Goldilocks would love the Mini Cooper. Like that last chair, last bed and last bowl of porridge she sampled, the Mini is "juuust right." The 2012 Mini Cooper S is one of those cars that does so many things well it can be hard to categorize. Is the Cooper hatchback an affordable economy car that slowly sips fuel or is it a sports car that places performance and agility above all else? The short answer is yes to both.

Personalization Options

For 2011, the Cooper received several notable changes like added horsepower, revised steering and standard HD and satellite radio. That means the Mini Cooper for 2012 remains essentially unchanged although there are now more customization options.

The group of appearance options is called Mini Yours. Mini says "Buyers can choose from a large selection of exterior paint finishes, light-alloy wheels, upholstery variants, interior trim? Mini-specific options such as mirror caps and graphics, and numerous other optional extras..." Some options include extra leather covering the dash and/or steering wheel, unique 17-inch wheels and new colors.

And the Mini Yours options are offered in addition to the normal extras like heated seats, navigation, Harman Kardon stereo, Bluetooth, parking sensors and one of the best iPhone/iPod integrations we've seen.

Even if you don't opt for any extra cost Mini Yours features, the car still has a good deal of sass inside. The generous used of chrome trim and the toggle switches combined with the large, round speedometer mean you can enjoy the Mini's attitude from inside the car too. Some of the interior bits feel a little low budget but none of it feels completely out of place on the low to moderately priced models.

Powerful and Economical

All Coopers start with an economical 1.6 liter, four cylinder engine but output increases as you move up the price ladder. The 181 hp, turbocharged Cooper S gets 36 miles per gallon on the highway when equipped with the manual transmission and 30 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving. Yet the car still gets from 0-60 in less than seven seconds. If you live near a twisty mountain road or want to make the most of your local track day, you should check out the John Cooper Works Mini. It features a 208 hp version of the Cooper's 1.6 liter engine, 17 inch wheels and tires plus Brembo brakes for improved stopping power.

Small Car, Big Attitude

It's the Cooper S that strikes the best balance between comfort and performance. It has a more powerful turbocharged engine than the base model, has tighter suspension, sport seats and fog lights. You can opt for a sport package on top of that, but we don't recommend it. The Cooper S is already sporty enough and the Sport Package makes the car so firm it's hard to live with as an everyday commuter car. Stick with the Cooper S and its 16 inch wheels and the car's "just right" nature is all the more obvious. It all adds up to a little car that's a blast to drive hard but comfortable enough for everyday use.

One thing that makes the Cooper S feel so responsive is the light, quick steering. The steering effort and feedback make the Cooper S easy to guide through twists and turns on your favorite back road. Also, the manual transmission is joy to shift, as the gates are well defined and precise. The shifter communicates a level of precision that makes the car feel more expensive than it really is and helps the driver feel more connected to the car. Also, the pedals are well-placed, the brakes are especially responsive and the way the clutch engages on manual transmission cars is perfect ? there's just enough travel and the take up point is works well for spirited driving. There's even a bit of an exhaust note too, something that adds a little extra edge to the overall Cooper S experience.

Interior Accommodations

One drawback with the S is that on long trips, the sport seats can start to feel too firm. They are comfortable at first and they're certainly supportive and do a great job of holding you in place during hard cornering but if you find yourself behind the wheel for a long stretch, those supportive seats start to feel less than comfortable once you spend a good 90 minutes in them.

Like a lot of new, small cars, Mini's interior makes the most of a fairly small footprint. There's lots of headroom and legroom up front but the rear seat is useful for kids only. If you need a useable rear seat but really love the whole Mini vibe, you might want to consider a Mini Countryman or Clubman. Cargo space in the Mini hatchback is limited, there's just 5.7 cubic feet of useful space behind the rear seats, although you can fold those seats down and get quite a bit more.

Moderate Price

The new Fiat 500 is a new Mini Cooper competitor but the two cars are as different as they are similar. The Fiat isn't as powerful as the Mini and the Cooper S is a much more serious sports-hatchback than Fiat's sport model. However, the base Fiat is less expensive than the base Mini Cooper by about $4,000, and that's something to consider if you're on a super strict budget. VW's completely re-worked Beetle might be a car to consider alongside the Mini Cooper as well.

Thankfully, the Cooper's price is fairly reasonable. A base Cooper with a 121 hp engine costs about $20,000. The Cooper S with its more powerful turbo engine is $3,600 more and the high-performance John Cooper Works Mini is just over $30,000.

There are less expensive small cars, like the Fiat 500 but most force some sort of compromise where the Mini is that "just right" fit most shoppers will like. The 2012 Mini Cooper S packs a lot of style and fun into a small package and proves you can have performance, economy and style all rolled into one car.

author photo

Brian Moody heads up the AutoTrader.com editorial team. An automotive writer and presenter for more than 12 years, he's contributed to such media outlets as CNBC, Edmunds.com, Fox Business, Speed TV and The Today Show.

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