The reborn MINI Cooper has been around for 14 years now, and the 2016 MINI Cooper is in the third year of its third generation, having been introduced for the 2014 model year. In case you haven’t been keeping track, there are or soon will be 10 versions, including a Hardtop 2-Door (sometimes referred to as the hatch or three-door hatchback), Hardtop 4-Door (longer five-door hatchback), Clubman (rear barn doors), and Convertible. And that’s not counting S and JCW versions separately. For 2016, the Coupe and Roadster models have been discontinued.
The front-wheel-drive MINI has grown in size and changed some over the years, but its cute looks, cheeky character, go-kart handling and BMW build endure. There are fewer flaws and compromises today, and it’s quieter and more comfortable, but that should be expected from any car over 12 years. However it might be suggested that so-called flaws can be considered character, coming from lack of compromise.
There are two basic engines, designed and shared by BMW, both with variable valve timing. The base engine is a small three-cylinder, a direct-injected and turbocharged 1.5-liter making 124 horsepower; it arrived with this generation, and makes as much power as the earlier four-cylinder did, while getting better fuel mileage. Even with just three cylinders, it’s no slouch, with 162 pound-feet of torque as well as an overboost capability that can deliver another 7 pound-feet in bursts. It zips from zero to 60 miles an hour in 7.3 seconds, and can reach 130 mph.
The MINI Cooper S uses a 189-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder, also with direct injection and turbocharging.
A 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission is available with either engine. We like the crisp manual gearbox, as it better suits the personality of the car.
The 6-speed manual also gets better fuel mileage, at least with the 1.5-liter engine: an EPA-estimated 27/37 mpg City/Highway for 33 mpg Combined, versus the automatic’s 31 mpg Combined. With the 2.0-liter engine, the manual gearbox gets 2 mpg less, at 24/34 mpg City/Highway, 27 mpg Combined, versus 26/33/29 mpg with the automatic. Both engines demand Premium gasoline, because of their high compression.
Stop/Start technology comes standard, fairly smooth in the 1.5-liter but jarring with the S. There’s a Green mode for better fuel mileage and less power.
Eight airbags are standard, along with a suite of safety systems, and an option for corner braking that uses sensors that feel the car’s cornering attitude to brake the four wheels individually, optimizing grip at each wheel. IIHS gives the MINI Cooper the top rating in every test, including the tough new small-overlap test, where the car is crashed at 40 mph into the edge of a wall.
The MINI Cooper 2-Door Hardtop with manual transmission ($20,700) comes with the 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine; the MINI Cooper S ($24,100) comes with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Six-speed automatic ($1250) is optional. Standard equipment includes leather seats and LED headlamps.
The John Cooper Works 2-Door Hardtop ($30,600) is tuned for high performance.
There are dozens of options, packages, and trims, including customizing bits and accessories from dealers.
The redesign for 2014 was substantial, but it isn’t easy to notice because the visual character was so well retained, especially the long roof, vertical windscreen and rectangular side glass. Only when you park a previous MINI beside this late model do you see how much longer the hood is. It was done to create a stronger shell and better crash structure.
The traditional MINI face remains, flashing big oval headlamps at the tops of the fenders, and a wide-mouthed oval-ish grille that’s oversized and overstated but not too big for the car’s britches. The beltline is uncompromisingly horizontal, black pillars supporting a flat roof that’s available in white, a popular choice. The tail end also says MINI, unmistakable for any other hatchback, with big taillamps that are almost square.
The cabin is a friendly place. The standard leather sport seats are very comfortable, the ergonomics of the driving position excellent, and it’s quiet. There’s nice leather trim as well, and quality black plastic that’s soft to the touch. The layout of the controls and switches is logical. There’s enough shoulder room in the rear for adult passengers, who sit deep in their space.
The MINI used to be notorious for the big speedo in the center of the dash and a big tach on the steering column, but now they’re located in the universal position on the dashboard–still a big tach, with a smaller speedo attached. There remains a big round display in the center of the dash, but it’s for gauges that don’t require constant glancing like a speedo does. The HVAC is handled by three rotating knobs above a row of switches in the center of the dash, with rectangular air vents near them and two big eyeball vents at the far reaches of the dash.
The Clubman was conceived so the MINI could carry passengers in comfort, as well as packages or dogs in back through the barn doors, and it succeeds fairly well. Its wheelbase is stretched by four inches, which goes to the rear seat. It doesn’t handle like the short-wheelbase regular MINI, but it does ride a bit better.
The turbocharged three-cylinder 1.5-liter engine in the base MINI Cooper uses its strong torque, with virtually no turbo lag, to deliver responsive acceleration from low speeds, so it’s especially good around town. The 2.0-liter engine in the MINI Cooper S shows more spunk on paper, but to the seat of our pants there isn’t that much difference, maybe because the exhaust note is so much fun in the three. It’s also lighter and better balanced, making it more nimble, so to our own surprise, the smaller engine would be our choice.
The 2.0-liter MINI Cooper S makes 189 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque (221 lb-ft with the overboost), and accelerates to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds compared to the 1.5-liter’s 7.3 seconds, a substantial difference in performance.
You get the same choice of transmission with either engine, and we already said we’d choose the sharp 6-speed manual, although with the 6-speed automatic you can get optional paddle shifters and do your own shifting. But not always, if you get the optional navigation, because it has a feature that changes gears based on its satellite reading of the upcoming terrain.
There are three available driving modes, called Sport, Mid, or Green, indicated to the driver with a red, blue or green ring around the center display screen. Sport mode does upshifts later (with the automatic), and also tightens the steering.
The MINI Cooper is known for its cornering, more or less true to the clichÃ©, like a go-cart, helped by sticky tires. However, what you get with that is twitchiness, when it’s being pushed along bumpy roads. But its electric power steering is about as good as we’ve ever driven, and the ride has evolved to the point where it can be called reasonably comfortable while still being firm. And if you want it to be firmer and less twitchy, spend extra for adaptive dampers, which along with other suspension upgrades, make it difficult to upset the MINI Cooper’s composure on any road.
If you stay with the three-cylinder engine and 6-speed manual gearbox, and go conservative with the options, the MINI Cooper can be a cool little sports car, with BMW quality, for an affordable price.
Driving impressions by The Car Connection. Sam Moses contributed to this report.