Super Duper Mini Cooper

With its great gas mileage and BMW-like handling, the Cooper S is the perfect fun-to-drive car for a fuel-conscious age

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Fuel efficiency, quickness, practicality in a small package

The Bad: Tight rear seats, small luggage space, overly quirky interior

The Bottom Line: A green machine with pizzazz

Up Front

Okay, so we all know we're going to have to make some changes with gasoline prices maybe heading to $4 per gallon. For my part, I'm thinking about downsizing from a Ford (F) Explorer to a Mini Cooper. And my big question is: Can a person live with a Mini Cooper on a day-to-day basis without going batty from the inconveniences of such a small vehicle?

The basic answer: Yes, if you want to (and you don't have a family or your spouse is short and your kids are very small). For a single person or childless couple, it's actually fairly practical.

In an era of rising gasoline prices, the Mini's main appeal is clear. It's fun to drive, with handling worthy of a product made by BMW (BMWG), yet it gets phenomenal gas mileage. My turbocharged '07 Mini Cooper S test car with an automatic transmission was rated to get 27 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway, and in a stretch of 545 miles of largely fast highway driving I got 29 mpg. If you want even better mileage, go with the regular Mini with a stick shift: It gets 32 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. The regular Mini also has the advantage of using regular gasoline, while the Mini S requires premium.

The Mini's other big appeal is its low price. The regular Mini Cooper starts at just $18,700 with a stick shift, vs. $21,800 for the S version. Mini convertibles start at $22,600 for the regular version and $26,050 for the S. Add $1,350 for a six-speed automatic transmission.

As in the past, you can also personalize the car with all sorts of add-ons, such as a metallic paint ($450), a spoiler ($150), black or white bonnet stripes ($100), alloy wheels, and various types of wood and metal interior trim. Just keep in mind that there's a 10-week or more wait for custom-built Minis.

The Mini Cooper was redesigned for the '07 model year, but the differences are subtle. The '07 is just over 2 inches longer than the old model, and the front end has been simplified. There are several new colors, including Mellow Yellow and Oxygen Blue, as well as metallic silver, blue, and "Nightfire" red. Inside, the center console is narrower, resulting in more leg space.

In the Mini S, the 1.6-liter four-banger is now turbocharged (rather than supercharged), raising the engine's output to 172 horsepower. The regular Mini has a 1.6-liter, 118-horsepower, inline four-cylinder power plant.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks the Mini makes a lot of sense with gas prices so high. Though total Mini Cooper sales are off 10.5% in the first four months of this year, to 11,455, presumably because this is a transition year with the new model being phased in, sales of the fuel-efficient regular Mini soared 27%, to 4,665, during the first four months of the year.

The regular Mini is especially popular with women, who account for 51% of purchases, according to the Power Information Network. That's less than the whopping 58% figure for the VW Bug, but it's still unusually high. By contrast, only 36% of buyers of the Mini Cooper S are women. (The Power Information Network, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).)

Behind the Wheel

The Mini's publicity people talk about the car's "go-cart feel" as if it's a positive attribute, but it takes some getting used to. The '07 may be longer than the previous Mini, but it's still only 145.6 inches long, and has a wheel base of just 97 inches. The car is also set very low to the ground, so you really bounce around on rough roads and out on the highway. When I first started driving the new Mini I found the ride overly hard and uncomfortable.

What gradually won me over is how much fun the Mini is to drive, especially if you go with the Mini Cooper S, which BMW calculates will accelerate from 0 to 60 in 6.7 seconds. It took some practice, but I eventually got 0 to 60 times about that fast in my test car, though only when I put the automatic transmission in manual mode and did the shifting myself. The regular Mini is a lot slower: BMW rates it at 8.5 seconds with a stick shift and a glacial 9.7 seconds with an automatic. So you have to pay extra for the S version to get real pep.

The Mini Cooper S is a blast to drive, even with an automatic transmission. The laws of physics dictate that a boxy little front-wheel-drive car like the Mini can't really drive like a BMW. The Mini spins out of control a lot easier than a BMW 3 Series when you head into a curve at high speed. But given the constraints of its econobox design, the Mini handles extremely well.

One sun-dappled afternoon, I cut north off Interstate 94 and drove for mile and miles through the rolling hills of Northeast Pennsylvania behind some guy in an Audi TT who was pushing the envelope a bit on the little winding two-lane highways. I had no trouble keeping up.

With the transmission in manual mode, the up- and downshifts were almost instant. The '07 Mini has a new electric power steering system that reviewers have griped about, but I found that it provided plenty of road feel. There's a Sport button you can push to lessen the amount of aid you get from the steering system, but I couldn't discern much difference when I had it on. I would have been completely unaware that there was a turbocharger on the Mini S's engine if I hadn't read about it. As far as I could tell, there was no turbo lag during hard acceleration.

My main complaint is that the automatic transmission is jumpier than it is in BMWs. On hilly roads, the transmission would step down at odd times when it was in automatic-shifting mode and occasionally seemed to have trouble finding the right gear.

The Mini's exterior styling is quirky. To aficionados, the '07 Mini remains reminiscent of the classic British Mini Cooper (think Matt Damon speeding around Paris in The Bourne Identity). To others, it seems odd. "It looks like a little hearse," one of my neighbors said.

Interior styling is even quirkier. The speedometer is in the center of the dash. It's large and round with radio setting memory buttons underneath that make it look like the dial on an old-fashioned radio. In front of the driver, where the speedometer would normally be, a tachometer is perched atop the steering column. Most of the basic functions of the car—locking the doors, turning on the reading lights, raising and lowering the windows—are done by manipulating little toggle switches in the center console or above the rearview mirror.

The cabin is full of distinctive, even eccentric, design touches. For instance, you open the glovebox by pushing a lozenge-shaped chrome button on the dash. You can program the interior lights to shine in different colors (pale blue, orange, etc.) at night.

The circle in the middle of the Mini's logo is echoed as a design theme throughout the cabin: The speedometer and tachometer, the heat vents, and the center part of the steering wheel are all round. In the middle console, there are chrome rings around the shift lever and cupholders. The interior door handles are shaped like chrome half-shells in a round, chrome-ringed indentation. The two round speakers and the door handles look like bubbles floating up from the car's floor. It all gets to be a little much.

On the other hand, the cabin is surprisingly roomy. The front, side, and rear windows form an almost uninterrupted band around the cabin, so visibility is good. The optional $850 panoramic sunroof will make it seem larger still.

There's a lot of legroom up front with the seats back. A six-foot, four-inch-tall fellow auto reviewer told me he can actually fit in the driver's seat of a Mini Cooper, which is amazing when you look at the car from outside and see how small it is. Of course, legroom in back is scrunched way down when the front seats are all the way back. Only a small child would have room in back when the front seats are positioned comfortably for most adults.

Luggage space behind the rear seats is limited. The rear seats fold down, creating a decent-size hauling space. But if you were taking a trip in this car with kids riding in back, you'd probably need to buy a roof rack to augment the luggage space inside the car.

Buy It or Bag It?

As I mentioned, I'm considering downsizing to a more fuel-efficient vehicle and the Mini Cooper is one of the models on my shopping list. I live in a rural county in the snowbelt, so a big negative for me is that the Mini doesn't come with all-wheel drive. Service is also a consideration since there are no Mini dealers in most rural areas.

A big plus for me is that the Mini is relatively safe for such a tiny car. It comes standard with side curtain airbags that run the length of the cabin. The '07 hasn't been crash-tested yet in the U.S., but the '06 had a respectable four-star rating in frontal tests from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The '07 recently earned a five-star crash-test rating in Europe.

If I were going with the regular Mini, I'd stick with the manual transmission. It's cheaper, and the regular Mini is just too pokey with an automatic. Personally, I'd probably pay more for the S version. Mileage is still decent, and the S is genuinely sporty. Unfortunately, the Mini Cooper S has a recent average selling price of $28,162, according to Power, which makes me suspect that dealers are charging a premium for the model right now.

As always with a BMW-built vehicle, optional equipment is relatively pricey. For instance, a navigation system costs $2,100, and leather seats $1,500 (or $1,900 for English lounge leather). However, I'd definitely pay an extra $200 for the optional armrest, which adds a lot to the driver's comfort. Ditto for stability control and sport suspension, which cost an extra $500 apiece.

There's no vehicle that quite rivals the Mini, but there are some sporty and practical alternatives that are even cheaper. The basic Mini has an average selling price of $23,639, according to Power, while the Honda (HMC) Civic is going for an average $18,850 and the Scion tC for $18,506. Scion is a division of Toyota (TM). Both have fold-down rear seats, so they're just about as versatile as the Mini.

As much as I like those cars, though, I prefer the Mini Cooper. It costs more, but it's also more distinctive and has a more solid feel. If you can get your hands on a Mini Cooper S at a reasonable price, it's also a lot more fun to drive.

Click here to see more of the 2007 Mini Cooper S.

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