The tide has turned on large, mobile real estate-hogging vehicles here in the U.S. and the new trend is small – OK, mini.
And one of my favorite vehicles of the past decade has been the MINI Cooper.
It was love at first sight (and drive) when the millennial Cooper hit U.S. shores in 2000. Built by BMW, this is one of my favorite overall vehicles and they offer one of the most enjoyable driving experiences – of any sized car. MINIs are available in hardtop, convertible, supercharged, Clubman and, coming soon, full four-door Countryman variations. Our most recent time was spent zipping around town in a convertible with the John Cooper Works (JCW) package.
While sharing the name with the funky little car that became an overnight hit thanks to the Beatles, the new Coopers are much larger and more lavishly equipped than the historic model of the ’60s. Smooth, comfortable, quiet and surprisingly roomy inside, the MINI Cooper offers the latest in automotive technology on the road wrapped in a fun environment – complete with the biggest speedometer on the planet.
The body of the latest generation MINI boasts evolutionary development from the iconic 1959 Classic Mini, while the interior styling cues are evocative of the original and contain the latest technological advances found today.
Performance plays a major role in providing driving fun and the four-cylinder engines of the MINI hardtops deliver.
Our tester John Cooper Works MINI convertible is one wicked weekender – good for every day of the week. Take it to work, take it to the mall, take it to the lake, take it to the drive-in (yes, they still have those), take it to the track – you can take this funster just about anywhere. And its size makes parking a snap.
Base MINIs are powered by a naturally-aspirated 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine (118hp and 114 lb. ft. torque). The turbocharged 1.6-liter version in the Cooper S produces 172 horsepower (177 lb. ft. torque), eclipsing the magical “100-hp-per-liter” measure revered by enthusiasts. And then there is the car we drove, the John Cooper Works edition with power boosted to 208 ponies and 192 torque. The engine is fitted transversely under the bonnet (hood, to us Yanks) and powers the front wheels, and despite its high level of dynamic performance and sporting character, even our supercharged MINI returns superior fuel economy of 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. The MINI Cooper and the MINI Cooper S both come standard with a six-speed manual transmission but both models can be ordered with an optional six-speed automatic transmission. The JCW version only comes with the manual.
A low center of gravity, wide track and the wheels moved to the extreme corners of the car guarantee agile and nimble driving behavior (that go-kart feeling). Compared with the MINI Cooper, the MINI Cooper S and JCW have a more aggressive suspension set-up and as an option both models are available with sports suspension and Sport button for an even higher standard of driving pleasure and excitement.
The Electrical Power Assisted Steering helps to make the MINI more nimble and agile on the road, its speed-related assistance ensuring low steering forces when parking and precise control at high speeds (not to mention less drag on the engine). In conjunction with the optional Sport switch, EPS increases steering forces for an even more direct driving experience.
Combined with the horizontal geometry of the interior and, in particular, the dashboard, the displays in their purist, round design characterize the overall design theme of the cockpit. The central element is the MINI-signature center speedometer, even larger than before, with an enhanced range of functions serving far more purposes and requirements than on the former generation. The displays and controls for the entertainment system as well as the display for the optional navigation system are integrated in the speedometer, while the tachometer remains a separate unit positioned, as befits a sporting car, behind the steering wheel in the driver’s line of sight. Convertible models even get a funky “exposurometer” that measures open top time compared to the sun’s intensity.
The vertically arranged rotary knobs for the ventilation, the two cupholders integrated in the bottom section of the center console and the racing-inspired toggle switches are typical of MINI. Indeed, these characteristic metal toggles, operating the fog lamps, the power windows – with express, one-touch up and down introduced in 2008 – and central locking are larger than before and, in the new generation, are joined by duplicates in the roof console for convertible top and sunroof and interior-lighting control.
A round transmitter finished in typical MINI style replaces the conventional door and ignition key, with the driver controlling engine operation via a start/stop button. All instruments and controls are very smooth and easy to operate, positioned at the right point for optimum ergonomics.
The new generation’s revised interior lighting reflects typical MINI style and class, with the addition of ambient lighting which can be varied in five stages from warm orange to sporting blue. Serving as discreet “waterfall illumination” from above and as indirect illumination of the roof lining, door storage bins and door handle recesses, this illumination scheme creates a unique atmosphere inside the latest MINI.
MINI Coopers continue to be offered with a wide range of options and special equipment to meet the demands and personal preferences of virtually any buyer. Wood, leather, various trim-and-color combinations mean adjusting the interior can be tailored for that “right” fit. MINI offers a wide array of body colors, including metallics. The external look is further customizable thanks to additional color and graphic options for the roof on hardtop editions.
Optional on MINI Cooper and Cooper S and standard on JCW is the Chrome Line featuring chrome surrounds on the instruments and a chrome bar on the lower air intake in the front air dam, on the fog lamps and the rear fog warning light on the MINI Cooper, plus, on the MINI Cooper S, chrome bars in the air outlet on the rear air dam and on the rear lid handle. Reflecting the premium standard of the MINI, all models come with a wide range of safety equipment, including six standard airbags to enhance occupant safety. The convertibles feature automatic Active rollover protection bars.
Active safety is enhanced in critical driving situations by the standard ABS braking, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Cornering Brake Control and Dynamic Stability Control. Brake Assist detects emergency operation of the brakes and builds up maximum brake pressure very quickly and Hill Assist, in conjunction with DSC, maintains brake pressure for up to 3 seconds after the brake pedal has been released and before the clutch has been engaged, to prevent the car from rolling back when setting off on an uphill gradient.
Pricing for the John Cooper Works convertible at about 35 grand and as in our test version, goes to just under 40 large with a few personalized add-ons.
Do not let the name MINI fool you – in the case of the Cooper (and specifically this John Cooper Works edition) it means more – more fun, more functionality, more power and more performance. Oliver Twist finally gets his wish.