When people used to ask me which Mini they should buy, I had one answer: the Cooper S hardtop. With the new generation, I can add the basic Cooper hardtop, sans "S," to my recommendations.
For the 2014 model year, Mini gave the Cooper a major update, moving from the previous R56 internal designation to F56. The last big update to the Cooper, in 2006, revised the platform but did not abandon it entirely. The 2014 Mini Cooper retains the retro-British styling that made the car so popular, but gains considerable size. It is 4.5 inches longer and 1.7 inches wider, with an extra 1.1 inches at the wheelbase, versus the previous generation.
The Cooper model also goes from its former 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine to a 1.5-liter three-cylinder, and this is what increases my respect for the basic Mini model. That 1.6-liter only produced 121 horsepower, where the addition of direct injection and a dual-stage turbocharger to the 1.5-liter engine brings output up to 134 horsepower. The new engine is something of a torque monster, too, producing 162 pound-feet.
Cabin tech takes a leap forward as well. Where the previous generation had watered-down BMW software, this new Mini Cooper uses the latest-generation navigation, audio, and voice command features from its big German brother. The interface controller, which exactly mirrors the iDrive controller in BMW models, gets a touchpad for alphanumeric input. LED headlights and automated parallel parking are two other high-tech features you wouldn't expect to find in this segment.
My favorite feature of Mini cabin tech is the Mini Connected app. Most of the features in this app, such as Web radio and online destination search, carry over from the previous generation, but Mini has made some improvements. As automotive apps go, Mini offers the most engaging one in the industry.
Base price for the 2014 Mini Cooper hardtop comes in at $20,450 in the US, £15,300 in the UK, and AU$31,126 in Australia. UK and Australian buyers get a few more engine options, including a diesel. As part of the BMW Group, Mini has adopted the strategy of offering an almost overwhelming number of options. The example I drove came with Premium and Sport packages, LED headlights and navigation, and a host of other items, bringing the total price up to $33,595.
I don't like the automotive industry's tendency to increase the size of models at each new generation, and I thought the outgoing Mini Cooper was nicely proportioned. This new Mini Cooper certainly looked larger when it showed up in the CNET garage, losing something of its Mini-ness. The cabin felt roomier when I clambered into it than in previous versions, something that may help sales if obesity trends continue. My biggest fear was that the larger size would compromise the Mini Cooper's lauded go-kart handling.
The Sport package on this example brought in 17-inch, 10-spoke wheels. Underneath, Mini kept the suspension engineering similar to the previous generation, which means a multi-link rear suspension, a nifty find in a car at this base price. Dynamic dampers are a new option that were unfortunately not included on the model I drove. Worse, this one came with the $1,250 automatic transmission option, rather than the base six-speed manual. The automatic transmission includes a sport program and manual gear selection.
Starting the Mini Cooper with its neat little engine-start toggle switch, my first decision was whether I should drive in Green, Mid, or Sport modes, which primarily affect the throttle response. As I was in a city, I opted for Green, but rather than an anemic, underpowered response, the Mini Cooper impressed me with how much it strained against the brakes. It felt like a Jack Russell tugging against its leash.
When I let it run, the throttle proved easy to modulate and it didn't feel hobbled by the engine program. I could easily be the first one off the line at a light, although the Green mode showed an icon on the instrument cluster warning me about being a lead-foot. As with BMW vehicles, the Mini Cooper's Green mode decouples the engine from the driveline when coasting at speed, helping to maximize fuel economy. I found Green mode suitable in all driving environments.
The Mini Cooper defaulted to Mid mode when I turned it on, which gives it more throttle sensitivity. Once again, the three-cylinder engine strained against the brakes when I shifted to Drive. Given that Mid mode didn't add much to the driving experience, it seemed rather pointless -- I either want to save gas or drive fast, so I don't need a compromise mode. If Mini detuned the climate control in Green mode it would likely achieve better fuel economy and make a more important difference between the two modes.
I found the ride quality a little rough. In particular, big potholes or bumps led to a really jarring hit in the car. I grew to expect a grinding sound in the cabin when I drove over pebbly asphalt accompanied by more body shiver than I would have liked. The suspension isn't soft, but that also means it doesn't wallow or dive when riding over hills or taking turns. The electric power steering felt good, with enough heft to engage me in the driving experience.
Putting the Mini Cooper into Sport mode made for dramatically more sensitivity on the throttle. However, I was disappointed to find no change in steering program. And without the adaptive dampers, the ride quality and handling remained the same as in Mid or Green modes.
Fuel economy rates at 29 mpg city and 41 mpg highway from EPA testing. However, in bad traffic and slow city driving, I found it difficult to get into the EPA range. Monitoring the trip computer, I saw my average fuel economy drop close to 20 mpg when dealing with San Francisco's hills and frequent red lights.
To mitigate the frequent stops somewhat, the Mini Cooper has an idle-stop feature, shutting down the engine at stoplights. I was happy not to be wasting fuel when I was sitting at light after light, but this idle-stop feature is very aggressive, shutting down the engine for the brief moments I had to brake for stop signs. On the freeway, the fuel economy zoomed upward, helping to put my final average at 29.6 mpg.
To test what this Mini Cooper should really be about, I found some twisty roads and also shoved the shifter over into its Sport mode position. I was pleased with the power from the Mini Cooper's three-cylinder engine, much better than the previous generation. It powered down the road nicely, but the brakes were a little weak when I prepared for the first turn. Throwing it into the bend, I found the steering response was good. I felt a little stretch in the dampers, just a slight sideways float. Into more turns and I was having a good time tossing the Mini Cooper about. It reacted well to inputs, and I even had some fun trail-braking, which really helped rotate the car.