Pros: Sophisticated engines; great fuel economy; responsive handling; inspired styling; makes parking fun
Cons: Tiny backseat and cargo bay; ergonomically challenged controls; stiff ride with sport package
What's New: Re-shuffled option packages
The 2013 MINI Cooper is a charismatic car that manages to be many things to many people. If you regard cars as fashion statements, the MINI's endearing style hits the spot with endless customization possibilities. 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. Even if you're just looking for a high-quality compact car that gets great fuel economy, the MINI Cooper is all of that too. It's also available as a convertible for sun-seekers and as a superfast John Cooper Works edition for weekend racers. It's a car with near universal appeal.
But appeal is one thing; utility is another. As wonderful as MINIs are to slip into tight spaces, they're not much help when you need to haul four adults or bulky cargo. The backseat is barely usable in a MINI, and the hatchback's cargo area is so small with the seats up that we prefer to leave the rear seat backs 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, the fact that today's Cooper continues to be a genuine object of desire in its seventh year of production testifies to the MINI's fundamental excellence. Indeed, since it debuted way back in 2007 not much has changed -- by the way, it is scheduled for replacement for 2014 -- but that's fine with us. Today's MINI Cooper remains a champ at bringing smiles to practically every face it meets.
Comfort & Utility
The 2013 MINI Cooper comes in hard-top (2-door hatchback) and convertible (soft-top) models and in base, S and John Cooper Works trim levels.
Standard features on the base Cooper hardtop ($20,400) 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 multi-function steering wheel, keyless ignition, a sport button that enhances steering and throttle response, a trip computer and a 6-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input plus HD and Bluetooth connectivity.
The Cooper convertible ($25,850) adds 16-in alloys and a power soft-top with a sunroof feature that lets the roof slide back over just the front two occupants for a slightly 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 hard-top ($24,000) features 16-in alloy wheels and adds a turbocharged engine, a hood scoop, a black mesh grille, fog lamps, a rear spoiler, dual center-outlet exhaust tips, sport front seats and alloy pedals. The Cooper S convertible ($28,850) has largely the same upgrades, except for the rear spoiler.
The John Cooper Works hard-top ($30,800) and convertible ($36,000) benefit from performance-oriented upgrades, including a more powerful turbocharged engine, 17-in 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 allows you to personalize your Cooper with whatever options you like, and will happily build it to spec. Some highlights from the Cooper/Cooper S options list include 17-in alloys, a sport package with a stiffer suspension, xenon headlights, a panoramic sunroof, leather upholstery, Recaro sport seats, automatic climate control, satellite radio, a navigation system with a 6.5-in 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 front seats have weak side bolsters, which makes upgrading to the optional sport seats (standard on Cooper S) worthwhile, though the chair-like driving position gives the driver a surprisingly commanding view. The pedals are perfectly placed, and the steering wheel tilts and telescopes for comfort. MINI's entertaining website calls its standard setup the Alert Ergonomic Driving Position, and we wholeheartedly agree with that description.
The audio and climate controls, however, are laid out haphazardly. In a nod to kitschy retro design, some controls use stylish but frustrating toggle switches rather than knobs or buttons. Materials quality is also hit or miss. We're fans of the enormous center-mounted speedometer, though it takes a little getting used to.
The Cooper's backseat technically seats two, but it's very tight back there for adults. This is a 2-passenger car, by and large; the backseat is best for quick trips or storage. Cargo space behind the hatchback's rear seat is a laughable 5.7 cu ft, which is why we tend to keep the rear seat backs down. You get 24 cu ft that way -- just enough room for two golf bags, one behind each front seat.
The convertible has a truly tiny trunk, measuring 6 cu ft. But MINI claims it has 23.3 cu ft with the rear seat backs folded down -- a rare convenience feature in a convertible. The vinyl top powers down in a brisk 15 seconds.
For 2013, MINI has added Bluetooth connectivity to all Coopers, but we're underwhelmed by the optional Harman Kardon stereo (the base stereo, however, 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. MINI Connected gives iPhone users access to an app that can integrate Facebook, Twitter, Internet radio and a variety of other services to keep you, well, connected. Navigation can be added to MINI Connected if you desire to.
Performance & Fuel Economy
All MINI Coopers have front-wheel drive and come standard with a 6-speed manual transmission. A 6-speed automatic is optional on all Coopers for 2013, including the John Cooper Works models for the first time; Cooper S and John Cooper Works models include paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
The base Cooper is powered by a 1.6-liter inline-4 rated at 121 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. Paired with the 6-speed manual, that engine gives the Cooper rather sprightly performance. We can't say the same of the automatic, even though we know it's more popular, because acceleration times suffer significantly. Fuel economy is a frugal 29 miles per gallon city/37 mpg highway for the manual hardtop, dropping to 28 mpg city/36 mpg hwy with the automatic and 27mpg city/35 mpg hwy for both convertible versions.
The Cooper S upgrades to a turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 producing 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque (192 lb-ft on temporary overboost when you floor it). This engine delivers exuberant acceleration with virtually no lag thanks to a twin-scroll turbocharger and a little BMW engineering magic. It sounds like it's having a great time, too. Fuel economy remains high at 27 mpg city/35 mpg hwy with the manual and 26 mpg city/34 mpg hwy with the automatic, making the Cooper S one of the all-time greats at combining speed and efficiency.
The John Cooper Works gets an upgraded version of the 1.6-liter turbo with 208 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque (207 hp on overboost). You can definitely feel the power upgrade in the JCW models. Even so, we doubt this is the best way to spend an extra seven grand or so. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that fuel economy drops to 25 mpg city/33 mpg hwy.
The MINI Cooper hard-top comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock 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 (IIHS) deemed the hard-top 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 which causes the throttle and steering response to get far quicker. We find the default suspension tuning quite firm and aggressive; the optional sport suspension is needlessly stiff, and combining that option with the available 17-in 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 ($16,000) and 500c ($19,500) to be a step down from the MINI, but they're also a lot cheaper. Meanwhile, the turbocharged 500 Abarth hatchback ($22,000) has a great engine and is almost as quick as the Cooper S for a little less money, and sounds absolutely fantastic.
Volkswagen Golf/GTI: The VW Golf ($17,995) is cheaper than the MINI Cooper, but unless you order the diesel-powered TDI ($24,235), you're going to give up some fuel economy relative to the MINI. However, you'll get a nicer, more spacious interior and an available 4-door body style. The hopped-up GTI ($23,995) is an unforgettable hoot.
BMW 128i: If you find your MINI's projected price creeping into a high 20 thousand 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 ($31,200), 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-in wheels and the manual transmission. Spirited performance and handling plus 37 mpg equal one happy bunch of AutoTrader editors.