There may not be a more iconic car on the road than the Mini Cooper, which returned to the U.S. for the 2002 model year. Its complete redesign for 2014 may not look strikingly different at first glance, but it is a big change for the small car. Namely, the Cooper Hardtop, as the original model is now called, isn't nearly as small as it once was.
Luckily, the 2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop not only retains the fun-to-drive allure of previous generations, but it also outdoes them in terms of roominess, ride comfort, steering feel and acceleration.
Mileage is improved almost across the board, there's more cargo room — and the price has barely changed.
Exterior & Styling
Like Porsche's 911, Mini's classic Cooper gets a styling evolution every generation, not a drastic redesign. That continues in the 2014. There are alterations all around, the most noticeable being on the front end, where the grille has been relocated completely above the bumper and slightly reshaped. The nose overall has more overhang, plus a new lower lip that juts out a bit much for my liking.
Otherwise it's very hard to notice the larger dimensions of this Mini — 4.5 inches longer, 1.7 inches wider and 0.3 inches higher — in pictures. In person it definitely doesn't seem as tiny as it once did, but the average shopper might still consider it small. At 151.1 inches in length (151.9 for the Cooper S) it's firmly between the smaller Fiat 500 and the larger Nissan Juke, which measure 144.4 and 162.4 inches, respectively.
If you're cross-shopping the current Cooper Clubman at the Mini dealership — it's a stretched version of the previous Hardtop — it's 155.9 inches long. The Countryman — Mini's version of an SUV — is 161.7 inches long.
How It Drives
The styling might not be a radical change, but everything under the skin is dramatically different.
For 2014, two new engines power the Cooper. The base model, simply called the Cooper, has a 1.5-liter, turbocharged three-cylinder engine that makes 134 horsepower and 162 pounds-feet of torque. I tested one teamed with the standard six-speed manual transmission and was impressed by the sheer amount of power at hand. Torque is plentiful, but the manual does require drivers to keep to lower gears even for modest acceleration. Once you're pushing hard, though, the Cooper is downright sprightly.
While the Cooper is bigger, it's also lighter, and it's a remarkable equation. The 2014 Cooper feels lighter on its feet but more planted because of its increased track. Maybe it doesn't feel like you're darting in and out of traffic quite as much as the old Cooper did, but that's a small price to pay for the added composure.
Moving up to a Cooper S gets you a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder with 189 hp and an impressive 221 pounds-feet of torque. The version I drove had an optional six-speed automatic transmission. Despite desperately wanting the transmissions of the two test cars I drove to be swapped, I could certainly tell the S is the car for people who prize performance.
Automatic shifts were pretty good, and a manual setting now allows you to use paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel to adjust gears. I thought the system took over too quickly even when set to manual, putting you into a higher gear a hair sooner than I would like, but after some experimenting I was able to get a nice little popping sound out of the exhaust.
Both engines are amazingly refined, without a bit of the quirkiness I've often found in other Minis. Official fuel economy numbers haven't yet been released, but Mini's estimates are nothing short of exceptional, at 30/42/34 mpg city/highway/combined for the automatic Cooper. Going with the manual dings only the highway number, by 1 mpg.
The Cooper S is estimated at 28/40/32 mpg with the automatic. Here, going with the manual hurts considerably, returning 23/37/28 mpg.
There are few non-hybrid cars on the market able to return 40 mpg or higher — and they're generally very sedate, small cars — so if these numbers prove accurate, they'll be truly remarkable.
The handling is what a Cooper is all about, though, and hoo-boy is this Mini a curve-carver if ever there was one. Mini held an early test-drive event in Puerto Rico, where I piloted both versions on narrow mountain roads with twists tighter than a curly fry.
Not only did the front-wheel-drive Mini grip the pavement with gusto, but also there was little torque steer at all. Steering response was phenomenal. With the car set to Sport mode, both models allowed for a fair amount of road feel, but it was a fluid experience that didn't require an unending series of quick inputs, as Subaru's small BRZ coupe does.
In normal mode, steering in the base Cooper was quite good, with little to no play in the wheel at average to high speeds. Strangely enough, the Cooper S had more play than I expected — despite the assurances of Mini representatives on hand that both should have been identical.
One thing to note regarding the handling is wheel size. Both cars I drove had identical 17-inch wheel and tire combinations, but the Cooper comes standard with 15-inch wheels while the base Cooper S has 16-inchers. To move up to 17s in the Cooper you need to opt for the Sport option package or get the tires separately; both options cost more than $1,000.
As a denizen of Chicago and a driver of its pothole-strewn roads, there's one other driving attribute that Minis have always exhibited, to my dismay: an unnecessarily harsh ride. The Mini folks said repeatedly that improving ride comfort was their primary focus with this Mini. Mission accomplished.
The roads of Puerto Rico were remarkably similar to those in Chicago — at least in terms of condition, if not width. Over rough patches, the Cooper felt no firmer than a typical compact sedan, like a Corolla … but with a rigidity to its frame that denoted a luxury car.
A longer wheelbase — 1.1 inches longer — likely helps with this composed ride. Even with the optional sport suspension, the Cooper S' slightly firmer ride was not a chore; it didn't rattle my teeth or send sharp jolts through the driver's seat.
The giant speedometer that used to be in the center of the dashboard has been miniaturized and moved to the traditional location, in a small gauge cluster with the tachometer, above the steering wheel. There's also an optional head-up display that's generally not offered on smaller cars. It uses a small piece of glass that rises out of the dashboard ahead of the driver to display info, not the windshield. Mazda's 3 has a similar setup, with a piece of glass that flips up in front of the windshield.
The improvements inside far outweigh the changes outside.
Luxury automakers like BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz are bringing more affordable models to market with varying degrees of success in keeping their luxury interiors feeling luxurious. The 2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop should serve as a blueprint for affordable luxury interiors. Even in the base Cooper, the dashboard is made of a soft yet substantial material that's straight from the BMW catalog. Hard plastics are few and far between.
There's more interior room thanks to the car's increased width, which is most notable in the front seat, where the driver and front passenger have plenty of breathing space. But even headroom is ridiculously generous for such a small car. At 40.3 inches, the Mini outdoes the Fiat 500 and Nissan Juke as well as VW's Golf. Visibility in the small car is excellent, with decent-sized side mirrors and plenty of glass all around. The added height also helps.
Backseat room, however, is almost completely nonexistent much like the previous generation. Rear passengers have barely any legroom at 30.8 inches. Even the small 500 offers 31.7 inches.
Two cupholders in front of the shifter can accommodate large water bottles, but those bottles will block you from reaching the groovy switches at the bottom of the center control panel. One of them is a very stylish engine start/stop switch. Keyless entry and start are standard on all new Hardtops.
There's a decent-sized glove compartment and even a hidden compartment directly above it, behind what looks like a mere piece of interior trim. When pressed in, it pops out to reveal a cubby big enough to stash a smartphone and wallet or other small items. A center armrest is still optional, but if you get it you'll have room for a pair of sunglasses or an optional cradle for an iPhone.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Besides losing some quirkiness in the driving experience, the Mini has changed a few things inside that make it even less quirky. For starters, window controls and door locks are now located on the doors instead of the center console.
All the Minis that were available for testing were equipped with the optional navigation system — part of a $1,750 Wired Package — and sorry, but I'm going to hit your wallet again: You simply should not buy a new Hardtop without this package. The 8.8-inch widescreen is the sharpest one I've seen, ever.
The rectangular screen is housed in a giant circular surround. It's a shape that's carried over from the speedometer, and you'd think it would clash in this application, but other design elements inside the ring and the buttons below the screen help fill in the circle.
The multimedia system is basically the same as BMW's iDrive, from the music screens to the large control knob next to the parking brake lever. The knob's location is a little unwieldy, forcing users to turn their hand into a claw — especially if they got the optional armrest — then reach downward to grasp it. The display is not a touch-screen.
However, the latest iteration of iDrive is yet another small improvement on the multimedia system and should give owners of this sub-$30,000 car a feeling of luxury gadgetry at their fingertips.
Cargo & Storage
The larger Hardtop means drivers can take more stuff with them, whether they're going on a road trip or a grocery run. The cargo area is now 8.7 cubic feet, up from 5.7 cubic feet, with the rear seats in place. This is the measurement with the adjustable cargo floor/shelf flipped up, out of the way, revealing a deeper cargo well similar to what you'll find in most minivans. This allows for two sizable items, like overhead suitcases or perhaps even golf bags, to stand up in the well. However, most users will likely leave the shelf in place, storing some items underneath it and putting more on top. The shelf can ratchet up to a second position, flush with the backs of the rear seats when they're folded flat, for an expanded cargo floor. That total space is 38.0 cubic feet.
Lifting the floor up is very easy to do, but the ratcheting motion is a little tricky. I didn't get it even after repeated attempts. However, the space is rather remarkable for such a small car. The Fiat 500 comes in at 9.5 and 26.8 cubic feet with the seats up and folded flat, respectively, while Nissan's Juke is rated 10.5 and 35.9 cubic feet. For Mini comparisons, the Clubman is rated 9.2 and 32.8 cubic feet, while the Countryman comes in at 16.5 and 41.3 cubic feet.
The Mini Cooper Hardtop has not been crash-tested at this time, but it does deliver some new safety features versus the outgoing model.
Value in Its Class
Mini has kept the redesigned Cooper Hardtop's price nearly identical to the outgoing model's, with a few new pieces of standard equipment, including the keyless ignition (keyless entry is extra), Bluetooth and a USB port. At $20,745 for the Cooper and $24,395 for the Cooper S — both prices include $795 in destination charges — they seem like a bargain, but shoppers need to pay strict attention to options and how quickly those ratchet up the price.
There are, for example, only two standard paint colors. Want your Mini in a blue hue? That'll be an extra $500. Automatic transmission? It's an additional $1,250. I calculated the price of the Cooper I tested with a manual transmission to be $26,595 with destination. Not exactly dirt cheap, but it also wasn't missing any features I would truly want. Even the panoramic moonroof I was unable to test could have been wrapped in a package for a nearly identical price.
Considering their price didn't keep previous Minis from selling, I don't expect it to now, and many of the option packages are smartly put together.
The Mini might not have much natural competition, but as it grows in size it encroaches on cars like Volkswagen's Golf. And as VW is aiming lower in terms of interior materials, Mini has gone in the other direction.
The terrific mileage, high-grade interior, enticing driving experience and even the practicality that comes with the added cargo room make this new Mini nearly impossible to compare.
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