Long before there were “hybrid cars” there were basic little internal combustion powered city cars, and for five-and-a-half decades, the UK’s MINI was definitely on that list.
Still posing as minimalist, since 2001 the brand has been a jewel in German automaker BMW’s portfolio of “premium” products, and a more upscale lifestyle statement than from the days of its humbler roots.
Now in its third generation, still UK assembled, the 2014 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2-Door is larger, more fuel-efficient, and we got to drive its most-basic example.
This year the four-passenger car is also faster and still holds steadfastly to the design ethos and sharp handling that’s endeared it to buyers over the years – but now it’s more mature.
(Not) Extreme Austerity Measures
The MINI Cooper Hardtop’s entry level engine this year is part of the growing crop of fuel sippers with three inline cylinders. It’s downsized to 1.5 liters instead of the previous 1.6-liter inline four, but nets more power and mildly better fuel economy.
You can credit also-increasingly common turbocharging – BMW’s “TwinPower” system – and by the way, this same basic engine is used in the $137,000-plus BMW i8 plug-in hybrid.
The difference is the $20,000 Cooper is rated at 134 horsepower and 162 pounds-feet torque – with 169.6 pounds feet on overboost – whereas the i8 is tuned to deliver 95 more horses and 76 more pounds-feet – and then 131 horsepower via electric motor helps as well.
As it is, the MINI’s German-built three-banger is a quality piece with 20-percent fewer moving parts than an inline four, and its compactness stands to improve its crash test results.
Updated: 10/23/14 – Gas mileage on premium fuel is however only 1-mpg better. The six-speed Getrag manual is EPA rated for 29 city, 40 highway, 33 combined. The six-speed automatic nets 28 city, 39 highway, 32 combined. This compares to the former cars’ 32 combined and 31 combined respectively.
But the new car is markedly quicker to 60 mph by around 2.3 seconds, with the automatic version getting there in 7.3 seconds, and the manual is good for 7.4.
How is this accomplished? The new turbo 1.5 is rated 13 horsepower and 44 pounds-feet more. Curb weight meanwhile has only increased by 70 pounds from the base 2013’s 2,535 pounds to now 2,605 pounds (auto: 2,675).
A trim ring switch down by the shifter also makes a nod to economy by permitting three power modes – Green, Sport, and Normal.
Is the MINI still deserving its name? Visually, it’s absolutely still a MINI but it’s bigger than ever.
The vehicle is now 151.1 inches long compared to BMW’s original at 143.9, and the new car is 4.5 inches longer than the second-generation version. It’s also 1.7 inches wider, 0.33 inches taller, and wheelbase is 1.1 inches longer. The car’s front track for its wheels pushed to the edges is wider up front by 1.7 inches, and in back by 1.3.
Still, it’s 8.9-inches shorter than another bright red subcompact non-hybrid we just reviewed, the otherwise dissimilar 2015 Honda Fit.
The MINI arguably has more in common with an 8.5-inches longer turbo Ford Fiesta, but compared to the more-sensible Honda, the Mini’s space utilization is different.
Granted the subcompact Honda is larger, but the MINI is more capacious up front with headroom suitable for a six-plus-footer, and leg room is more than a 34.5-inch inseam could use and still push the clutch all the way.
In back the MINI’s 2-person rear seat room is like an afterthought, though it does have cup holders so shorter people and children might make themselves more comfortable.
Storage capacity of 8.7 cubic feet with rear seats up is OK for several grocery bags, and with split seats down, you have an OK 34.0 cubic feet for those forays to The Sharper Image, and the Apple Store.
A major German auto magazine’s 17,378 responding readers just voted the MINI Cooper “Best-looking car of 2014” in its class out of 94 contenders in 10 categories but we didn’t need to tell you it was neat-looking, did we?
What’s more impressive is not only did BMW not tinker overly much with what made the nouveau MINI a hit from the start, it improved quality of materials, switchgear, and design elements outside and in.
The sheet metal is so similar, if not well familiar with it, you may want to sidle up a former generation MINI for comparison.
Inside, the window switches are now properly placed on the doors and the large round space above the center stack is no longer a massive speedo, it’s a spot for infotainment, assuming it has it.
Our modestly equipped car came with a basic four-line display, but an 8.8-inch screen is available along with numerous options to personalize the car.
Surrounding this is an LED light ring that changes colors like an octopus changes camouflage, and similarly reflects the car’s mood, or more accurately, what you are doing.
But even at base level, material textures on the dash, knee pad, doors, seats and headliner are all unusually nifty, and these complement a circles-everywhere design theme along with contrasting colors and metallic bits.
The car feels more upscale than its price suggests and is comfortable (up front) for long days in the saddle if needed.
As one of the lighter cars out there, the MINI is often praised for adroit road manners, and this reputation is deserved.
Its sharp handling is part of why people want a car like this along with the perceptibly sharp appearance. The new turbo’s extra speed for the front-wheel driver now helps on that score as well. Combined, they add up to fun.
What’s it actually feel like to drive? The exhaust note from half of a six-cylinder has a different firing order and sounds burbly at lower revs, and more growling (read: better) than some fours on the go.
That aural feedback plus chimes and jingle tones is part of the experience as the car starts with a red switch among other protected switches as though it were a fighter jet.
Acceleration is brisk, but for perspective, it’s about as quick as a Camry Hybrid to 60 mph meaning for any rebel persona the former version was credited with, it was kind of a turtle.
Peak torque hits low, and once on the highway the clean but not especially quick-revving engine pulls to the speed limit and would be happy to keep going to triple digits – MINI says max is 130 mph. And, it’s arrow-straight flying down the interstate, feels like it wants to do this all day, meaning you must exercise restraint. This stability pays dividends in the bends as well.
The MINI holds a line with a precision that matches the prim styling. Lateral acceleration is not at the outer limits with stock tires, but it is alright, feels rewarding, and this is why MINI offers the higher-performance four-cylinder Cooper S version.
The manual transmission shifts with satisfying short throws and slots precisely into each gear.
What about the mileage? Highway driving without taking exceptional care yielded 40-42, and combined was in the lower 30s.
The EPA has assigned reasonable numbers, but actual results will depend on your actual driving.
Frankly, the MINI is about intangibles and emotion as much a it makes concessions to fuel economy and practicality. That it nets only mildly more mpg and much more power this year shows where the priorities lie, and for some, this is fine.
In exchange, you get a fun car you can personalize and virtually no two on the road are alike. Its mpg would place it among the dozen best non-hybrids in America, so you can consider the MINI a sugar coated pill to swallow if viewed as an eco car.
Our car stickered at $19,950, and basic interior options, color choices, $795 16-inch loop spoke wheels plus $795 destination brought it to a not-outrageous $22,145.
Options such as MINI’s version of BMW’s iDrive controller, sunroof, Nav, infotainment and more were missing that could easily send this small subcompact closer to $30,000.
Actual competitors would include Ford’s Fiesta or even Fiesta ST. Those are intuitive choices but counter intuitive is the Toyota Prius which in 2011 was the MINI’s most cross-shopped competitor. What do they have in common? Nothing and everything. In common is for certain buyers both imply something about who you are.
Differences include the Prius is an mpg machine, and the MINI is comparatively a high-priced accessory – especially if loaded with options – and not the most practical if all you want to do is save fuel.
But it can be an adrenaline booster and make you feel good, so while Mr. Spock would take pause, others with passion, soul, and sense of aesthetics would dive right in.
It’s also low priced for a BMW product making it a cool compromise to lure those who can appreciate what this car is, and can live with what it isn’t – you know who you are.