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 drive 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.