Source: MINI via Bloomberg
Cars

The Quirky 2015 Mini Cooper S Is Worth a Little Splurge

It costs a bit more than rivals Ford Fiesta and Fiat 500, but it’s in a different league

Last week, New York City faced a non-blizzard called Juno.

I call it a non-blizzard because, while city officials shut down public transit, and businesses closed early as they braced for a brutal brumal blow, actual accumulation amounted to less than a foot of snow. Two days after #Juno2015 passed, temperatures had risen so much that New Yorkers returned to complaining about things like Williamsburg gentrification and the horrors of Uber.

In the meantime, though, I had a lot of fun with the 2015 Mini Cooper S Hardtop.

The little rally car—among the larger, actually, of Cooper models—slid like a hockey puck down 10th Street and swooshed like a curler around corners on Bedford Avenue. It’s not good in snow, but while driving it you may not care. It plays in the elements like an automotive Rudy Ruettiger: small, earnest, mighty in heart if not size and capability.

Serious Grit

The Mini I drove had enough upgrades—two power moonroofs, parking assistance, fog lights—to push its price to $35,900. But even that bump over the $25,100 base MSRP is fair. The Cooper S Hardtop is a hardworking, practical, affordable car with the premium engineering and robust personality that its competitors—the Audi A3, Volkswagen Golf, Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta—lack.

Mini’s Cooper S has a four-cylinder, 189-horsepower engine with a six-speed manual transmission (a six-speed automatic costs $1,500 more). It has three drive modes: Sport, Mid, and Green. I recommend Sport for the go-karting sensibility that Mini has claimed as its signature feel. The steering is tight and reactive, and while the brakes could feel a bit heavier for my taste, they’re dutiful and well suited to the car’s size and demeanor.

The Cooper S is 135 pounds heavier than its two-door counterparts but feels as agile and, better yet, more substantial. If the Cooper S were a dog, it would be a British bulldog: straightforward and up for anything. (And with a funny face to match.)

Happy Face

Mini started doing four-door hardtops years ago, so the concept here is nothing new. But the brand enjoys such a public sense of goodwill that people still smile when they see one of its cars on the street. I’m convinced people assume you’re a good person if you drive them.

Credit that benevolence to Mini’s careful adherence to the design language it birthed when the brand launched in 1959. The wide, low stance, the flat roof, nonexistent rear, round front lights, and racing stripes are all there.

Look at that little face!
Look at that little face!
Source: MINI via Bloomberg

The car looks simultaneously modern and mod. I generally don’t like racing stripes on any car—even on Ford or Dodge. They’re cheesy. But if I had to pick one car to carry them, this would be it. The black bands outlined in white complement the perky round headlights and (optional) LED headlights that smile when you face the front of the car.  

All told, the Mini Cooper S gets 29 combined miles per gallon (an admirable 33 mpg on the highway) and offers upgrades including keyless entry, premium sound, vanity spokes, sport steering, and a cold-weather package.

Interior Playground

Inside, though, is where this Cooper S really won my allegiance. The big round dial in the center of the dash grabs your attention at first, but as you sit you’ll notice silver accents brushed to look like a herringbone suit, special S badging, and mood lighting throughout. The iDrive system controls the radio, navigation and system monitors—it’s the same one found in any BMW on the market and proves a welcome familiarity. 

Mini Cooper S central dial

The central dial in the Mini Cooper S.

Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg Business

As the car starts, everything lights up like an arcade. The center dial illuminates in a ring of green when you brake (that’s when the fuel-saving auto stop/start kicks in), and it glows white as you adjust the radio volume.  

I will complain, though, about the awkward positioning of the heads-up display ($500 extra), which comes as a black rectangular panel that rises out of the dash, directly in front of the driver, when the car starts. It’s distracting and ugly. I tried to disengage it several times, but apparently if the option is in your car, you’re stuck with it.  

I also can’t say I’m a fan of the Start button, which is configured like the switches fighter pilots flip when they prep for takeoff. It’s a unique concept, but the novelty wears off, and I found myself wishing for the simple push-button start that all luxury cars have now.

Extra Space

The car will fit four adults (plus, as I may or may not have tested, a 100-pound pit bull) easily, as the additional 2.9 inches in the 6-inches-longer-than-the-coupe wheelbase go directly toward the rear seat. Another useful addition is the 60/40 folding seatback that creates a pass-through with the trunk.

In short, there’s a lot to like about this plucky rig. It’s not for everyone, but that comes down more to a difference in personality than anything else.

Yes, the Mini costs more than the ($14,000) Ford Fiesta and ($19,000) Mazda 3, but it’s built much better than those and is comparably efficient. And its fit-and-finish makes those other cars seem cheap. It’s also more fun to drive. Just look at that face.

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