2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop First Drive

How do you improve upon an icon?

What It Is
A total rethink on the iconic Mini Cooper.
Best Thing
The new three-cylinder is all the engine anyone may ever need.
Worst Thing
Despite growing larger, the interior is still a bit cramped in back.
Snap Judgment
It's premium-priced and still quite small, but Mini offers a lot of car for the money.


A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Is Mini still Mini? That was the question I had to ask myself throughout my Puerto Rican excursion to drive the third-generation hatchback since BMW completely overhauled the brand at the turn of this century. For the U.S., the Mini Cooper is often just seen as a kitschy, cute, front-wheel-drive BMW. That's all well and good. But for the rest of the world—and we got plenty of the history lesson jammed down our throats along with all of the plantains and coconuts we could handle—there's lore. There's history and heritage and all of those other keywords you associate with a premium brand.

So what is a Mini? It's a front-wheel-drive hatchback that was designed as a people's car, much like the Fiat 500 and Volkswagen Beetle—both of which the Mini competed with back in the 1960s and still competes with today. Much like those two, it became an icon, both in racing and popular culture. And the car was dragged out of a coma and reinterpreted for today's extroverts as a larger, heavier, and bigger vehicle. Of course, the original Mini didn't have to mitigate pedestrian safety standards—adding 3.5 inches to the front overhang of the car compared to the last model—knee and side airbags, which increase weight by 60 pounds or so; active cruise control, or much of anything else in the name of safety. Still, relatively speaking, the 2014 Mini Cooper is tiny.

And it still has that je ne sais quoi. If you don't speak French, that means it's bloody good.

Walkaround

At first, other than its exaggerated, swept-back headlights and large tail lamps, the 2014 Mini Cooper looks little changed from last year's model. That's a good thing, and it speaks volumes about just how seriously the car's team of designers took the nipping and tucking of the latest Cooper to keep it similar despite everything under the sheetmetal being new. LED headlight rings now decorate the car's front in keeping with current car-design fashion. But much like any shape considered iconic, you can only do so much to change it before alienating a core audience of consumers who religiously subscribe to a brand.

With this car, the focus was to keep customers happy while hopefully wowing a new group of shoppers into visiting its dealerships. Or at least that's what the car's interior is meant to do.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Sitting Down

In the past, Mini has taken a hard knocking from the likes of J.D. Power and other consumer advocacy organizations for its style-over-substance interior ergonomics. Its speedometer used to be in the center of the dashboard because that's the way Mini founder Sir Alec Issigonis meant it to be when he designed the first car in 1959. Toggle switches controlled many of the car's functions, including what were centrally mounted window switches on the dashboard, for the sake of tradition. Cupholders, which were added in the 2000s cars, were an afterthought because Germans don't believe beverages have a place while driving.

For 2014, all of those idiosyncrasies are gone. The speedometer is right where you'd expect it to be in any other car; the central dial on the dash now houses 6.0- or 8.8-inch radio and navigation displays. The old car's infotainment joystick has been replaced for a standard-issue BMW iDrive infotainment knob. Everything appears much more logical, and it's now possible to put bigger bottles in the car's cupholders without inconvenience. While the design still looks as Mini as Mini can be, fun and spunky, it’s a façade that drapes over the sensible hardware BMW has been refining for decades now—some of the same bits and pieces that have been ported over directly from much more expensive cars.

Optioned with leather sport seats, the navigation system, a fantastic Harmon/Kardon audio system, and a John Cooper Works sport steering wheel, our tester 2014 Mini Cooper wasn't quite equipped as we'll be seeing them in the U.S. Still, as the vehicle starts at $20,785, including $795 for destination and handling, we're estimating our car rang in at a fairly reasonable $25,000 or so. In the U.S., much of it comes in the $4,750 Fully Loaded package. Only an available six-speed automatic transmission was missing was the car's much-upgraded interior accommodations, but there was a reason for that on our trip: Mini's intention to highlight its gem of an engine.

Driving

Where the outgoing Mini Cooper had an engine displacing 1.6 liters of volume, the new car has a slightly smaller 1.5-liter unit with three cylinders instead of four. Thanks to the joys provided by turbocharging, however, horsepower has increased from 121 ponies to 134. Not huge, right? Well, through better gearing and more available power and torque throughout the car's rev range, the 2014 Mini Cooper is much, much quicker and, more importantly, far more fuel-efficient. While not yet certified by the EPA, Mini claims the new car can achieve 42 mpg on the highway—4 mpg greater than the outgoing model.

More than that, it's the way it goes about making that power. The 2014 Mini Cooper is an enjoyable miser of a car, with a throaty, refined engine sound and feel, that offers up its muscle without much turbo lag at all, at least once the engine gets past 1,500 rpm or so. Where the last engine was simply there to push the driver into his or her next corner to make the best use of that much-touted go-kart handling, the new turbo three-banger feels tenacious in its willingness to keep power strong, exploiting the car's small proportions and dynamic handling. The engine adds a whole new layer of personality to the driving behavior of the Mini. Its notchy six-speed manual transmission and easier-to-use-for-2014 progressive clutch pedal heighten the experience, leaving us to wonder if the 189-horsepower Mini Cooper S is really necessary for anyone outside of those on the farthest fringes of car enthusiasts.

We found spirited driving best left for the first three gears of the transmission, leaving fourth, fifth, and sixth gears for fuel-efficiency over fun.

The Mini's driving dynamics have also returned to add to the car's appeal. With a square stance and wheels pushed to the corners, the 2014 Mini Cooper still feels like a proper sporty hatchback, at least in Sport mode, where heavier, more direct steering helps point the car into a corner with greater precision. By comparison, the Mini Cooper's standard steering mode felt lighter and less engaging. But it will work just fine in casual driving.

Lastly, lest we forget, this is a premium car, and it ought to behave like one in all respects. While Mini has put a concerted effort into keeping its hatchback as fun to drive as ever, perhaps most of the effort in remaking the car went into noise refinement. Much quieter and less buzzy than the outgoing car, Mini has finally made the Cooper into a legitimately premium-feeling car in all respects—ride, handling, refinement, and noise isolation.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Summary

Evolution can only carry a species so far. For the entirety of the Mini Cooper's existence until now, it has relied on a four-cylinder engine and controls that were different for the sake of being different. But as the 2014 Mini Cooper moves towards the mainstream middle in an effort to attract more buyers, it hasn't forgotten about what made the cars worth buying in the first place: Their fun-to-drive nature, bombastic sense of style, and feeling of downsizing without downgrading. Interior space in back is still a limited commodity, and the styling has arguably become more awkward. But the 2014 Mini Cooper has become a vastly better vehicle compared to any of its predecessors.

And it has still retained a sense of style and occasion that we wonder how the Germans grin and bear without screaming for a more space-efficient shape or getting rid of frivolous extras like Union Jack decals or mood lighting that make us like the car that much more. After driving the 2014 Mini Cooper, we think the Mini faithful will embrace it when it goes on sale this spring, and it should win plenty of new fans as well.

Basic Specs

Turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder, 6-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive, 134-hp, estimated $25,000 as-tested, 30 mpg city/42 mpg hwy (estimated)

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