Ever since I test drove the original Honda CRX a quarter-century ago I’ve been a big fan of small cars. In everyday driving I’d rather have a small car with limited power than a large car with a lot of it. And yet I’ve never quite connected with the MINIs I’ve driven. Perhaps I just needed more time in the seat? To find out, I recently spent a week with a MINI Cooper S—a small car with plenty of power.
More than anything else, styling distinguishes a MINI from other small cars. The car’s iconic exterior provides people who would never buy a Fit or a Fiesta with a reason to buy a B-segment hatchback. The tested car’s $500 “spice orange metallic” exterior was further distinguished with a $250 “MINI Yours Tattoo, Funky” graphics package. A MINI’s interior is even more highly styled than its exterior, though one must wonder if the styling in this case helps or hinders sales as ergonomics and ease of use were clearly low on the list of the designers’ priorities. The idiosyncratic controls are different from those in any other car, are in few cases intuitive, and often require more steps than they ought to. The most irritating: after my aging Motorola phone (a very popular model when new) was connected via Bluetooth, I had to hit “okay” five times to accept the MINI’s requests for data transfers every time I started the car. Perhaps the Smartphone Integration is smarter when paired with a more intelligent phone? The speedometer at the top of the center stack is too large and too close to the driver to serve any purpose aside from decoration; there’s a digital speedometer in the tach so the driver can actually tell how fast the car is going. The sliding armrest is too easily and too often bumped backwards when working the shifter. Some of the materials are decent, but many are a lower grade of plastic than the car’s $27,000+ price might suggest.
A MINI’s driving position is similarly unique. You sit lower than in today’s typical small car and well behind an upright windshield. While this lends the car a different, more retro feel compared to run-of-the-mill subcompacts, it also blocks traffic signals until one learns to stop well short of the white line. Otherwise, visibility is very good all around, thanks to thinner pillars than the contemporary norm. The sport buckets provide good lateral support, but comfort is compromised by a headrest that juts too far forward. The seat recliner is located on the inside, where it is hard to reach. The rear seat in the standard MINI hatchback isn’t intended for frequent use by adults. Even my tenth-percentile eight-year-old son complained that it was tight back there. Need more rear seat room? Then step up to the three-door Clubman or four-door Countryman. Cargo room behind the seat is similarly limited to a single row of grocery bags. Nevertheless, by sliding the front passenger seat all the way forward and tipping its seatback I was able to squeeze a bicycle into the car with just the front wheel removed.
Earlier Cooper S’s had supercharged engines, but the blower was replaced by a turbocharger when the car was redesigned a few years ago. Though in years past this would have meant more lag before the boost kicks in and less low-end power, the MINI’s 1.6-liter four largely avoids these traditional disadvantages. One reason: the turboharger is small and a twin-scroll design. The torque peak of 177 foot-pounds runs all the way from 1,600 to 5,000 rpm, with the horsepower peaking at 181 at 5,500. As with other turbocharged engines, the low torque peak is a little deceiving. It’s easy to stall the engine pulling away from a dead stop with the AC on, and there’s a little lag at low rpm. But from 2,500 on up power comes on so smoothly and in such a linear fashion that it’s not even obvious that the engine is boosted. Just strong. Hit the redline in first at WOT, shift, and the engine slams the car forward upon engaging second—the boost is right there, waiting. And yet this engine doesn’t feel as explosive or as smooth as the newer, 188-horsepower direct-injected 1.6 in the Nissan JUKE.
The six-speed manual shifter, dressed in an odd narrow boot and topped with an uncomfortable knob (style uber alles again), feels a little crunchy and reverse can be difficult to locate. It’s still better than any transmission without a clutch. Fuel economy is impressive given the level of performance, with EPA ratings of 27/36 and trip computer reports of 30 to 35 in the suburbs and 40 on the highway. Expected better from such a small car? Well, the MINI Cooper S might only be 146.8 inches long and 66.3 inches wide, but it tips the scales at 2,668 pounds, seven more than the 178.3-by-69.9-inch Hyundai Elantra. Which should at least partly assuage any safety concerns—this isn’t any tin can.
The JUKE’s engine might feel more powerful, but the MINI’s chassis is far more capable of putting its power down. Get even moderately on the gas mid-turn in a front-wheel-drive JUKE, and the inside front tire breaks traction. Do the same in the MINI, and the car rockets out of the curve. A lower center of gravity and better suspension geometry no doubt contribute, but the MINI’s more sophisticated, seam-free traction control system deserves much of the credit.
The MINI’s quick steering feels firm in normal mode, but provides limited feedback and makes the car seem larger and heavier than it is. Hitting the “sport” button further firms up the steering, but the chassis then feels less agile and the steering more artificial without providing more nuanced feedback. I prefer “normal” in all but the most aggressive driving. A shame, as the chassis is otherwise a match for any other front-driver’s, and far better than the JUKE’s, with the precision, balance, composure, and strong responsive brakes that make twisty roads a delight. Unless the road happens to be bumpy, in which case the chassis maintains the selected line but ride quality borders on harsh even without the optional sport suspension. And if you like your cars quiet, this isn’t your car. But then you probably knew that already.
The tested car listed for $27,700 when fitted with the sport package, keyless access, heated cloth seats, and the too clever by half phone integrator. Knock off $250 if you can do without the funky tattoo and another $500 if you can live with a more basic Bluetooth system.
Until the half-foot-shorter, four-inch-taller FIAT 500 Abarth arrives, the significantly larger VW GTI is the Cooper S’s closest competitor. It’s not possible to equip a GTI to a similar level, as MINI lets you order options a la carte (for more of that retro flavor) while VW forces you into the $5,530 Autobahn Package if you must be able to start your car without touching the keys. Xenon headlights require either this package or the navigation system. Do without these features and the GTI checks in about $1,500 below the Cooper S. Adjusting for remaining feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool reduces the difference to about $900. Add the Autobahn Package and the VW comes in $3,000 higher than the MINI, but adjusting for its additional features reduces the difference all the way back to about $600. So the Cooper S and GTI are close in price. A MazdaSpeed3 undercuts the MINI by about $1,000, so it’s also in the same ballpark (unless you opt for the $6,100 John Cooper Works package on the MINI to get its straight line performance closer to the Mazda’s). A Nissan JUKE SL, on the other hand, lists for $2,500 less than the MINI, and adjusting for feature differences pushes the gap beyond $4,000.
The MINI Cooper S is certainly fun to drive. But so are the GTI, JUKE, and MazdaSpeed3, all of which can be had for the same or significantly less money. The MINI’s compact dimensions and relatively light weight should lend it a more agile, more tossable character than the others, but this advantage is compromised by the car’s heavy, somewhat artificial steering. Even after a week in the car, this steering came between the MINI and me rather than tightly connecting us. In a midsize sedan this steering would be okay, even better than okay, but a small, powerful hatch deserves a livelier, chattier system. It’s the thing I most wish MINI would improve. (Mazda tends to do the best in this area.) Not that the MINI’s secondary controls don’t also need improvement, as they are among the most difficult to use in any car. A less avoidable weakness: the minimal rear seat and cargo space. If you want a small car with a sporty driving position, these are going to be part of the deal. Add it all up, and there’s only one big reason to get a MINI over the larger, more powerful, better outfitted, and/or less expensive alternatives, and that’s style. Love the look? Then there’s no substitute.
MINI provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.