2005 MINI Cooper Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Mini goes topless.
BMW got the resurrection of the Mini right. Being a third larger than the original, this thoroughly modern Mini could hardly be a slavish copy of that Issigonis-designed vehicle in which everyone from rock stars to the Royal Family (all behind darkened windows) darted about London in the swinging '60s of the century past. Nonetheless, designer Frank Stephenson caught the sassy, can-do attitude of the first Mini and made the new one a striking statement in style when it was introduced in 2002 as well as an e-ticket carnival ride. Not to mention a serious vehicle that can tote more than seems likely, can dry out wet pavement with its excellent handling and can stimulate more smiles than a precocious three-year-old at a grown-up party.
And that's just the Mini Cooper. The Mini Cooper S is even more fun with its higher levels of performance, though you're hardly 'settling' with the base model.
In both models the Mini Cooper delivers sports car handling and acceleration. It offers the cargo convenience of a hatchback and decent passenger seating for four, all stuffed into the shortest footprint on the road. It's a high-quality piece with BMW engineering, as solid as any German sedan. Its retro styling is as endearing as a bulldog (which inspired the design).
Furthermore, with its multitude of passive and active safety systems, the Mini Cooper has been called the safest small car on the world's highways. All this starts for less than $17,000.
That's if you can find one. The reception of the new Mini has exceeded expectations. The number of BMW dealers who sell the Mini is being expanded, however, though slowly and meticulously to assure, BMW says, that its standards continue to be met. For the same reason, changes since 2002 have been incremental, refinements and added options more than anything.
For 2005, however, Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S are available as convertibles. All models get a few interior enhancements for 2005, including new interior lighting, storage space and new trim options. Revised headlamps and tail lamps and a new grille subtly freshen the looks of the 2005 Mini. The Cooper and Cooper S get new manual gearboxes with revised gearing for improved acceleration, and the S gets a slight bump in power to 168 horsepower.
The 2005 Mini Cooper comes in two model designations: the 115-horsepower Mini Cooper and 168-horsepower Mini Cooper S. Either is available as a convertible. The hardtop Minis are four-seat, three-door hatchbacks, with front wheels driven by a transversely mounted 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. All models come standard with a manual gearbox.
The Mini Cooper ($16,449) comes with a high level of equipment, including air conditioning, CD stereo with six speakers, power windows with auto-down, power locks, remote keyless entry, and a rear wiper all standard. A five-speed gearbox and 15-inch alloy wheels are standard. A Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT ($1,300), is available for drivers who must have an automatic. The Sport Package ($1350) includes Dynamic Stability Control, a rear spoiler, fog lamps, sports seats, and 16-inch alloy wheels with run-flat performance tires.
The Mini Cooper S ($19,899) adds a supercharged version of the four-cylinder engine, a six-speed manual gearbox, stiffer front and rear anti-roll bars for flatter handling and 16-inch wheels. The Cooper S has exterior trim that distinguishes it from the base model. Inside, the S adds sport seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. No automatic is available.
The Mini Cooper Convertible ($20,950) and Cooper S Convertible ($24,400) are equipped similarly.
Like a favorite action-figure toy that needs more costumes and paraphernalia, the Minis have a long list of factory options and color combinations. The 2005 convertibles are available in a new Hot Orange (like spiced pumpkin pie) and Cool Blue. You can choose a roof that's either body-colored, black, or white, and you can add a roof decal, a checkered flag, a Union Jack, a Star Spangled Banner. You can finish your Mini with white or silver wheels. Mini customers can build their car online (at miniusa.com) with colors, options, and accessories.
Stand-alone options include automatic air conditioning ($300), a Harman Kardon stereo with eight speakers ($550), leather seats ($1300), xenon headlamps ($550), a navigation system ($1700), and Dynamic Stability Control ($500). Other options are grouped into packages: The Premium Package ($1350) includes sunroof, automatic air conditioning, on-board computer and cruise control. The Cold Weather Package ($570) includes heated seats, mirrors and windshield-washer jets, along with rain-sensing wipers and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
There's also a dealer installed works kit that significantly improves performance and increases the price as much as $10,000 depending on specifics.
All Minis come with a luxury-class list of safety features, including anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, front and front side-impact airbags, curtain-style head-protection airbags for all passengers, a crash sensor that automatically unlocks the doors, seatbelt pretensioners and side-impact door beams. The Cooper S adds traction control. Both cars offer DSC electronic stability control ($500) as an option and New Car Test Drive recommends getting it.
All 2005 models get a facelift, incorporating new headlights and taillights and a new three-slat radiator grill, In addition, the front and rear bumper fascias on the Cooper models are revised with a cleaner look.
The bulldog stance of the Mini Cooper is distinctive and appealing. The Mini is low, wide, and short, with short overhangs. The wheels are set as far out to the four corners as possible, enhancing stability in turns and on bumpy straights. The wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) measures 97.1 inches, longer than some small cars, yet the Mini is shorter overall than any other car sold in the U.S., at 142.8 inches (less than 12 feet). The current Mini Cooper shares some of its basic design tenets with the original, but with one-third greater width, length and height.
The hood is wide, but short in depth, the product of unique design and manufacturing techniques. That, along with the big round doe-eyed headlights (which go up with the hood), are largely responsible for the common 'Oh-h-h, isn't it CUTE!' reaction. Mini designers also threw in what they consider to be some voluptuous feminine curves and some masculine muscular bulges to cover all the visceral reactions. Thus the Mini is neither Guy Wheels nor a Chick Car. It is an engaging automotive device with an appeal that stretches across gender, age and economic status. Its horizontal roof, giving it that toaster shape, is functional: It provides adult headroom to anyone riding in either the back or front seats, something that arch-shaped body designs (such as the Beetle) do not do.
The rear is trimmed with an elegant fascia, while the front fascia has body-colored bumpers. The Mini Cooper has one exhaust tip exiting below the sleek rear bumper on the right side. BMW now owns and build the Mini, and BMW's attention to detail is everywhere. A small reflector on door jam alerts other drivers when you open the door at the side of a busy street. Big oval mirrors afford a good view behind, where all those slower cars are located.
Those mirrors must be used diligently in the convertible because blind spots can be serious, particularly with the top up. The many advantages in having a heated solid glass back window in a convertible is complicated by the need to fit that in to the folding requirements of the top. What suffers is the outward view to the rear quarters. Use your mirrors.
The Cooper S is distinguished by its hood scoop, sport bumpers, lower intake grille, aggressive side sills, wider wheel arches, and twin exhaust tips that exit from the middle. A rear spoiler trails off the roof, chrome brightens the fuel-filler flap, and an S logo shaped like a curvy road spices up the rear badge. Numerous other styling cues, including big eight-spoke wheels reminiscent of the classic Minilights, ensure that everyone who's anyone knows you sprung for the hot version.
The Mini Cooper gets a few interior enhancements for 2005, including new map lights and cascade lighting located on the center of the top windshield frame and illuminated door handles, all designed to improve night-time interior visibility. The interior door armrests have been contoured to allow you to put more in the door pockets. Also, the rear cup holder has been enlarged, a tray has been added under the center column, partially enclosing the area and another tray has been added under the brake handle.
The Mini is roomy, luxurious, and convenient. Even tall drivers find it comfortable. The standard seats are firm and supportive. The sport seats are longer in seat bottom with higher bolsters. If you prefer seats that you sit in rather than on, opt for the sport seats. Leatherette is standard and it is superb, if vinyl can be superb. Cloth is available at no extra cost. Leather ($1300) is optional for all models.
The front seats slide and lift out of the way to allow rear passengers into the back of this two-door hatchback, and then they return to the original position. That makes loading rear passengers quick and easy. The seats have recliner levers on both sides for convenience. The rear seats are surprisingly roomy. There's plenty of headroom and the rear seats are scooped out to provide good support. Legroom is tight, but with a little cooperation from those in front two adults can travel short distances back there in comfort. The back seats are split and fold down for cargo versatility.
The trunk in the convertible hinges at the bottom to open like a desktop, as in the original Mini. Space is flexible. With the rear seatbacks folded down cargo capacity is 21.3 cubic feet. With the top down and all seats in use wisdom says pack skimpily: There's just 4.2 cubic feet available. That back tailgate, incidentally, is an inviting perch, but screen the perchers: it holds 175 pounds.
Mini's interior is stylish and modern, and exudes quality. Prominent circles set the interior design statement. That large circle in the center of the dash, visible to anyone in the car, is the speedometer. A racy round tachometer is perched like an aftermarket muscle car unit immediately before the driver's eyes and tilts with the adjustable steering column. Toggle switches with little guards are arranged in a row near the bottom of the center stack. They operate power windows, power locks, front and rear fog lamps, and the electronic stability control system. A pair of cup holders immediately in front of the shifter will hold a pair of grande cappuccinos if you squeeze them gently past the bottom edge of the dash.
The Mini interior is full of clever details. The optional automatic climate controls are shaped like the Mini logo, for example. The standard HVAC (heater) controls are attractive and work well, though the mode selector knob lacks the nice feel of the fan knob. Radio buttons are small, but easy to understand and operate.
The dash is neat and firm and has a high-quality leather feel to it. We like the trim on the front of the dash of the standard Cooper, but we're not sure we like the finish on the plastic trim that adorns the dash and doors of the S model. It's designed to look like brushed aluminum, but it looks more like smudged plastic, like a young girl put her sneakers all over it.
The low roofline means you have to stoop to see traffic lights overhead. (Traffic signals are mounted on poles in jolly old England.) Sunroof lovers should love the dual-pane panoramic sunroof ($850). Maybe we're not sunroof lovers. Only mesh covers the glass panels on the inside, letting the sun come streaming in even when you don't want it. Besides, the metal roof makes a better background for the Union Jack.
The convertibles retain the Mini's four-passenger seating capability, adding the pleasures of open-air motoring at the whim of the driver, that whim answered in 15 seconds with a special re.
The Mini Cooper delivers a sporty driving experience. Spring for the Cooper S if you are a serious driving enthusiast, but be prepared for an attendant rougher ride. Otherwise, you may find the standard Mini Cooper more comfortable. It's smooth and very stable, like a BMW. Around town, the Mini is well-mannered, smooth to shift and easy to park. The S is firm and bounces enough that drinking hot java on the way to work may result in a stained shirt or blouse.
The top-down convertible affords so much pleasurable input you won't even notice what the road surface is like.
The Mini corners like a go-kart and it's hard to exceed its cornering limits. The harder and deeper you go into corners, the more it says more. It goes where it's pointed without protest. Even when rain was sheeting down and the pavement shimmered in rivulets, the Mini felt bonded to the surface.
The original Mini Cooper was as much fun as a carnival ride to drive, but much of the fun came from constant flirting with catastrophe (one wheel always lifted off the surface in hard turns). The fun in this modern Mini, with a body that feels as rigid as a block of maple, is in exploring its astonishing capabilities. It's a much easier car to drive than the old one (even when the old one has the steering wheel mounted on the left).
As one might expect from a car associated with BMW, the Mini Cooper's steering is precise and immediate, though not as light as you might expect in a small car. Sharp and accurate, it's easy to place this little car exactly where you want it. The suspension (McPherson struts in front and multi-link rear) is designed to keep the car snug to the road. This means passengers feel broken surfaces, expansion joints or weathered pavement. The Mini's ride is not velvety, but it is secure. Somehow even on the roughest road, one that sets passengers popping like corn in a hot skillet, the Mini holds its direction like a gyroscope. Drivers like that. And make no mistake: The Mini is a driver's car.
The brakes (vented front discs, solid rear discs) are equally impressive, proportionally balanced as they are. Hit them hard at speed and the car feels sucked to the earth and stops quickly. Mini comes standard with four-channel anti-lock brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), and Corner Brake Control (CBC). EBD distributes front-to-rear brake forces for improved stability and shorter stopping distances. CBC evens braking forces side to side, important when braking in the middle of a corner (a driving faux pas). Optional Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) applies the brakes at individual wheels and reduces engine torque when it senses you're skidding or not traveling on your intended path.
The standard 115-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder overhead-cam engine never feels deficient. It delivers plenty of power for most of us, but does not put your head against the backrest at launch. It has plenty of juice for charging around on-ramps and can rocket onto the freeway. It gets an EPA-estimated 28/37 mpg City/Highway.
Shifting feels good and smooth. For 2005, the Cooper gets an all-new Getrag five-speed manual transmission with revised gearing for better acceleration.
The same size engine in the Mini Cooper S produces 168 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Top speed is electronically limited to 135 mph. The S doesn't feel like a rocket off the line, but really comes into its own once it's rolling. The supercharger doesn't deliver the explosive thrust associated with turbocharged engines, but it accelerates hard, with thrilling performance when you nail it in the 30-60 mph range. The supercharged engine uses the same block, but features more cooling measures (an engine oil cooler and piston-cooling jets), lower-compression pistons (to reduce detonation), a special crank, special valves, and, of course, the roots-type blower. All this adds up to 40-percent.
The Mini Cooper is a well-executed piece by every measure. It's the total package that makes it an excellent value: appealing appearance inside and out, excellent performance, notable engineering, numerous safety devices and the simple delight of being in and around it. It gets excellent gas mileage and it will make your garage seem enormous.
The convertible makes no compromises for its ability to open its passengers fully to a beautiful day. And close them up again during a stoplight pause. Ain't buttons a gas?
About 10,000 Mini Coopers were sold in the United States from 1960-67. The 2002 Mini passed that mark within six months of going on sale it was on sale, and 36,010 were sold during calendar year 2003. It's easy to understand why. We'd be delighted to own one. And with the new convertible now in the line-up look out for the one-of-each family.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Denise McCluggage reported from Minneapolis with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles and New York and Sam Moses reporting from Ireland.
Mini Cooper ($16,449); S ($19,899); Convertible ($20,950); Convertible S ($24,400).
Mini Cooper Convertible ($20,950).
Options As Tested
Sport package ($1350) includes Dynamic Stability Control, sport seats, 16-inch alloy wheels with 195/55R16 run-flat tires, front fog lamps; Premium package ($1350) includes automatic air conditioning, Harman Kardon sound system, multifunction steering wheel, chrome line interior, on-board computer.
Mini Cooper Convertible ($20,950).
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