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If you're looking for the best possible combination of performance, hatchback practicality and style, in a zippy, city-friendly small-car package, the MINI Cooper lineup pretty much has the market cornered--and that's not at all a bad thing.
Ranging from the pint-sized Cooper hatchback and convertible, to the closely related Clubman and now, the Coupe and Roadster too, MINI's range still packs plenty of personality. That holds true whether you choose the base model, the turbocharged S, or the most aggressive, performance-oriented John Cooper Works (JCW) model.
Few if any cars on the market do modern-classic styling quite like the Mini Cooper, and the entire family of retro-styled small cars it's spawned each have their own special appeal. The big-eyed, somewhat smiling front end, the short nose, the low hood, and the classy wrap-around beltline, with blacked out pillars and a 'floating' roof, are all distinctive design elements that make this modern MINI a standout. Inside, the quirky, occasionally funky design is undeniably racy, and while its retro rocker switches feel somewhat at the expense of practicality (so might the somewhat gimmicky, plate-size speedometer in the middle of the dash), and there's an element of busyness in the details, it's a cohesive look, and the color options introduced last year spruced it up.
MINI Coupe models (and the MINI Roadster) have essentially the same packaging from the front seats ahead, but with their lower roofline (MINI proudly calls the roof a 'helmet') there's less usable headroom; there's no rear seat in these models either--just a small cargo shelf. MINI Clubman models, on the other hand, offer a bit more headroom in back, making a somewhat more spacious four-seater, with a funky center-opening, side-hinged hatch arrangement.
At the core of the MINI Cooper is its driving experience, which is far more satisfying and responsive than most other small cars or sporty hatchbacks. 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--and gas mileage ranges up to 29 mpg city, 37 highway for the base model. Steering feel is very good for a front-driver, with minimal torque steer even in the more powerful models. Simply put, 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. For 2013 the John Cooper Works models can be had with an automatic transmission--meaning the entire lineup is now offered with a six-speed manual or six-speed auto.
Ride quality for the entire lineup is quite good, although road noise tends to be more present than other small-car models, and the JCW models add 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. Otherwise the interior is a comfortable place to be--for front seat passengers--with soft seats and plenty of headroom in Cooper and Clubman models. Materials are not as nice as you might expect given the MINI's price range, with hard plastics dominating the dash and control surfaces.
These models pack 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. But the Cooper and Cooper S earn the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rating of "good" in front-impact crash testing, but only "acceptable" in side impacts; roof strength likewise receives an "acceptable" score.
The 2013 MINI Cooper lineup is presented as a canvas of sorts; base equipment is ample but rather spartan, and it leaves plenty of space for equipment upgrades and personalization. Optional upgrades include MINI Connected with Apps capability, a 10-speaker audio system, and navigation. The Bluetooth and USB/iPod interfaces have been made standard for 2013.
- A hoot to drive
- Uniquely MINI look inside and out
- Excellent gas mileage
- Plenty of room for personalization
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- Tight back seat
- Steering feel could be better
- Some cheap-ish controls and materials
- Pricey with options