Post World War II England faced high fuel prices, creating a need for a fuel efficient car. Alec Issigonis, an engineer for Morris (a now defunct British auto manufacturer), tried to come up with an affordable and fuel efficient car that would carry a family of four. The solution was to push the wheels out to the corners and turn the engine sideways in order to make the interior roomier while aiding handling. Launched in 1959, the Mini met with critical acclaim. British buyers flocked to the Mini the same way German buyers flocked to the Volkswagen Beetle.
BMW resurrected the Mini brand, debuting the Mini Cooper in 2000.
The Mini Cooper’s design is aesthetically pleasing. It is retro yet modern: the light designs and compact dimensions hark back to the original Mini, while the wheels and the interior take on a modern theme. The grille and the headlights are cheeky, yet the white stripes and white enhance the Mini’s sporty pretensions. The side profile is well done. I usually detest side vents as often they mar the overall design, but the side vents on this car are nice. The rear is perfect: it is retro enough but not over the top. The centered exhaust is exclusive on the S models. Just like the exterior, the interior has modern and retro influences. A huge centered speedometer and unique touches such as the door handles and buttons add a funky look.
This may possibly be one of the best cars I have ever driven. The Cooper’s compact dimensions let it carve through corners with unbelievable agility. The lack of body lean and grippy tires make it fun to drive. The steering has ideal weighting to it, and it is tactile. Even on smooth roads, I could still feel the road from the steering. Jerk the wheel a direction, and it responds accordingly. The payoff for the impressive handling is a stiff ride. There is little wheel travel, so it struggles coping with bumps and uneven pavement.
The energetic 168 horsepower superchargedfour cylinder engine is one of the Cooper’s best features (Non S models come with a 115 horsepower 1.6 liter four cylinder engine). It loves to rev, and the power delivery is linear. While driving normally, it will cruise happily, but floor it, and it “wakes up.” Acceleration is quick despite the 168 horsepower rating. The six speed manual is smooth but can get clunky at times. The perplexing thing I learned is that you have to slam into a gear. Sometimes it feels like if you put force on the shifter, you’ll break it, But some force is needed to get it into gear. Fuel economy is good at around 26 mpg overall, but it runs on premium fuel. The clutch has good feel and travel.
Refinement is sound with little road or wind noise. The engine is a delight. It hums at low revs, but it burbles when you floor it. It can become addicting as you will find excuses to floor it just to hear the engine note.
Considering that BMW owns Mini, the high quality fit and finish resembles that of a BMW. There is enough room in the front for the average person. However, for taller people, it can be snug. Visibility is decent and the seats are well contoured, although it is difficult to get to the lumber adjustment. Other than that, it is comfortable. The speedometer may be attractive, but it distracts you from the road. The steering wheel rim partly blocks the tachometer. The controls are hard to distinguish from one another, and the window switches are mounted low. The steering wheel controls are tiny. The rear is cramped; two adults won’t be very comfortable. Access to the rear is restricted, even with the front seat pushed all the way forward. The trunk is tiny.
When the Mini Cooper launched in 2000, many Mini purists were worried that it would trade substance for style. The truth is the Mini is a perfect blend of style and substance. It has throwbacks to the old Minis while incorporating elements of modern design. It still has the same fun handling as the old Minis, but it feels like a real car. It is a well designed car; the stiff ride and cramped rear sear are just minor drawbacks to what is an otherwise compelling package. When you see this car, you cannot stop smiling at its youthful red paint and white stripes, and hearing the turbo chirp never gets old. All the little details like the center mounted speedometer and window switches make this car feel truly unique. Good things come in small packages.