2014 Mini Cooper First Drive
More Mature Coupe Will Please Everyone, Including Enthusiasts
The Mini has always provided something unexpected. The original, launched 50 years ago, was a minimalist's version of transportation. Through the years it has remained parked on the edges of automotive normalcy, an outlier of rebellion and quirkiness.
Now, the third generation of the new Cooper arrives and introduces a Mini that even your mother might enjoy.
The 2014 MINI Cooper continues to mellow Mini's bad-boy reputation and suggests that the prodigal son may have finally driven home. Redesigned from the ground up, the MINI Cooper and Mini Cooper S add refinement in all the important areas. The new powertrains purr with more power and efficiency, the exterior accentuates Mini's iconic looks, and the interior improves quality and adds technology but still delivers in true Mini fashion. In other words, the Mini Cooper has completed finishing school. It has matured dramatically since returning to America in 2002 as a brash ball of fun.
But one question remains: Do all of these improvements strip the Mini Cooper of its raw purity? Does a more polished Mini mean drivers won't laugh like children on a roller coaster as they zip through traffic? Does refined mean not fun? OK, that's three questions. Let's take a look.
Size MattersLike most vehicles, the Mini has grown through the years. That usually doesn't matter, as the cars are simply attempting to accommodate our expanding bodies. But no other car has the word "mini" attached to it. The Cooper and Cooper S are also the most important car in the Mini's lineup in America, where it represents 40 percent of Mini's sales and the future underpinnings of other Mini variants.
The bad news for Mini's potential obesity epidemic: The new Mini grew 4.5 inches longer to 151.1 inches, 1.7 inches wider to 68 inches, and .03 inch taller to 55.7 inches. That growth (when it arrived in the U.S. it was just 143.9 inches long) does not make the Mini too big, but does move it closer to outgrowing its own name. Unlike U.S. banks, the MINI Cooper Hardtop can become too big and fail.
However, the additional size is put to good use. The wheelbase grew 1.1 inches to 98.2 inches and the track was widened 1.7 inches in the front and 1.3 inches in the rear. This allows for the interior to grow by more than 8 cubic feet and the luggage compartment by 3 cubic feet. Mini designers showed a lot of restraint, cleaning up the car's looks but remaining true to Mini's heritage. While the exterior panels are new, they look a lot like the previous Mini's, and most of the car's features remain, from the blacked-out B pillars to the white roof. The wheels remain pushed out to the corners
Some of the exterior additions are welcome, such as the optional LED headlamps and taillamps. The headlights include an LED ring daytime running light that looks similar to BMW's, providing a clean, modern look on the road and a very distinctive appearance in your rearview mirror. The bottom third of the ring turns into the turn indicator.
While the exterior may have undergone a modest makeover, the cabin has been transformed into a luxurious penthouse. For years, my biggest complaints about the Mini -- any Mini -- have been based on the quality of materials inside the cabin. They looked nice at first glance, but there was an empty, shiny plastic feel to everything, as if Wal-Mart were the supplier for switches, buttons, and possibly the worst stereo interface in the world.
But Mini owners are a forgiving bunch, choosing kitsch over quality. They seemed to relish the door lock switches on the center stack and the secret location of the window switches. "Here, let me get that for you," they say as the passenger desperately swats the door in an attempt to get the window down.
But now, those switches are in those traditional places -- on the door -- and it makes sense. And their quality is significantly better. The red metal engine-on switch stands out among the other toggle switches on the bottom of the center stack. There are also rubber rings around some of the knobs. Mini's version of BMW's iDrive is near the gear shifter in between the driver and the passenger, though it is located in an awkward spot below the armrest, making it difficult to reach easily.
But Mini did more than move a few switches. It moved the speedometer behind the beefy steering wheel instead of having it mounted on center of the dash in a gauge nearly the size of Big Ben's clock face. It has also added an optional head-up display that shows your speed, though the sheet of plastic is not as nice as head-up displays that project onto the windshield.
The huge clocklike gauge remains in the center stack, but now serves multiple purposes and includes an optional 8.8-inch display screen for the navigation that provides an extremely clear image. The screen also shows functions such as the climate control, navigation maps, and other infotainment information. Surrounding the big gauge are a series of LED lights that look as if they are in a light tube. The tube lights up in numerous ways, initially acting like an rpm gauge. It changes colors when you set the driving mode on the Mini (another new feature), going green for Eco driving and red for Sport mode. It's a cool idea but it's not precisely executed.
But most everything else in this cabin is well-done. The optional sports seats hold you in place without being too aggressive, and the back seat remains extremely tight. Technically, two people can fit back there, but I think they would have to be two small people.
The versatility of the Mini's cabin is one of the things that make it such a special vehicle. The big hatch opens up to provide easy loading and unloading. The folding 60/40 second row gives the driver much more storage space.
The Power of MiniWhile the new interior makes the Mini stand out, its performance matters more. These Minis come with new powertrains I tested along the curvy mountain roads of Puerto Rico for a day. Both engines are significant upgrades and use turbochargers, direct fuel injection, and variable camshaft control on the intake and exhaust side.
The base-model Cooper comes with a turbocharged 1.5L three-cylinder that creates 136 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. That climbs to 169 when in overboost. The engine is mated to a six-speed manual or automatic. Mini did not have any autos available for testing on the three-cylinder engine, but the manual worked flawlessly with short, smooth throws.
In fact, I first thought that my test vehicle had a four-cylinder engine, because of the torquey goodness it offered me. All of the torque kicks in at just 1250 rpm and this was quite noticeable when passing other cars, as sometimes I did not even need to downshift.
The Cooper comes with an EPA rating of 30 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway for the automatic and 41 mpg highway for the manual. One reason for this is likely that the automatic I tested in the Cooper S raced to sixth gear at every opportunity. That might help explain why the automatic on the Cooper S gets an EPA-rated 28 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, while the manual Cooper S gets 23 mpg city and 37 mpg highway. The easiest way to defeat the quick-shifting automatic is to put the car in Sport Mode and use the paddle shifters.
The additional power in the Cooper S is quite noticeable. The new 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine creates 192 horsepower and 206 lb-ft of torque, which can jump to 221 pound feet in overboost. This car gets up and goes, with Mini saying the automatic will go 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds.
Better yet, with both vehicles, the new chassis responds to every input with ease. The steering is tight and allows for aggressive driving, but it is not overly tight. Both cars jump into corners and hold their lines extremely well. The new spring-and-damper set-up allows for the Mini to maintain its body much better, instead of swaying too much. It also allows the Mini to provide the driver with road inputs but not in an overly aggressive manner. The ride is surprisingly quiet, with just the right noises coming into the cabin. That's where you really notice the improvements. The Mini no longer is raw or gritty. It doesn't squeak or rattle or smell of plastic parts and bits. This Mini rides smoother, provides more power and more efficiency, comes loaded with high-tech features, and even provides a little more room.
Our Mini may be all grown up, but deep down, its soul remains Mini.