Pros: Sophisticated engines; great fuel economy; responsive handling; inspired styling; great in small spaces
Cons: Hardly any rear passenger room; tiny cargo bay; ergonomically challenged design; stiff ride with sport package
The 2012 Mini Cooper is that rare car that manages to be everything to everyone. If you're all about fashion, the Mini's endearing pug-faced style hits the spot, as the car's continuing popularity among trendy city dwellers attests. But if you're a driving enthusiast, the Cooper's got your number, too. Few front-wheel-drive cars are as satisfying on a winding road or a racetrack as this hyper-responsive runabout, especially in turbocharged S or John Cooper Works trim. Even if you're just looking for a high-quality compact car that gets great fuel economy, the Mini should be at the top of your list. It's a car with near universal appeal.
But appeal is one thing; utility is another. As wonderful as the Mini's diminutive dimensions are in tight spaces, they're not much help when you need to haul people or cargo. The back seat is barely usable in a Mini, and the hatchback's trunk is so small that we prefer to leave the rear seatbacks folded down whenever we're driving one of these things. Of course, you can pretty much forget about stowing sizable objects in the convertible.
Still, it's a testament to the Mini's fundamental excellence that it continues to be a genuine object of desire in its sixth year of production. That's right, the current second-generation Mini made its debut way back in 2007. Not much has changed since, but that's fine with us. The 2012 Mini Cooper remains a champ at bringing smiles to practically every face it meets.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Mini Cooper comes in Hardtop (two-door hatchback) and Convertible (softtop) models and in base, S and John Cooper Works trim levels.
Standard features on the base Cooper Hardtop include 15-inch alloy wheels, ambient interior lighting with variable color, height-adjustable front seats, leatherette upholstery, power accessories, a leather-wrapped tilting and telescoping multifunction steering wheel, keyless push-button ignition, a sport button that enhances steering and throttle response, a trip computer and a six-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input plus HD and satellite radio.
The Cooper Convertible adds 16-inch alloys and a power soft top with a sunroof feature that lets the roof slide back part of the way for a smaller dose of sunshine. It also has Mini's Openometer, a gauge that tracks how many hours you've had the roof open. We're not kidding.
The Cooper S Hardtop features 16-inch alloy wheels and adds a turbocharged engine, a hood scoop, a black mesh grille, foglamps, a rear spoiler, dual center-outlet exhaust tips, sport front seats and alloy pedals. The Cooper S Convertible gets largely the same upgrades except for the rear spoiler.
The John Cooper Works Hardtop and Convertible benefit from a slew of performance-oriented upgrades, including a more powerful turbocharged engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, Brembo brakes, an electronic limited-slip program called Electronic Differential Lock Control (optional on Cooper and Cooper S), a special sport-tuned suspension and various exterior and interior styling flourishes.
Mini, perhaps even more than parent company BMW, is the Dell of the automotive world: you can personalize your Cooper with whatever options you like, and Mini will happily build it to spec. We're not going to waste the rest of your day running through all the available options, but some highlights for the Cooper and Cooper S include 17-inch alloys, a sport package with a stiffer suspension, xenon headlights, a panoramic sunroof, leather upholstery, Recaro sport seats, automatic climate control, Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity, a navigation system with a 6.5-inch display and a premium Harman Kardon audio system. There are also seemingly endless potential combinations of colors, special trim items and wheel designs.
The base Mini's standard front seats have rather stingy side bolsters. We suppose that's what the optional sport seats, which are standard on Cooper S, are for. Nevertheless, we love the chairlike driving position, which gives the driver the most commanding view imaginable from such a tiny car. The pedals are perfectly placed, and the tilting and telescoping steering wheel is low and straight, right where you want it. Mini's entertaining website calls its standard setup the Alert Ergonomic Driving Position, and we wholeheartedly agree with that description.
Alas, we can't profess the same appreciation for the audio and climate controls, which are laid out haphazardly and in many places employ stylish yet frustrating toggle switches rather than proper knobs or buttons. Materials quality is also hit or miss, and for what it's worth, older Minis we've driven have been prone to squeaks and rattles. We're fans of the enormous center-mounted speedometer, though, and we don't understand why there's so much hate for it out there. Do people really want a Mini with a conventional BMW-style interior? Be careful what you wish for, folks.
The Cooper's back seat technically seats two, but the front passengers will have to slide their seats far forward to make that happen. This is a two-passenger car, by and large; the back seat is mostly for quick trips or storage. Cargo space behind the hatchback's rear seat is a laughable 5.7 cubic feet, which is why we prefer to fold the rear seatbacks down. You get 24 cubic feet that way, and there's just enough room for two golf bags, one behind each front seat.
As for the Convertible, its truly tiny trunk measures 6.0 cubic feet, but Mini claims 23.3 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded down-a rare convenience feature in a convertible. The vinyl top powers down in a brisk 15 seconds, and no separate boot installation is required.
The purists among us appreciate that you can still get a stripped-down Mini Cooper in 2012, but come on-Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity still cost extra? Really? We're also underwhelmed by the optional Harman Kardon stereo, although the base stereo is considerably worse. On the bright side, there's a cool option called Mini Connected, which adds a fun-looking information and entertainment interface in the middle of the center speedometer. It gives iPhone users access to an app that can integrate Facebook, Twitter, Internet radio and a variety of other services.
Navigation can be added to Mini Connected if you want, but we think if you've already got a smartphone that works with Mini Connected, you already have access to Google Maps and the like, so you probably don't need to pay extra for Mini's maps and directions.
Performance & Fuel Economy
All Mini Coopers have front-wheel drive and start with a six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is optional on all but the John Cooper Works, which is manual only.
The base Cooper is powered by a 1.6-liter inline-4 rated at 121 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. That doesn't sound like much, but BMW engines tend to punch above their weight. Speaking of weight, the Cooper doesn't carry much. The result is that the regular Cooper is actually a rather sprightly performer, zipping around town with verve and making smooth noises all the while. Well, if you stay with the manual, that is; we can't recommend the automatic, even though we know it's more popular, because acceleration times suffer significantly. Fuel economy is a frugal 29 mpg city/37 mpg highway for the manual Hardtop, dropping to 28/36 mpg with the automatic and 27/35 mpg for both Convertible versions.
The Cooper S upgrades to a turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 that cranks out 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque (192 lb-ft on temporary overboost when you're flooring it). This is one of our favorite engines in any car, delivering exuberant acceleration with virtually no lag thanks to a twin-scroll turbocharger and some BMW engineering magic. It sounds like it's having a great time, too. Fuel economy is an amazing 27/35 mpg with the manual and 26/34 mpg with the automatic, making the Cooper S one of the all-time greats at combining speed and efficiency.
The manual-only John Cooper Works gets an upgraded version of the 1.6-liter turbo with 208 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque (207 on overboost). You can definitely feel the power upgrade in the JCW models. Evens o, we doubt this is the best way to spend an extra seven grand or so. The EPA estimates a slightly reduced fuel economy of 25/33 mpg.
The 2012 Mini Cooper Hardtop comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain). The Convertible comes with four airbags and an active rollover protection bar.
The government hasn't crash tested a Cooper using its latest methodology, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety deemed the Hardtop Good, its highest score, in frontal offset and rear impacts. It gave the car its second-highest Acceptable rating in side impact and roof strength testing.
The Mini Cooper squirts along the road like an amped-up athlete who can't wait to get onto the field. That's especially true once you hit the little Sport button next to the shifter and throttle and steering response get night-and-day quicker. We find the default suspension tuning plenty firm and aggressive; the optional sport suspension is needlessly stiff, and combining that option with the 17-inch wheels is a recipe for compressed vertebrae. Road noise is pronounced at speed. Put it this way: the Mini has one big personality.
Other Cars to Consider
FIAT 500 - We consider the base 500 and 500c to be a step down from the Mini, but they're also a lot cheaper. Meanwhile, the turbocharged 500 Abarth hatchback has a great engine and is almost as quick, if not as athletic, as the Cooper S for a little less money.
Volkswagen Golf/GTI - Unless you get the Golf TDI, you're going to give up some fuel economy relative to the Mini. However, you'll get a nicer interior in return, as well as a real back seat and an available four-door body style.
BMW 128i - If you find your Mini's projected price creeping into the high $20,000s or even cresting $30,000-trust us, it's not hard to do-keep in mind that BMW's next product up the ladder, the 1 Series, starts in that neighborhood with rear-wheel drive, more power and superior refinement.
We've had a crush on the Cooper S ever since it came out, and we're still feeling the love. Make ours a base Cooper S with the standard suspension, 16-inch wheels and manual transmission. Spirited performance and handling plus 37 mpg equal one happy bunch of AutoTrader editors.