There are a lot of different Mini Coopers. There’s a 2-door (which might be considered a 3-door hatchback), a 4-door (or seen as a 5-door), a convertible, and a 4-door Clubman with all-wheel drive and barn doors at the rear.
The 2-door is 150.4 inches long, the 4-door is 156.8 inches, and the Clubman is 168.3 inches, the latter about the size of a four-door Volkswagen Golf.
Excepting the Clubman, the Mini Cooper is smaller and less practical than many hatchbacks that cost a lot less. Last redesigned for 2014 (when it gained several hundred pounds), it’s built on the platform of the BMW X1.
We like the Hardtop 2 Door the most; it’s the classic, and a delight to drive. The classic color is red with a white top. If you know who John Cooper was and are familiar with his Formula Juniors and Grand Prix racecars, you might appreciate a pair of distinctive Cooper stripes. Or maybe you’ll want a Union Jack on the lid.
Engines in the mix include the standard turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder making 124 horsepower; the Cooper S with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 189 horsepowe; and the John Cooper Works version of that engine making 228 horsepower. Each uses either a 6-speed manual (which we prefer) or automatic transmission.
Very little on the Mini Cooper has changed for 2018. It gets a standard rearview camera and some package reshuffling.
With the 1.5-liter engine and 6-speed manual, the Mini Cooper gets an EPA-estimated 28/38 miles per gallon City/Highway, or 32 mpg Combined. Cooper S is rated 23/32/26 mpg with the manual. The powerful John Cooper Works gets 23/31/26 mpg. The Convertible S gets the same, but with automatic is rated higher (better). All Mini Coopers require Premium gasoline. Your mileage may vary, however. During our test drives, we got about 25 miles per gallon in both the Mini Cooper and Cooper S, including a lot of spirited driving through canyon twisties. Out on the interstate, we got up to 40 mpg.
The Mini Cooper got the top safety rating from the insurance industry (IIHS) in 2016, with a Top Safety Pick+. However the federal government’s NHTSA doesn’t agree, giving the Mini only four stars overall.
The 2017 Mini Cooper Hardtop 2 Door ($20,950) comes with the 124-hp 1.5-liter engine; the Mini Cooper S Hardtop 2 Door ($24,400) gets the 189-hp 2.0-liter engine. The Mini Hardtop 4 Door ($21,950) is similarly equipped. Also available: the Mini Convertible ( $25,950) and the Mini Clubman ($24,100).
Standard equipment includes a 6.5-inch center screen, Bluetooth, 15-inch wheels (16-inch on Cooper S), faux leather, eight airbags, and the rearview camera in 2018. Options are grouped into packages. The sport package ($1750) features adjustable dampers that sharpen the ride.
Much customization is available and adds to the fun. Eight choices in upholstery, and trims with Mini Yours finishes, like Fiber Alloy or the Off-White that’s like porcelain.
When the Mini Cooper was redesigned four years ago, it got bigger and longer, forward of the windshield, to meet new European crash-test standards for crush space. It grew 4.5 inches longer and 1.7 inches wider, a substantial difference, but being a mere 0.3 inches taller, it was barely noticeable. The result is charming and exceptional.
Traditional Mini design endures. Oval lights in the top corners of the front fenders, oblong grille in a chrome frame, upright windshield, almost-square taillamps, black pillars under a long roof, available in white. Mini says it’s the most popular option. Even more popular than the Union Jack.
The Convertible is handsome; with its rear flip-down tailgate it looks like a roadster.
The interior is less quirky than it used to be. Only the good quirks remain. The instruments are now where you expect them to be. A big tach with smaller speedo are mounted behind the steering wheel.
The interior design is fairly useful and meaningful. The big round center of the dash is exclusively a display screen, its size depending on trim. There are two rectangular air vents and two large round eyeball vents at the outer edges of the dash. There’s still a horizontal row of switches in the central lower dash, under three dials for climate control.
From the driver’s seat, the Mini is close to perfect. There’s head room for persons as much as 6 feet, 3 inches tall.
But there’s not so much room for rear passengers or cargo. Passengers sit deep, surrounded by quite a lot of black trim and upholstery.
With the rear seat up there’s 8.7 cubic feet of cargo space in the back, expanding to 38 cubic feet with the seat down. The Clubman raises it to 17.5 and 47.9 cubic feet.
The four-door Mini can shuttle four adults in a pinch, but only the Clubman is much of a people mover.
The Convertible is realistically a two-seater. Switchgear gremlins live in the Convertible; if it heats up in the direct sun, the roof won’t raise for shade until it cools down.
Visibility from the driver’s seat isn’t great. The roof pillars are thick, and the roof is 18 or 20 inches forward, in order to reach the upright windshield pillars. With the top down and folded in the Convertible, rear visibility is nearly non-existent.
There’s a nice amount of engine noise in the cabin. The Cooper S pipes it in. The three-cylinder has an uneven idle that gives it character. It sounds like a Freightliner at cold start.
The standard engine in the Mini Cooper and Clubman is the turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder making 124 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque (169 lb-ft for a few seconds during overboost). It can accelerate from zero to sixty in 7.4 seconds, and hit 130 mph. A three-cylinder that will go 130 miles per hour sounds like fun.
The handling and braking are superlative. The base Mini Cooper is our favorite, because it has all of the good handling while the three-cylinder engine is so squirty, and it’s much cheaper than the Cooper S. The little engine’s maximum torque comes at just 1250 rpm, and it peaks out at 4000 so it’s not a high-revver. We think the 6-speed manual works best with the three-cylinder, but at least the automatic is programmed to use the torque (although in Eco mode it’s downright dead).
The Cooper S is wildly fun but expensive. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine scoots it from zero to sixty in 6.4 seconds, one second quicker than the Cooper. It makes 189 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque (221 lb-ft during overboost).
You can get either a 6-speed manual or automatic transmission. We think the manual is a must in the Mini Cooper, although the linkage doesn’t inspire confidence and the rev-matching is aggressive. In the Cooper S, the optional paddle shifters are a must, to make the automatic more usable and enjoyable.
The JCW edition balloons the horsepower to 228 hp and torque to 236 lb-ft of torque, which makes it challenging to handle.
Driving modes are Sport, Mid, or Green, with red, blue, or green rings around the center display screen reminding you what mode you’re in. Sport mode holds the transmission gears longer, and stiffens the steering if you have the package with the firmer adaptive dampers that help keep the ride smooth. The base suspension is pretty firm as it is, while not crashing over the worst bumps.
There are a lot of wheel size and tire combinations available. As a good compromise, we like the 17-inch wheels with all-season tires on either the Cooper or Cooper S. The steering is quick, with a 14.0:1 ratio, making it twitchy on a bumpy straight freeway, but you’ll love it in the twisties.
Despite being heavier by more than 250 pounds, the Convertible keeps up the eager responsiveness. In Sport mode with the top down, its engine song is intoxicating. The automatic does its best to keep the engine in its sweet spot, which is fairly low in the rev range.
Despite being longer than the base Mini Cooper by nearly 18 inches, the Clubman doesn’t feel stretched. It’s relatively easy to place all four wheels where you want them.
The Mini Cooper is responsive in all the right places. You can beat the cargo space but you can’t beat the fun, with safety. The base model with 1.5-liter three-cylinder and manual gearbox is the purest Mini, the best value for its good performance and classic heritage.
Sam Moses contributed to this report, with driving impressions by The Car Connection staff.