Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Handling, efficiency and style in a variety of guises.
The 2013 Mini Cooper hardtop is the original Mini model. Now available in both hardtop and convertible variants, the Mini Cooper delivers agile handling, crisp performance and an interminably cute appearance in a tidy, efficient, front-wheel drive package, with plenty of space and comfort for front seat passengers.
2013 Mini Cooper models get Bluetooth handsfree connectivity and a USB port as standard equipment. Satellite radio is an option on all 2013 models, and the high-performance John Cooper Works model is now available with a 6-speed automatic transmission.
All Mini Cooper hardtops and convertibles are powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine available in three levels of power output, and are available with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Premium gasoline is required on all models.
Base Mini Coopers make 121 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration performance isn't quick, but it's adequate. We think this engine works best with the manual transmission, which adds to the sportiness. The Mini Cooper delivers excellent fuel economy, earning an EPA rating of 29/37 mpg City/Highway with the stick, and 28/36 mpg City/Highway with the automatic.
Mini Cooper S models come with a turbocharged version of the same engine that generates a more substantial 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Despite the increase in performance, fuel economy is still very good, with an EPA-estimated 27/35 mpg City/Highway with the manual and 26/34 mpg City/Highway with the automatic.
John Cooper Works models play on the brand's heritage, and are named for the multiple rally and touring-car racing champion in the 1960s. They use the same turbocharged engine as the S, and are tuned for even more power. JCW models use an ultra-firm suspension and churn out 208 hp and 192 lb.-ft. of torque, making for one of the best power-to-weight ratios on the market. Surprisingly, though, fuel economy remains the same as the S, with 26/35 mpg City/Highway with the manual and 26/24 mpg City/Highway with the newly available automatic.
The Mini Cooper Hardtop is quite practical when viewed as a two-seat car with good rear cargo capacity. The front seats are very comfortable and supportive, and they are large enough to accommodate all sizes of drivers and front passengers. With its hatchback and folding rear seats, the Hardtop can haul reasonable amounts of gear. Although the back seat can carry two people, it’s hard to climb into and offers very limited legroom. The back seats are best left for small children or, better yet, stuff.
A wide range of styling options allows owners to personalize their cars, and it's a major part of Mini's appeal. The choices cover upholstery style, material and color; exterior graphics; trim pieces; ambient lighting; and exterior paint, including contrasting colors for the roof. Functional options include high-end features like adaptive Xenon headlights, rear obstacle warning and a navigation system.
Minis have a price premium over other compacts, and options can add up quickly. But fans don’t seem to mind, and Mini has developed quite a cult following. It’s perhaps no surprise, considering Mini’s distinctive looks, signature go-kart handling and its BMW-sourced engineering.
Those looking for a small car with head-turning design might also consider the equally charming but less expensive and less powerful Fiat 500 coupe or convertible or the Hyundai Veloster. Performance seekers might also consider the Fiat 500 Abarth or Hyundai Veloster Turbo.
All Mini Cooper models are powered by 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, with a standard 6-speed manual transmission, or an optional 6-speed automatic. All convertibles get a power-operated soft top.
Mini Cooper Hardtop ($19,700) and Convertible ($25,150) come with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 121 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. Standard equipment includes leatherette (vinyl) upholstery, air conditioning, power windows, locks and outside mirrors; cruise control, keyless entry, a tilt-and-telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, a height-adjustable driver seat, Bluetooth handsfree connectivity and a six-speaker audio system with a CD player, HD radio, auxiliary audio jack and a USB port. Hardtops come standard with15-inch alloy wheels, and convertibles get 16-inch alloys. The Sport package ($1,250) adds 16-inch wheels on the hatchback and 17-inch wheels on the convertible, sport seats, foglamps, a rear spoiler and dynamic traction control.
Cooper S hardtops ($23,300) and convertibles ($28,150) get a turbocharged version of the same engine good for 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Additional equipment includes a firmer suspension, sport seats, alloy pedals and foglamps. The Cooper S hardtop comes with 16-inch alloy wheels.
The JCW Hardtop ($30,100) and Convertible ($25,300) are the raciest models of all, with a 208-hp version of the turbocharged engine, even firmer suspension, larger brakes and 205/45R17 run-flat tires.
Dozens of packages and options are available for all Mini models, and it would be impossible to list them all here. Mini claims more than ten million combinations are available, and that no two Minis are exactly alike.
Safety features include dual-stage front impact airbags, front seat side-impact airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with antilock brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Brake Assist and stability control. The Convertible has a pop-up rear rollover bar, and the Hardtop comes with side curtain airbags. All models with the manual transmission feature Hill Assist, which activates the brakes when starting on an uphill start to prevent the car from rolling back.
The Mini Cooper lineup has multiplied since this second-generation version was launched as a 2007 model. Yet none of the subsequent models will be mistaken for anything other than a close sibling to the chic, irrepressible cute Hardtop, or for that matter any Mini model sold since the brand was re-introduced for 2000.
The Convertible closely resembles the standard Hardtop, and matches its dimensions. The soft-top maintains the same basic silhouette as the Hardtop, though the heated glass rear window is tilted farther forward. The rear side windows are about a third of the size of those on the Hardtop because the cloth top wraps farther around the sides of the car. When the Convertible top is down, it stacks at the back of the car. The look is fine, but it blocks the driver's lower line of sight to the rear.
The Convertible's insulated fabric roof opens at the touch of a button in just 15 seconds at speeds up to 18 mph, which is very convenient. There are no latches to unhook, simply press the button. A sliding roof function opens just the portion of the top that's over the front seats. It's like a big sunroof that can be opened at speeds up to 75 mph.
Mini Cooper S models are distinguishable from the standard versions, no matter the body style. Black mesh grilles replace the shiny bars, lower brake ducts with optional chrome frames guide cooling air toward the brake discs. Most noticeable is the chrome-ringed hood scoop on Cooper S models.
All Mini Cooper cabins are charming with excellent finish. The plastics have a quality look and feel. This also goes for the base leatherette, aka vinyl, upholstery. Multiple leather options are available, including a cloth and leather combination, a full leather option, and the glove soft Lounge Leather with contrasting piping, similar to classic British sedans. Ambient lighting is standard on most models, and it softly illuminates the door panels and footwells with subtle LEDs. The driver can change the color of the lighting across a spectrum from soft orange to crisp blue.
Despite diminutive exterior dimensions, Mini cabins are surprisingly spacious up front. Even a 6-foot, 5-inch driver can be comfortable in the front seat. The basic manual levers, controlling height, seatback rake, and front-rear travel, allow just about everyone to easily find a comfortable spot.
The Mini driving position is excellent. We found the seats comfortable for long-distance trips, and they're nicely bolstered to keep you in place when you inevitably hustle through the turns. The available sport seats are even better.
A round, plastic transmitter replaces a conventional ignition key. It slides into a slot next to the steering column, and the driver fires the engine by pressing the adjacent a start/stop button. The button is cute and inoffensive, but no more effective than a standard key. The optional proximity key allows the driver to leave the transmitter in purse or pocket and just press the start button. We'd prefer a traditional key, but that's not an option.
All models follow Mini's sporty tradition of a big, round speedometer in the center of the dash. The tachometer is mounted on the tilt/telescoping steering column, moving with the wheel as it's adjusted it up and down. The Convertible has a unique Openometer next to the tach, which tracks the number of hours you drive with the top down.
Heating and air conditioning controls sit below the speedometer, and they're straightforward in base models. The available automatic climate control system is cleverly configured in the shape of the winged Mini logo. The switch layout is generally effective, though sometimes it's a bit too clever.
The audio controls sacrifice ease of use for design symmetry. The tuning knob is centered with most other audio buttons at the bottom of the speedometer, while the volume control sits further down the center stack, closer to the HVAC controls. At first, you may find yourself changing the station when what you really want is to turn up the volume. The integrated design of the audio controls makes it nearly impossible to fit any aftermarket sound system, and the buttons are obviously plastic, with a matte-gray in finish, and detract from the otherwise high-quality interior appointments.
A retro touch, chrome toggle switches that look like something out of an airplane or racecar cockpit, are positioned at the base of the center stack to control the windows, auxiliary lights, and stability-control system. The toggles are duplicated above the rearview mirror to control interior lights, the optional sunroof and the Convertible top. The steering-column stalk switches for wipers and turn signals are pleasing to look and satisfying to use.
The navigation or Mini Connected systems add a rectangular 6.5-inch display in the central speedometer, with a digitally generated speed needle around its perimeter. Bluetooth connectivity and a USB port are now standard features on all models for 2013, a welcome addition.
Interior storage space is not abundant, but it's adequate. There are bins in the door panels, map pockets on the front seatbacks, a small center-console bin and an average-size glovebox. The glovebox can be cooled with the air conditioning, and it's enough to keep a bottled drink reasonably cool, or to keep chocolate bars from turning to mush. The optional Center Rail storage and fastening system replaces the standard center console with two aluminium rails running lengthwise through the middle of the interior. Various accessories, including cupholders, storage boxes, trays or armrests can be locked anywhere along the rails to the occupants' preference.
In the Mini Cooper Hardtop, the rear seat is barely habitable for adults, and only for very short rides. Access to it is anything but convenient. The Convertible has even less rear leg room, 28.1 inches compared to 29.9 inches, so adults or even children won't fit back there unless the front seats are moved far forward.
The Convertible has the least cargo space of the Mini models. Room in the trunk doesn't change when the top is lowered, which is good, but there is only 6.0 cubic feet of space to begin with, which is bad, and hard to use, which is also bad. The rear seats fold down, and Mini claims that opens up 23.3 cubic feet of space. But that space is hard to get to, and big items won't slide in behind the front seatbacks or through the short trunk opening. In short, the Mini Convertible is an impractical car.
The Hardtop, with its large rear hatch and separate folding rear seatbacks, does better as a cargo hauler. With the rear seats in place, there's a miniscule 5.7 cubic feet of storage, enough for an airline roll-aboard and a brief case. But with the rear seats folded down, cargo volume expands to a readily accessible 24 cubic feet. That's more than enough for two passengers on long trip.
Forward vision is excellent in all Minis, at least when the road ahead is clear. Given the Mini's diminutive size, larger cars can block the view in the same way big SUVs can block the view from the driver's seat of midsize sedan.
Rear sightlines are good in the Hardtop. The Convertible has a couple of issues, however. When the top is down, the lower portion of the driver's rearward line of sight is compromised. With the top up, its corners block vision in the rear quarters. Backing out of a parking spot can be a challenge, making the Park Distance Control warning system an important option.
We've driven all the Mini Coopers on racetracks, streets and highways around the world, and rank them among the most fun and responsive front-wheel-drive cars available, enhanced by outstanding real-world fuel economy. All Minis have a basic sporting character, yet most are quite comfortable as daily drivers.
Mini says the base Cooper Hardtop goes from 0-60 mph in 8.4 seconds, which is not quick, while the turbocharged Mini Cooper S performs this feat in just 6.6 seconds. That said, the standard engine does not feel that slow and is enjoyable to drive.
The Mini Cooper S engine reacts almost instantly to the gas pedal, with only the tiniest hint of turbo lag, and produces satisfying acceleration at all speeds. Its steady, even power delivery across a wide rpm range is impressive.
Cooper S models also come with a sport-tuned suspension, but their behavior is still quite refined, and more so than some other cars capable of similar track speeds. With a MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension, the Cooper S is flat and stable in corners, and absorbs small bumps and joints without discomforting passengers. With front-wheel drive, the car never feels at risk of spinning out, even with radical changes in throttle position or braking in the middle of corners.
A key factor in the Mini's sporting feel is its electromechanically assisted steering, which uses an electric motor, instead of a hydraulic pump, for steering assist. Despite the fuel-saving electric power assist, the steering shaft is still mechanically connected to the steering box, so the driver continues to enjoy great feel for the road. This system also varies the steering ratio and effort according to speed.
The effect of the electric steering is most apparent in tight, slow parking lot maneuvers, where very little effort or wheel motion is needed to make large changes in direction. In comparison, at highway speeds an equal rotation of the steering wheel results in smaller and less sensitive directional changes. Another advantage of electrically assisted steering, from the performance perspective, is that steering ratios can be optimized for various portions of a curve, and not just varied with vehicle speed. In the Mini, this means that the initial turn into a corner is cushioned slightly, so the car doesn't feel twitchy.
The 6-speed automatic transmission works reasonably well with both the standard and turbocharged engines. Paddles on the steering wheel let the driver override the automatic and shift manually; and when the driver stops using them, the transmission reverts to Drive, picking the gears itself. Automatics also come with a Sport mode that switches to a more aggressive shift algorithm that holds gears longer to keep more power on tap.
The 6-speed manual gearbox offers more driver engagement than the automatic and wrings the most from the Mini's small engine. We strongly recommend the manual for the low-powered base models, and prefer it for the high-powered models. It's crisp, precise, and makes the driving experience more fun.
Mini brakes are first-rate. The four-wheel discs are large for cars of the Mini's weight, and they provide quick, stable stops with good, consistent pedal feel. Both the base and S models benefit from Mini's brake cornering control, which can use the ABS to apply individual brakes to inside wheels to help get the car through a corner.
Tires play a crucial role in ride quality, and there is a variety of tires to choose from. All-season tires on the smaller rims deliver the most comfortable ride. This is most obvious in the Convertible, which tends to emphasize road shock and shakes. The run-flat performance tires on the Mini Cooper S Convertible with a Sport Package made us dread rough urban roads filled with potholes. Be sure to actually drive a car with the sports suspension and big rims, regardless of the Mini variant, before buying. They may make the ride too stiff for some tastes.
The Mini Cooper Hardtop and Convertible are nimble, fun, and stylish, with endless opportunity for personalization. Front passengers have plenty of space, but the back is best left to small children or cargo.
Kirk Bell reported from Chicago, with J.P Vettraino reporting from Detroit and Laura Burstein reporting from Los Angeles.
Mini Cooper Hardtop ($19,700); Cooper S Hardtop ($23,300); John Cooper Works Hardtop ($30,100); ($31,400); Cooper Convertible ($25,150); Cooper S Convertible ($28,150); John Cooper Works Convertible ($35,300).
Options As Tested
Premium 1 Package ($1,750): automatic climate control, automatic wipers/headlamps, auto-dimming mirrors, heated folding outside mirrors, rear park distance sensor, alarm system.
Mini Cooper S Hardtop ($28,150).
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