LOS ANGELES -- Given the ever-increasing waistline of new Mini Cooper variants, such as the Countryman and Paceman over the years, I feared the update to the basic Mini Cooper hatchback would similarly increase, sacrificing all the fun for which the Mini had been known. But the generation released in 2001 was long overdue for a significant update, and Mini obliged at the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show.
And thank the wiser heads at Mini HQ, the new model looks like it preserves what made the previous Mini Cooper so special.
Mini unveiled both the Mini Cooper and the Mini Cooper S in their standard hatchback forms at the Los Angeles show, and at a glance, the changes look minor. Mini was smart to preserve the styling, which made the car such a success. The car is a few unnoticeable inches longer than the previous generation. Mini also notes that, despite the larger size, the new model lost some weight.
In the previous generation, the base model used a much less advanced engine than is in the Cooper S version. That changes with the new model. The base Mini Cooper may only get a 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine, but it uses direct injection and a twin-scroll turbocharger, tech borrowed from parent company BMW, to produce 136 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. This new, advanced engine is smaller than the previous offering, so should get better fuel economy, yet produce more power.
Mini bumps up the displacement for the new Cooper S engine to 2 liters, from its former 1.6 liters. With direct injection and turbocharging, that engine produces 192 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque. Although that represents a power increase for the Cooper S, especially in torque, it isn't as much as the increase in displacement would suggest.
As before, these engines will be mated to a choice of a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic. However, Mini will also be offering what it calls a new six-speed sports automatic transmission. Mini notes this optional sports transmission will include a manual shift mode, and has quicker shift times than the standard automatic.
Previous Mini Cooper Hatchback's had a simple Sport button, which would increase throttle sensitivity. The new generation gets a selector below the shifter with three positions: Sport, Mid, and Green. The Sport mode will not only affect throttle sensitivity, but also steering tuning, suspension when equipped with adaptive dampers, and even ambient lighting in the cabin. That latter feature is an option, but reflects Mini's youthful and fun character.
In Mini's press release concerning the car, it describes an extensively revised suspension designed to preserve the Cooper's sprightly handling. Unlike many compact cars which use a simple torsion bar rear suspension, the front-wheel-drive Cooper hatchback uses a more sophisticated multi-link suspension. That should not only make for better handling, but also increase comfort.
Mini also highlights an electronic limited slip differential and a Dynamic Traction Control program for the Cooper S.
Along with its performance character, Mini showed off a number of refined cabin tech features and new driver assistance systems. For the latter, buyers will be able to option the Cooper hatchback with adaptive cruise control, an automated parallel parking system, and a head-up display, which projects information such as speed and turn-by-turn navigation on a translucent panel within the driver's immediate view.
One big change in the cabin, which will probably not upset traditionalists overly, was the removal of the large speedometer in the center of the dashboard. In practice, that speedometer was not convenient to look at while driving. Mini preserves the round shape, but fills it with either a monochrome display or a color LCD, depending on how the car is optioned. The speedometer takes a position in front of the driver, in a module that also shows the engine speed.
Mini borrows heavily from BMW for its new cabin tech interface controller. The large dial inset with a touch pad sits at the center of the controller, surrounded by buttons giving quick access to features such as the stereo and navigation. That large controller will be present on cars equipped with navigation or an enhanced display.
The onscreen menu is a graphically refined version of that available in current Mini Coopers. It shows maps for navigation, hands-free phone functions, and lets the driver choose radio stations or music from stored media. Similar to the current model, drivers can integrate their smartphones with the car using the Mini Connected app, which offers a variety of fun features that can add a game-like element to trips.
There are still a few missing facts about the new Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S. Fuel economy figures are not yet available, although the base Mini Cooper should be well above 40 mph on the highway. Likewise, the price is still an unknown. It seems likely that Mini will try to keep its base model under $20,000, although that might not be possible with the new engine. And options will quickly run up the price of the car. The Cooper S will likely remain in the ballpark of its current $23,200 base price.
The new Mini Cooper and Cooper S will be available in March of 2014.