2012 MINI Cooper

8.6
2012 MINI Cooper

The Basics:

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.

More capacity, more practicality, and just as much sport and style, the 2012 MINI Cooper Clubman strikes a balance between family and fun.

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.

This year's updates bring subtle changes to available interior color options and the entry-level 15-inch wheels on the 2012 MINI Cooper, but otherwise carry forward the previous model's modern-classic styling.

The characteristic MINI proportions, with a short nose, flat roof, and retro-referential design elements are all still to be found on the exterior, while inside, the new color options spruce up the quirky, occasionally funky interior design.

More capacity, more practicality, and just as much sport and style, the 2012 MINI Cooper Clubman strikes a balance between family and fun.

New color choices include cross-check cloth/leather in Polar Beige, plus Satellite Gray Lounge Leather and Carbon Black cloth/leather. The new wheels on the base models features seven holes, replacing the five-star "Spooler" wheel of last year.

Highlights of the carryover styling elements include functional brake ducts on Cooper S models, more styling differentiation between trim lines, and, inside, more black trim and less chrome.

As always, the MINI is continues to be one of the most customizable mainstream vehicles available, with a huge array of color combinations, interior choices, and graphics packages for order, enhanced for 2012 by the introduction of the MINI Yours customization program, which offers a new two-tone leather dash and steering wheel, custom alloy wheels, special mirror caps, and unique upholstery patterns.

As with the aesthetics, the 2012 MINI Cooper's engine and package range largely carries over from last year. That's a good thing, however, with recently up-rated engines, tweaked handling, and a continued focus on fun.

The base Cooper comes with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 121 horsepower. That's good for some minor pep, but fans of speed will want to upgrade to the Cooper S, which packs a turbocharged 1.6-liter four good for 181 horsepower. The extra 60 horses only come at the expense of 2 mpg city/highway (27/35 mpg in the Cooper S) when outfitted with a manual transmission.

The John Cooper Works model takes things up another notch, deliver 208 horsepower from more turbo boost, while livening up the suspension as well. A six-speed automatic with paddle shifters is available on all but the John Cooper Works model.

Each step up the Cooper line brings with it crisper suspension tuning and larger alloy wheels as standard equipment, but all Coopers are light, nimble, and ready companions on twisty roads. The ride quality in the Cooper S is hurt somewhat by its standard run-flat tires, while the John Cooper Works model is a bit rougher still.

Despite the MINI's small size, it makes the most of its interior space for front-seat occupants, allowing even tall drivers plenty of leg and headroom. The back seats are marginally useful at best, however.

Materials in the MINI Cooper range are generally good, and can be upgraded to near-luxury levels, but fit and finish occasionally leave a bit to be desired, with squeaks and rattles becoming prominent even during the first year of ownership. Likewise, wind and road noise are above the norm.

Cargo space is fair in the hatch, at 23.3 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.

Ergonomics are rather interesting in the Cooper, as well, with some common-use items located in out-of-the way places, including seat adjusters on the inboard sides and infotainment controls placed low on the center tunnel, but once you're familiar with these quirks, it's a relatively comfortable, functional environment.

The IIHS scores the 2012 MINI Cooper its top rating of "good" in front-impact crash testing, but only "acceptable" in side impacts. Roof strength likewise receives an "acceptable" score. The NHTSA hasn't fully tested the 2012 Cooper, but gives it a five-star mark for rollover resistance.

Despite the lukewarm scores, the MINI Cooper comes standard with a strong set of safety features, including six airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control, and hill-start assist.

Optional safety upgrades include xenon headlamps, parking sensors, and run-flat tires (which are standard on the Cooper S).

Perhaps because MINI and its customers place such an emphasis on customization to suit personal tastes, the base configuration on the Cooper is rather spartan. Standard equipment includes: power windows, locks and mirrors; an AM/FM/CD audio system with auxiliary input; ambient lighting; and keyfob ignition.

Optional upgrades are nearly limitless in terms of appearance and trim, while equipment upgrades include: a 10-speaker stereo; joystick-controlled navigation/infotainment; USB/iPod interface; and Bluetooth phone connectivity.

With a limited set of standard features and a buffet of optional upgrades and personalization, it's easy to run the price tag of the Cooper up well beyond its starting price, however, so buyers should be aware.

With its sporty nature, it's easy to forget that the MINI Cooper is also a light, compact, four-cylinder hatchback. It's therefore surprisingly efficient, scoring 29/37 mpg city/highway in base form with the manual transmission. The automatic deducts 1 mpg from both scores.

The Cooper S is also good on the gas mileage, at 27/35 mpg with the manual and 26/34 mpg with the automatic. The John Cooper Works, the most powerful model in the range, rates 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway.


Buying Tips:

Going all-out on performance and optional extras can quickly turn a John Cooper Works MINI into a $40,000 car, so be careful when choosing your build.

Other Choices:

  • 2012 Volkswagen Beetle
  • 2012 Mazda MAZDA2
  • 2012 Ford Fiesta
  • 2012 Mazda MX-5 Miata
  • 2012 FIAT 500

Reason Why:

No longer unique in the American marketplace, the MINI now has some competition in the small hatchback segment. The Volkswagen Beetle, all-new for 2012, has its own take on quirky style and offers some interesting performance possibilities with the Beetle Turbo. Fiat's 500 is another contender for unique looks, though its long-distance steering feel puts it in a less-focused performance class. Ford's Fiesta is perhaps the MINI Cooper's closest match, though without the higher-performance options found with the MINI. Mazda's Mazda2 fits in the same category as the Fiesta, though its interior is somewhat less premium than either the Ford or the MINI. Finally, the Mazda MX-5 Miata is a great sporting alternative, with even less weight and more true sports car capability thanks to its balanced rear-drive platform, but it sacrifices space and practicality to get there.

The Bottom Line:

In all of its guises the 2012 MINI Cooper is fun-to-drive, uniquely styled, and with three standard levels of performance, there's an option for everyone.

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