With a price that starts close to the $20,000 mark, the MINI Cooper isn’t trying to compete with other subcompacts that are available for thousands less. Where other small cars compromise interior design, driving dynamics and available features, the Cooper offers a comparatively rich package… for a price.
|Engine: 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine makes 134 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: six-speed manual with rev-matching or six speed automatic.
Fuel Economy: 30 MPG in the city, 41 MPG on the highway and averages 34 MPG combined.
Price: Starts at $21,300 or $26,250 as tested.
MINImal Exterior Changes
Calling it a “small package” may be incorrect considering the new MINI is 4.5 inches longer and almost two inches wider than its predecessor. Even with the size increase it still lines up with competitors like the Ford Fiesta.
Without putting the new MINI next to its predecessor, you will probably have a hard time noticing the cosmetic changes for this year. Aside from added length and width, the headlights and taillights are also redesigned. There are the same exterior appearance customization options, meaning stripes are still available as are black (or white) roofs and mirrors.
Big Changes Inside
For all the stylistic familiarity, MINI’s latest goes through some major mechanical changes. The Cooper features two new engines with BMW twin-power turbo technology. Base Coopers get a 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine that makes 134 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. Then there’s an over-boost function that ratchets torque up to 170 lb-ft for a few seconds.
Cooper S models get a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 189-hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. We spent a week with the base engine to see if the boosted three-cylinder can deliver an driving experience true to past MINIs.
Mated to the test car’s turbo-three was a six-speed manual, although a six-speed automatic is also available. The manual transmission features precise shift action, making it difficult to miss a gate. Furthermore, the manual model automatically blips the throttle on downshifts to help smooth out gear changes.
Fun to Drive
The engine and transmission work well together but also have a secondary focus: improved fuel economy. Rated for 30 MPG in the city, 42 MPG on the highway and 34 MPG combined, the new car represents a two MPG improvement over last year’s car, which used a naturally aspirated 1.6-liter four-cylinder. Unfortunately, the real-world mileage isn’t as good as those numbers suggest if you drive with an enthusiastic right foot.
Of course, when driven sensibly the car is still a blast. It has plenty of torque at early RPM, making it feel fast and capable during everyday driving. The Cooper’s nimble handling and small body also inspires confidence on tight streets and in busy traffic.
Three different drive modes affect the throttle feel and steering effort. Switching between sport, normal and green gives the car an appreciably altered driving feel. An adaptive suspension setup is also available, helping to further separate each of the drive modes from one another.
The overall combination of a stout powertrain, engaging transmission and responsive steering all adds up to a car that feels unlike other cars this size.
Playful on the Inside
Toggle switches and a big glowing ring in the center console underscore the MINI’s playful personality. Where past models used that area for an oversized speedometer, the new glowing dial uses context-sensitive lighting that reacts to what is happening in the car. For example, a red light behaves like a tachometer as the engine speed changes.
Although the dashboard and console are full of fun and whimsy, the seats and materials are all business. The toggle switches don’t feel flimsy, while the knobs and buttons lack the cheap plastic-feel that other controls in subcompacts suffer from. Our models supportive leatherette seats are comfy and didn’t encourage fidgeting during long-haul drives.
Rear seats are barely useable, as most drivers will have to push the seats as far back as possible to have a comfortable driving position. The front passenger won’t complain about the 41.4 inches of leg room and 40.3 inches of head-room. Cargo space is also plentiful at 8.7 cubic-feet of space with the rear seats up. A weeks worth of groceries could fit neatly in the trunk, but the rear seats can fold down to offer more space and peace of mind.
Even models with the base engine are available with just about every feature as the more powerful Cooper S. Add-ons like navigation, a sunroof, a heads-up display and active parking assistance are all available, although they further expose the MINI’s biggest flaw: price.
Starting at $21,300 with destination, the MINI isn’t cheap and the model we had for evaluation had quite a few options that brought the cost up to $26,250. Opt to get a fully loaded MINI Cooper and you’ll be paying about $31,900.
When you think of subcompacts, you might picture something cheap and unrefined. But as the 2014 MINI Cooper shows, that doesn’t need to be true. The new Cooper Hardtop is a premium subcompact that doesn’t pull any punches in delivering an above average driving experience no matter how you take it.