Quirky, cute, zippy. There's much to like about the diminutive Mini Cooper S. It's a blast in the corners, yet still sips fuel. Its style is classic, yet also modern. And there's nary a parking spot that the Mini can't squeeze into.
But the thing about the Mini is that on the other side of every pro is an equally valid con. Its modern aesthetic makes the cabin a confusing ergonomic mess. The same taut suspension that helps the Mini to handle so well also makes every pothole feel like the Grand Canyon; and the Mini is small, but it is also pricey for its weight class.
In the cabin
The Mini Cooper's cabin features very unique styling and is actually quite beautiful, but there's much to be desired from its ergonomics and cabin technology.
Starting with the obvious, the Mini's dashboard features a massive dinner-plate-size speedometer that sits at the top of the center stack, rather than in front of the driver where the tachometer lives. Controls and indicators are scattered all over the Mini's cabin with no real rhyme or reason to their placement. You select your audio source from the speedometer, but adjust the volume from low in the center stack. You activate cruise control on the steering wheel, the indicator lights up in the speedometer, and you set your speed with the tachometer! Seat adjustment controls are scattered on every side of the seat. Not a single passenger could locate the window or power lock controls on the first attempt. By the end of the week, we had everything figured out, but we get the impression that the Mini's interior is quirky for quirkiness' sake placing form over function.
Getting past the cabin's bizarre organization (or lack thereof), the standard technology behind the buttons is merely average. All Coopers come equipped with a single-disc CD player that feeds a standard six-speaker audio system that also supports AM/FM radio. Sound quality from this basic rig is passable, but we noticed a buzzy bass distortion at even moderate to low volumes.
A Harman Kardon-branded premium audio system is available for $750--money well spent, in our opinion. Sirius Satellite Radio and HD radio can also be added for $500 each. iPod/USB connectivity and Bluetooth hands-free calling (but not audio streaming) are bundled together and can be added to the party for $500. The Bluetooth hands-free system features a rudimentary voice control system that is a bit too picky about pronunciation for our taste and doesn't feature automatic importing of contacts from smartphones. Users can assign voice tags to the system manually, but the process is fairly time-consuming.
Mini offers a turn-by-turn GPS navigation system for $2,000, but ours was not so equipped. The DVD-based system features a color touch screen that replaces the central speedometer, real-time traffic data, and extended voice controls for navigation.
Under the hood
With 172-horsepower on tap from its 1.6-liter turbocharged and direct injected engine, it's no wonder that the Cooper S feels substantially different from its 118-horsepower non-S sibling. Unfortunately, in its default settings the Cooper S suffers from chronic turbo lag and an optional five-speed automatic transmission ($1,250) that just couldn't seem to find the right gear.
Flooring the go-pedal from a stop resulted in slow acceleration for the first few moments. We'd find ourselves wondering where all of the power went, then BOOM. Suddenly, the turbocharger would spring to life flooding the engine with power and nearly wrenching the steering wheel from our hands with torque steer. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the Mini's engine combined with the transmission's incessant hunting for the right gear made driving the Cooper S quite the jerky affair.
And then we found the Sport button. Pressing this button altered the Cooper S' throttle response, smoothing out the torque curve and making the little hatchback rev more eagerly, and tightening up the power steering. Turbo lag and torque steer were still present, but to a much lesser degree. The transmission's program is also modified by Sport mode, holding on to each gear nearly all the way to the redline and downshifting to keep the engine at a boil (and the turbo spinning) when slowing for a corner. The shifts themselves were more firm in Sport mode, but they were also more predictable than the Normal mode's.
Further differentiating the Cooper S is its sport-tuned suspension, larger wheel package with more aggressive tires, and bigger brakes. All Coopers, S or not, feature an alphabet soup of stability control systems including a stability control system with three modes: normal, DTC dynamic, and off.