PROS An outright blast to drive, Peppy engine and grippy handling, Great fuel economy
CONS Poundingly harsh ride, haphazard control layout, cramped rear seat
BMW purchased the rights to the British Mini brand in the 1990s and, in 2002, began selling a modern version of the venerable Cooper. Not surprisingly, the Cooper was a worldwide success. It combined fun-to-drive attributes, reliability, and, with a sub-$18,000 base price, affordability.
Though the MINI brand has continued with a single name plate, helping sales over the past few years was the addition of a convertible body style and a stretched version called the Clubman. Regardless of model, the Cooper is a four-passenger vehicle with a four-cylinder engine. The Cooper and Cooper convertible ride a 97.1-inch wheelbase and are 145.6 inches long overall. The Cooper Clubman sits on a stretched 100.3-inch wheelbase and is 155.8-inches long. For comparison, the Chevrolet Aveo has a 97.6-inch wheelbase and is 169.7 inches long.
Cooper is sized like an economy-minded subcompact, but it's really a sporty coupe that competes with vehicles like the Ford Mustang, Mazda MX-5, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Scion tC, and Volkswagen GTI. Cooper and Cooper convertible have two doors and a single-piece rear hatch. The Clubman has a single rear-hinged half-door aft of the passenger-side front door and two rear doors instead of a lift-up hatch. Convertibles have a power-operated fabric top with a heated glass rear window and a "sunroof" mode that opens the top above the front seats while still keeping the top rigid in back.
For 2009, MINI has redesigned the Cooper, giving it more features and a more powerful engine. All Coopers come in base and S trim. The base gets a 1.6-liter four with 118 horsepower. S versions get a turbocharged four with 172 horsepower. This engine replaces a 168-hp supercharged engine. All Coopers offer a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
Standard safety features include antilock four-wheel disc brakes, stability control, tire-pressure monitor, and dual-front and front-side airbags. Coupe models add curtain side airbags and convertibles add a rear roll bar and have side airbags with head protection. Rear park assist is optional and a rear-view monitor is not offered.
Base models start at $18,550 and include air conditioning, tilt-telescope leather-wrapped steering wheel, vinyl upholstery, height-adjustable front bucket seats, center console, split-folding rear seat, power mirrors, power windows, power door locks, keyless entry, AM/FM/CD player, trip computer, outside-temperature indicator, variable-intermittent wipers, cooled glove box, illuminated visor mirrors, rear defogger, rear wiper/washer, theft-deterrent system, 175/65R15 tires, and alloy wheels.
S models start at $21,950 and add to the base sport seats, front fog lights, rear spoiler, and 195/55R16 tires.
2009 MINI Cooper S
Base Price: $26,800
As-Tested Price: $33,700
Built in England.
Leather Punch Package
Cold Weather Package
Park Distance Control
Engine: Turbocharged DOHC 1.6-liter I4
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive Wheels: front-wheel drive
Optional is the John Cooper Works package, which use a 208-horsepower version of the turbocharged engine and a six-speed manual transmission, high-performance brakes, a performance suspension, specific exhaust tuning, and 17-inch wheels.
Options include automatic climate control, cruise control, steering wheel radio controls, power sunroof, HID headlights, keyless starting, iPod adaptor, Bluetooth cell-phone link, limited-slip differential, navigation system, satellite radio, and leather upholstery. Mini also offers numerous interior and exterior trim and appearance pieces.
All MINI Cooper models have a $650 destination charge and are manufactured in Oxford, England.
Get Up and Go Base models remain slightly underpowered, more so with four passengers aboard or when equipped with the automatic transmission. S models make use of a new and more-powerful engine for 2009. Though the MINI-approved 0-60 mph time of 6.7 seconds is no better than before, the engine feels more lively and willing in passing situations and in around-town cut-and-thrust driving.
As in previous years, drivers must work the Cooper engines and keep the RPMs up to net the best acceleration. For many Americans, who are used to torque-laden V6 and V8 engines, that concept might seem somewhat unfamiliar. Thankfully, the six-speed manual transmission is a delight to shift and the clutch is easy to modulate.
The engine's zingy, top-heavy power band is just what you'd expect in a car as small and light as the Cooper S, but what's unexpected are the wonderful sounds it makes. Around town and in gentile highway cruising, the engine sounds like any other small four-cylinder. But goose the go pedal and the engine comes alive with a flurry of sounds that include the bark of the turbocharger and the hiss of the performance-tuned exhaust. The engine's high-revving nature and wonderful aural assault make it a pleasure to push the Cooper to its limits.
EPA estimates for this vehicle are 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. Those numbers fall slightly below a typical subcompact, but are better than any other sporty coupe on the market. In real-world driving, the Cooper S is very thrifty, averaging better than 30 mpg in more than 300 miles of city and highway driving. MINI recommends expensive premium-grade fuel for the Cooper, which somewhat offsets its impressive fuel economy.
On the Road What do you get when you combine a super-short 97-inch wheel base, 16-inch performance tires and a sport-tuned suspension? A very choppy ride. Passengers feel even the smallest bumps. Potholes and expansion joints pound through like a drum-and-bugle corp. On smooth roads, the ride is active, but not overwhelmingly so. On rough or wavy roads, the ride grows downright annoying.
On the flip side, the Cooper S is delightful to drive quickly. The car turns on a dime, has fantastic steering feel, and holds the road with the tenacity of a pure-bred sports car. Also impressive are the Cooper's brakes, which provide extraordinary, fade-free stopping power. In all, the combination of very small size, light weight, and near-perfect balance give the Cooper S the athleticism and resilience of a cat.
Sadly, the firm suspension, performance tires, and upright roofline conspire to create a fairly noisy cabin. However, it's no worse than many other sporty coupes. There's little wind buffing when driving the convertible with the top down.
Behind the Wheel Inside, the Cooper feels decidedly retro. There's a large dish-like gauge for engine speed directly behind the steering wheel and an even-larger speedometer at the top of the center stack in the middle of the dashboard. (If you can't read these gauges, you shouldn't be driving.)
Below the centrally mounted speedometer are controls for the radio and climate system. Most are sparse, small, and not clearly marked. In addition, the design of the audio system faceplate seems out of place in a car with a '60s-era history. The climate system is very low and features hard to operate jog dials. Further below are aviation-inspired toggle switches for the windows, heated seats, driving lights, and stability-control system.
Thankfully materials are top rate and the convertible top is well insulated. Too bad MINI couldn't work in a central arm rest into the design of the center console, though.
Though the Cooper is small on the outside, it's big on the inside--at least for front-seat passengers. A high ceiling and generous seat travel add up to cavernous head and leg room for front-seat occupants. The front bucket seats are very firm, though not to the point of uncomfortable, and extremely supportive.
NHTSA Crash-Test Results, 2009 MINI Cooper
(hatchback, convertible not tested)
|Front Impact, Driver ||4 stars|
|Front Impact, Passenger ||4 stars|
|Side Impact, Driver ||5 stars|
|Side Impact, Rear Passenger ||4 stars|
|Rollover Resistance ||5 stars|
Unlike most sports coupes, Cooper's driving position is upright and natural. Oversized windows give the interior an airy feeling and create excellent outward visibility.
The rear seat is a bench, but the seat cushion is so deeply contoured it feels like two buckets. Padding is sparse, and leg room non-existent if the front seats are moved all the way back. With the front-seats adjusted about halfway forward, there's adequate leg room for smaller adults and kids, and, thanks to the high ceiling, there's plenty of head room.
Behind the rear seat, there are about 20 cubic-feet of storage space. That's enough room for a weekend's worth of stuff for two, but not large enough to store a golf bag width-wise. Convertibles have considerably less storage space. The rear seatback is split 50/50 and folds to increase cargo room. Front doors have generous map pockets, but interior storage is otherwise meager.
Bottom Line Let's get this straight from the start: the MINI Cooper isn't the car for everyone. In fact, it isn't the car most people. But for a select few, it's the car they've been waiting for their entire life--even if they didn't know it.
The buckboard firm ride provides handling that is go-cart quick. The engine's peaky powerband demands constant attention. In short, the Cooper S is one heck of a sports car, even if it doesn't look the part. Its Jekyll and Hyde engine, split-personality ride/handling, and the polarizing interior help cull the herd of potential buyers.
Prices have inched upward over the years, but the Cooper is still very affordable and a great alternative for shoppers who are looking to add a little spice to their commute without breaking the bank. Impressive fuel economy is just the icing on the cake.