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.
Give it winding mountain roads and the Mini will give you the ride of your life.
The result is that the Cooper S is one of the most tossable sport compacts that we've tested. Throw the little hatchback's steering wheel back and forth and it'll quite simply go where you point it. Steering is involved and communicative, but not twitchy. Toss in a little trail braking while rounding a bend and the S will corner like a "Tron" light cycle, rotating eagerly and controllably within its short wheelbase. However, get on the power too soon and the Cooper will respond with understeer like a good FWD car.
Interestingly, Mini offers a sport suspension package and a limited slip differential for $500 each, which should further enhance the Cooper S' darty handling.
At 9/10ths, the Mini somehow manages to feel planted and dynamic at the same time, but what's really odd is that the Cooper S feels like a much better car when driven like a maniac. It's much easier to forgive the hard shifts and a rough ride when you're zipping around mountain pass with a huge grin on your face, but those same traits make the Cooper S tiring during trips to the grocers.
In S trim with the automatic transmission, the Cooper's EPA estimated fuel economy is 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. After a week spent nearly entirely in Sport mode, being flogged around every bend and away from every stoplight, our fuel economy settled around 26 to 27 mpg. Mayfair 50th anniversary edition
Our 2010 Mini Cooper S is equipped with the Mayfair package, one of two special editions celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Mini nameplate. The Mayfair package adds special Hot Chocolate Metallic paint, a Toffee-colored interior with brown pinstriped trim on the dashboard and wing mirrors, chrome interior and exterior trim, and Mayfair and Mini 50th badges and livery. The package also adds driving lamps, fog lights, and xenon headlights to brighten your path in any driving condition.
Seventeen-inch alloy wheels and the dynamic traction control (DTC) system are the only performance upgrades for this package.
Also available is a more tech-focused Camden package, which rolls in the Bluetooth and iPod adapter, Satellite Radio, Harman Kardon premium audio, 17-inch wheels, and DTC system. The Camden also includes its own exclusive interior and exterior color combos, xenon headlamps (but no driving lamps), and Camden/Mini 50th badges.
The Camden edition also includes an odd exclusive feature called Mission Control, which is an audible feedback system that replaces the Mini's various beeps and chimes with spoken alerts from three characters: Coach, Engine, and Safety. For example, if you forget to put on your seatbelt, Safety will say, "Hey, don't forget to buckle up." If you carry a lot of speed around a bend, Engine may shout, "Whoopee!" or something to that effect. We've seen the system in action and quite frankly it seems rather annoying. Fortunately, Mission Control is defeatable.
Mini prices the Mayfair and Camden packages at $4,500, but that price doesn't include the $500 charge for the special metallic paint that is part of each package, bringing the total for either edition to $5,000. In sum
Our experiences with the diminutive Mini Cooper S varied wildly over our testing period.
One moment we'd be experiencing sheer joy as we rocketed through turn after turn of a winding mountain road, and in the next moment we'd be raging against Mini's interior designers over the oddball placement of the cabin controls. We'd praise the Cooper S' power and tossability in one setting, and criticize its harsh suspension and laggy turbo in another. We loved the Cooper's small footprint and easy parkability, but its $30,000 price tag ($25,000 without the special Mayfair package) about the same similarly sized VW GTI, which offers more interior volume and better cabin technology than the Mini.
This is the nature of the Mini Cooper S. It's not a vehicle that is all things to all people. You either love the Cooper S or hate it, often in the same breath, but there's nothing boring about it.
The 2010 Mini Cooper S starts at $23,000 (including a $700 destination charge), but that price rapidly inflates with the myriad options Mini offers. Tack on $5,000 for our tester's Mayfair package, $1,250 for the automatic transmission, and $500 each for keyless entry and Bluetooth/USB, and you'll come to our as-tested price of $30,250. That's a pretty penny for a car that's smaller than the Honda Fit.
Given the run of Mini's options list, we'd skip the $4,500 special edition packaging, as it's mostly just appearance upgrades, and add on the $1,250 sport package and the $2,000 navigation system, nabbing the performance and the tech we like for between $28,250 and $29,500--depending on whether you want to shift your own gears.