The iconic MINI Cooper is not only one of the most recognizable subcompacts on the road, but qualifies as a modern "world car." A vehicle with a strong English heritage, the three-door, flat-top cutie continues its assembly across the pond in the United Kingdom, with a transmission from Japan, sporting many engine parts sourced in France while answering to its German parent.
Luxury motor maker BMW took ownership of MINI in the late 1990s and in 2002 reintroduced the brand to the U.S. The British Motor Co. debuted the original MINI in England back in 1959. Not much mechanically or design wise changes in 2010 from 2009, but two new anniversary edition interior/color scheme packages are available this year, including our tester's Mayfair package.
MINI Cooper car clubs are easy to find in any big City, including Chicago's MINI Motoring Club. Like-minded MINI Cooper owners enjoy hanging with one another and standing out in a crowd.
The 2010 front-wheel-drive lineup consists of the base MINI Cooper, turbocharged MINI Cooper S and heritage-inspired MINI JCW (John Cooper Works). All come with hardtop or convertible offerings and have six-speed manual transmission standard (automatic is optional in base and S editions). MINI Cooper also has en extended-length cousin, the MINI Clubman, introduced in the 2008 model year.
If bargain shopping, the Cooper S doesn't quite qualify for the blue light special. It's one of the more expensive main stream subcompacts with a healthy dose of available factory options, not to mention dealership-inspired add-ons. When tricked out (as was our tester), the bottom line tops $30,000. Starting at $22,300 our Cooper S hardtop included automatic transmission ($1,200), hot chocolate metallic exterior ($500), Mayfair package (larger 17-inch alloy wheels, toffee interior lining, fog lights, Xenon headlights-$4,500), keyless entry ($500), USB-IPod adapter ($500) and $700 destination charge.
MINIs come standard with one of the industry's most comprehensive new-car maintenance programs (a trait inherited from BMW). It's one of the few vehicles starting under $20,000 ($18,800 for a base hardtop) available with a no-cost, three-year/36,000-mile maintenance program covering free oil changes, brake pads, rotor replacement and a host of other wear and tear items. The rust/corrosion warranty is 12 years and unlimited miles. This help MINI Cooper better hold resale value during trade in time.
Our Cooper S tester included the peppy, turbocharged, (recommending synthetic 5W-30 motor oil and premium fuel) four-cylinder, 1.6-liter, 172 horsepower engine introduced in 2009. It breaks the 30-mile-per-gallon mark even with optional automatic transmission, averaging 24 mpg city and 32 highway; a pleasant plus. Base MINIs include the naturally aspirated version of the same 16-valve engine with 118 horses, reaching 37 mpg highway with manual transmission.
Who says new cars conform to cookie-cutter designs? The MINI Cooper may get eclipsed by larger SUVs in the Woodfield Mall lot, but the silhouette is unmistakable. Striking are large round headlight housings, contrasting artfully with the rectangular design. With a length of 145.6 inches, it's more than 12 shorter than Volkswagen's half-moon shaped new Beetle. Hardtop roofs are available in colors different than the body if desired (white is the popular choice) adding to the uniqueness.
Lift open the bonnet (easily accomplished with the help of struts, no manual lift rod necessary) and circular cut outs artfully craft into the hood region that neatly fit over the headlight housing when shut. A small, working hood scoop grabs extra air needed for the turbo engine in S and John Cooper Works models. The hood area stretching behind the headlight housing arches higher than the center section. Plastic guarding along the bottom and around circular wheel wheels protect the MINI from road dings. Dual exhaust tips align side by side along the center bottom.
Strap-like door handles team up with an exposed silver-colored fuel door. This attractive cap swings out during fueling, and locks tight when locking power doors. A standard spoiler atop the hatch breaks the rectangular theme just right. Front fender amber bulb blinkers help alert those on the road of turning intentions. Small tri-angular tail light housing flanks the hatch lid with standard wiper. A thin narrow chrome stripe is above the license plate and is home to an electronic touch sensor unlatching the door.
Yes, the owner's manual states MINI Cooper is a four seater, but while headroom is plentiful in front and back, the same can't be said for very tight rear leg room in row two. Manually-adjusting front bucket sport seats include clam-shell- like, rounded seat bottoms with small side bolsters with white stitching and trim; a comfortable fit even during a two-and-a-half hour journey to Road America in Elkhart Lake Wisconsin. Both front bucket seats sport top latches allowing the seat backs to fold forward when pulled.
The interior takes the retro look as seriously as the exterior. The inside's most prominent feature is the large, circular mostly analog speedometer high atop the center dash, away from the traditional instrument panel location. Along the circle's bottom is a narrow, digital display of radio presets. Below are push buttons and volume control. Both fan speed and temperature have partially exposed, rotary dial controls reminiscent of those on hand-held AM/FM transistor radios. Adjacent, a large nose-type dial and push panels (air conditioning, etc), in the shape of the MINI winged logo, help monitor ventilation. Power windows activate from long finger switches interspersed between chrome-type coil partitions. Along the bottom of the center column is a storage nook with plug-in ports for the latest electronic gizmos. The hand-operated parking brake and two side-by-side cup holders are ahead of the floor-mounted transmission. Our automatic included a manual shift option without a clutch using the shifter as well as steering wheel paddle shifters.
Four circular air vents create a fore-gone look along the straight dash. A tachometer gauge attached to the steering column's top side moves up and down when manually adjusting the tilt steering wheel (which includes standard cruise control functions at 9 o'clock and redundant radio controls at 3 o'clock). A push-button start button resides next to the steering column. Interior door handles are half-moon chrome style.
With the second row prone, enough room behind is available to stow a line of grocery bags. Second-row back rests fold down 50/50 onto the cushions, allowing for the most practical use of this region. Static Rear side window don't power down, yet another reason this plays best as a two-seater.
Ride and suspension are stiffer and firmer in the MINI Cooper S when compared to base offerings. With a short 97-inch wheel base, a limousine-smooth floaty ride is not in the cards. Bumps will be felt, but happily tolerated by those appreciating a lightweight build (2,740 pounds), quick-turning ability and road-hugging characteristics. As is the tendency with many coupe styles , side and rear-view perceptions are compromised. MINI's hatch and side windows are narrower than most.
Standard safety features in Cooper S include six air bags (including side curtain), anti-lock brakes, corner brake control, electronic brake force distribution and stability control.