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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.
On this crucial point, I felt the Mini Cooper didn't exhibit quite the go-kart handling the previous generation was known for. It could be a lot of fun, but this Mini Cooper felt more grown-up. In many ways, the handling felt like that of the Ford Focus ST . It certainly likes to play, but the handling character is not quite as distinctive as it was.
That spirit of play is also apparent in the Mini Connected app. With it running on my iPhone, and the phone plugged into the Mini Cooper's USB port, I had a number of features and third-party apps available through the car interface. Among the fun stuff, I could activate Mission Control, which anthropomorphised the car with different voices representing engine, climate control, and the car itself. Dynamic music let me play instrumental tracks that changed to reflect my driving, for example speeding up the beats-per-minute when I picked up speed. The app even includes a set of badges you can earn for cornering and acceleration.
Mini hasn't seemed to catch on that iOS supports multitasking now, as I had to have the app up on my phone's screen for the integration to work. There is an Android version available now, which I wasn't able to test, but reviewers on the Google Play Store page say it doesn't offer all the features of the iOS version.
On the practical side, Mini Connected includes an online destination search feature. When I fed it a search term it brought back a list of results from Google. I was able to select one and set it as my destination.
The interface controller on the console worked as well as that in BMW cars I have reviewed. And it has the same problem: when tracing letters into the touchpad for alphanumeric input, it didn't allow me enough time to lift my finger to cross a "t," for example. Audi's touchpad does a better job at this.
The Mini Cooper's LCD sits in what was formerly the center-mounted speedometer, and comes in multiple sizes. The standard version for navigation is only 6.5 inches, but there is an option to bring the display up to 8 inches, allowing for BMW-style split-screen content. With it, I could look at navigation on the left and keep audio or trip information on the right.
The navigation system's maps are straight from BMW, which means a mature color scheme, fine detail, and rendered buildings in perspective view. Traffic data comes in through an FM radio feed, and route guidance can automatically avoid congestion. The navigation system includes the ability to compute "green" routes, which are designed to avoid hills and maximize fuel economy. I found the route guidance adequate, with useful voice prompts, but I didn't see lane guidance on the screen. That should show up on the optional head-up display, not included on the car I tested.
For the stereo, Mini has gone modern with the new Cooper, deleting the CD player as standard, although a six-disc changer is optional. Sources included an onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, and the USB port. I could use the Mini Connected app to play Pandora, Amazon Music, TuneIn radio, and Mini's own Web Radio feature, which includes just about every Internet-broadcasting radio station from around the world. The Mini's music library interface has the same problem I've complained about in BMWs -- it takes too many steps to find an artist or album and start playback.
This Mini Cooper also came with the upgraded Harman Kardon audio system, with a 480-watt amp and 10 speakers. The sound from this system was enjoyable enough that I eagerly tried a number of my favorite tracks just to hear what hidden layers could be brought forth. If you really love music, it is a very worthwhile upgrade to get in the Mini Cooper.
Giving the automated parking system a whirl, I trawled a street lined with cars until the Mini Cooper's LCD showed that it had found a suitable parking spot. As with Ford models that offer a similar system, I had to put the car in reverse and take my hands off the wheel. The steering wheel turned itself, angling the car back into the space, and instructing me when I should go forward, further maneuvering into the space. I guess with the larger size of the new Mini Cooper hardtop, this system has become more useful.
I know that many are not going to like the larger size of the 2014 Mini Cooper, or its changed handling character. I still found the basic Cooper hardtop to be plenty of fun, however, more so than the outgoing model with its underpowered engine. The handling character has grown from go-kart to boy racer -- not really a bad thing -- and the adaptive suspension option is intriguing. The tech in the three-cylinder engine is some of BMW's best, and I liked how it was always ready to go. That small engine's efficiency didn't really play on heavily congested streets or hills, but in most environments it should do fine.
Mini hits all the right notes for cabin tech, with first-rate navigation, hands-free phone, and stereo systems. I particularly like the Harman Kardon audio upgrade. However, as with BMW, Mini is a little stingy with the options. The base car includes very little, so expect to pay a good deal over the list price just to get the basics.
Connected features are an important part of the current automotive tech landscape, and Mini does more with its dedicated app than most. Not only does it bring in destination search and Internet-based audio, it includes all its fun little features that will add enjoyment on a weekend drive to nowhere. The only caveat with Mini Connected is that it currently works best on iPhone, and requires a cabled connection.
Mini fans, of which there are legion, are not likely to turn their noses up at this new generation, despite its larger proportions. It retains the looks and quirkiness that have made it a winning proposition from the first.
|Model||2014 Mini Cooper|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||29 mpg city/41 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||29.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based streaming, Bluetooth audio, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Harman Kardon 480-watt 10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Automated parallel parking, HUD, rearview camera|
|Base price||$20,450, £15,300, AU$31,126|
|Price as tested||$33,595|