Executive wheels: MINI but mighty

2014 MINI COOPER S HARDTOP

On a recent visit to a Colorado small town, I saw an old MINI, the British one with the right-drive, and I marveled at how small cars used to be. I had just driven the 2014 MINI Cooper S Hardtop, and, given the comparison, I have decided that the new one should be called the MIDI Cooper. It’s still cute, but it isn’t all that small anymore.

It isn’t all that British, either. The listed final assembly in Oxford, United Kingdom, but it had 35 percent of its parts content from Germany, including the engine (German BMW actually owns the brand now), with just 25 percent coming from the UK. And the transmission is Japanese. There’s even a little America (US/Canada) in there – 5 percent. Just as well, I guess, in that British automakers, while known for iconic styling, often left a lot to be desired on the mechanical end.

Here, they got both the styling and the mechanical right. And, for that matter, the size. It looks like a fun car, it looks like a solid car, and it looks like a safe car – all in one. Not too big, not too small.

MINIs look good on the outside but really come alive in the styling department on the inside. They have toggle switches for lights and systems framed by half-circle rings of stainless steel. Cool. The dash features big, circular gauges and frames for systems. Cool.

I enjoyed driving this car around town so much, I took it out of town. Driving day and night, on highway, city streets, and some spectacular, winding, mountain roads, made me love the MINI all the more. This S model has a larger engine that is fast, responsive, extremely fun to drive, and hugs the road like few cars I have driven. The six-speed manual transmission is smooth and will accelerate even on hills (going up) in fifth gear, and cruise at higher speeds at low RPMs in fifth or sixth.

The engine here is a 2.0-liter I4, turbo-charged, putting out some 184 horsepower (hp) that actually feels like much more than that. When you need a sudden burst of acceleration, it’s there. It has been a while since I drove the base MINI, but just so you know, the regular MINI hardtop version features an unusual 1.5-liter I3 engine – three cylinders is rare these days – also turbo-charged and rated at 134 hp. They differ in base price by about $4,000 – $19,950 for the MINI Hardtop and $23,600 for this S Hardtop version. The mileage rating on the S version that I drove is 27 mpg city/38 mpg highway/31 mpg combined. Pretty good for a car with this kind of oomph. 

MINI also has a convertible, a Clubman (four-door), a Countryman (four-door with available AWD), a smaller coupe, a Roadster (a convertible), and a Paceman, (a three-door related to the Countryman and called a Mini SUV).

The Hardtop version isn’t large – the front seat area is roomy, but getting into the back seats in this 2-door model is somewhat of a challenge. Also, there is a liftgate in the back for a cargo area, and while there isn’t very much room, it is adequate for groceries and a little luggage. Golf clubs can go in there with the back seats folded down, which limits the car to a twosome.

I loved driving this car, but it isn’t perfect – and I am going to hammer this because it bugs me: the accessories are too expensive. The base price is $23,600 for the S Hardtop, which is fine, and that price includes nice stuff – dynamic stability control, Sport-Mid-Green driving modes, cruise control, corner brake control, ABS, Bluetooth and USB/iPod interface, six-speaker audio system in AM/FM HD, fog lamps, and a few other things. Plus it has a four-year, 50,000 mile limited warranty, four years unlimited roadside assistance, and a “Boot to Bonnet No Cost Maintenance” – how British) program – three years, 36,000 miles that offers free engine oil services, free engine drive belts, free inspection services, free wiper blade inserts, free brake pads, free brake discs, and free brake fluid. Pretty cool. 

But on my test-drive vehicle, they added a whole slew of things – extra for the paint, a lot extra for carbon black highlights, navigation, panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control, LED headlights, keyless entry, rear spoiler, and more – including $795 in destination charges – that brings the total, bottom-line sticker price to $37,395. Really. A $14,000 premium package, nearly two-thirds of the base price. I could buy another car for that. I’m going to give the S Hardtop a high rating because it is special, but I am recommending keeping close to the base model. The rest is just window-dressing.

RATING: THREE AND THREE-QUARTERS WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)