 model its best rating of "good." In addition to strong crash-test marks, the Cooper also packs six standard airbags, stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, hill-start assist, and safety-enhancing options like Xenon headlamps, run-flat tires, and parking sensors.
Features, options, and configurability are a hallmark of the MINI brand, and the Cooper exemplifies this: a huge array of a la carte and package options are available. Standard features include power accessories, auxiliary input, ambient lighting, and a multifunction keyfob that replaces a traditional key or ignition. Optional upgrades include MINI Connected with Apps capability, a 10-speaker audio system, navigation, Bluetooth, and USB/iPod connections, plus much more. The interior and exterior likewise can be highly personalized to suit the driver's tastes, from custom roof decals to contrasting body/mirror paint and a wide range of vinyl decals. Performance and handling packages are also available to further enhance your MINI Cooper.