When the Mini Cooper came to the U.S. a few years ago, it caused as much commotion and excitement as Volkswagen’s Beetle did with its return. The British-born Cooper has been revered since its rally car racing days back in the 1960s. Now built by BMW, the hip and stylish Mini was relaunched worldwide in 2001 with modern underpinnings, and has since amassed a significant, though somewhat cultish following. In 2007, BMW introduced the second generation of the Cooper. And though there were key improvements made, the automaker proved its guile and smarts by barely changing the car’s exterior aesthetics.
For the 2011 model year, fresh exterior styling touches include new front and rear bumpers, larger foglights and new taillights. There are minor cosmetic changes to the interior while underhood, the 1.6-liter four cylinder gets a slight boost in both output and fuel economy. The city mileage was bumped up from 28 to 29 mpg.
If you’re thinking about buying a Mini Cooper, you might also consider a Smart ForTwo or Nissan Versa. Compare these vehicles.
The Mini has several model offerings. The hatchback is available in a base and an ‘S’ model plus, a John Cooper Works edition. All three are available as convertibles. Additionally, in 2008 Mini stretched the hatchback nine inches and called it the Clubman, with ‘S’ and John Cooper Works models offered.
Though the Mini Cooper is known for its looks, its place in automotive history, and its now German engineering, it is still ultimately defined by another one of its important characteristics: its teacup-sized dimensions. The Cooper aptly lives up to its Mini name, and is definitively a sub-compact automobile. But this small car came into existence for entirely different reasons than the rest of the sub-compact class. (Unlike the original, it’s not here because rising fuel prices dictated the need for smaller, more efficient cars.) Regardless, it still enjoys many of the same fuel-friendly benefits found with the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris, among others.
The EPA numbers speak for themselves. The Cooper, with a six-speed manual transmission, achieves 29 city/37 highway, while the more athletic Cooper S rates at a still impressive 27 city/35 highway. Opt for the six-speed automatic and the standard hatchback serves up 28 city/36 highway, the S delivers 26/34. The John Cooper Works—manual transmission only—is the least fuel efficient with an EPA rating of 28 city/36 highway. But it’s important to know that many Cooper owners will admit that their car’s fuel economy in real world driving leans more heavily in favor of the City Rating, and premium-grade fuel is recommended.
The Mini Cooper is not a hybrid (although there are rumors of a hybrid version in the works). Nonetheless, the 2011 model ranked No. 10 in the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s list of greenest cars. Only three hybrids, a CNG car, an electric car, and four small gas-powered cars received higher rankings in ACEEE’s rigorous evaluation of environmental impacts.
The Mini Cooper’s quirky styling and British charm are attention grabbers. It is neither a retro nor a heritage design. It’s the new Mini, that’s all. After all, the original was in production for 41 years, and this is just the latest version. The result is a car that barely resembles the Mini Cooper of the 1960s, but it is true to the spirit and look of the original while being fully modern in its execution. In short, it’s the cutest shoebox with four wheels on the planet.
The diminutive size was born out of necessity in the late 1950s when a fuel crisis in Europe created a demand for a small, economical, yet practical car. The brainchild of British car designer Sir Alec Issigonis, the Morris Mini-Minor went on sale in 1959 and established a design blueprint that stands to this day; engine mounted sideways in the front, driving the front wheels that are pushed to the corners.
The front-drive layout provided maximum interior room in a tiny package. With no driveshaft from the engine to the rear wheels, the cabin floor could be flat. Pushing the wheels to the extreme corners made the most of the small dimensions.
From the standpoint of structure and engineering, the Mini Cooper is 100 percent BMW. This little car is built for quality. Just the muted sound produced by shutting the vehicle’s door (usually heard in higher-priced autos) indicates the Cooper’s tight construction and top-notch craftsmanship.
The cabin is nicely detailed with touches reminiscent of the first Minis. A big round speedometer sets squarely in the middle of the dashboard flanked by other gauges, and a large tachometer is mounted on the steering column, easily seen by the driver. That’s a carry over from the original Mini, suggestive of rally cars where the navigator needs to see most of the instruments from the passenger seat, while the driver monitors the tach so not to blow the engine while going fast. The dash layout declares that engine speed is paramount, road speed is subordinate.
Surprisingly, space is generous for the driver and front seat passenger, thanks in large measure to an abundance of headroom and a wide stance. Standard equipped seats are reasonably comfortable, but optional sport seats provide excellent lateral support for spirited driving.
As for rear seating, it’s possible to shoehorn two adults into this space, but not without cooperation from those up front. Room behind the rear seats is fairly sparse; the 5.4 cubic feet can accommodate four grocery bags. Fold the seats down and there are about 24 cubic feet, more than enough room for luggage for two for a weeklong vacation.
Under The Hood
When the second generation Mini arrived in 2007, a major change was a new 1.6-liter in-line four-cylinder engine with output of 118 horsepower and 114 pounds-feet of torque in the base hatchback, and 172 horsepower with 177 lbs.-ft. in the turbocharged S. For 2011, all models—hatchback, convertible and Clubman—it’s the same engine with a slight boost in horsepower, 121 hp and 181 respectively. Torque remains the same. A six-speed manual transmission is standard; a six-speed automatic is optional.
For those addicted to a-need-for-speed, John Cooper Works models are powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder that makes 208 hp at 6,000 rpm and 192 lbs.-ft. of torque from 1,850 to 6,600 rpm. Mini says the engine can briefly raise boost-pressure when accelerating to achieve 207 pounds-feet of torque from 2,000 to 5,100 rpm. A six-speed manual shifter is the only transmission offered.
On The Road
With its quirky, one-of-a-kind looks, nobody should take the Mini too seriously. However, anything it lacks in raw power it makes up in raw fun. Downshift from third to second when entering a tight curve and you’ll be yelling “Whoopee” until the exit. Even with the standard 15-inch tire and wheel package, the grip is tenacious, the cornering limits are high and the body stays almost flat.
Steering is on the heavy side, but delightfully quick. The steering wheel makes just 2.4 turns from extreme right to extreme left, which adds to the car’s athletic handling and feel.
Like all BMWs, the throttle pedal is hinged at the bottom, making first attempts at heel-and-toe downshifts or full-throttle applications slightly cumbersome. But the clutch action is smooth and the shift lever is light and direct, which makes running through the gears a simple task.
Engaging a clutch and shifting gears not your style? The six-speed automatic with manual shifting capability is pretty slick.
Panic braking is accomplished without panicking driver or passengers. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, coupled with BMW’s Cornering Brake Control and Electronic Braking Distribution, halt the 2,500-pound Mini quickly with only the slightest amount of front nosedive.
You can’t have superb handling without a stiff body and a sport-tuned suspension setup. But with that comes a ride that’s bumpy and rough, sometimes harsh. Ironic that what people like about the Mini are characteristics they dislike in other cars.
If you think the 121 horsepower from the standard 1.6-liter engine just isn’t enough, an additional $3,600 will get you the Cooper S model with the turbocharged output of 181 ponies. Or, you can go all out for the John Cooper Works edition for an additional $6,100. Yes, the need-for-speed is expensive, and you’ll probably not see the EPA estimated 25 city/33 highway fuel mileage.
With the regular Mini’s 29 mpg around town and 37 mpg on the highway, scampering over hill and dale is one of the few remaining sources of politically correct automotive fun.
From a fuel-efficiency standpoint, the sub-compact Mini Cooper is absolutely an economically sound choice. It is very much on par with all of the “econo” sub-compact cars (Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Chevy Cruze, etc.), and even superior to some of them.
But price-wise there is a significant premium—to the tune of anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 more in cost. The bottom line for the base Cooper is $19,400, while the Cooper S starts at $23,000. But the Mini is, after all, a higher-end vehicle than all the other sub-compacts. There really is no direct competition for this vehicle, and probably won’t be until Audi brings its small A1 to the U.S.
The first Mini was the inspiration behind the naming of the famed mini skirt by Sixties fashion designer Mary Quant. BMW has done a marvelous job of capturing the essence of the original car. The current Mini is more about fashion and fun than anything else. Especially fun.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.