At its core, the 2014 MINI Cooper is a practical hatchback: a 2-door 4-seater that manages to offer both great gas mileage and a surprisingly large cargo area with the back seats folded down. But the small hatchback is also so much more than that.

For one thing, it's tremendously fun to drive. No, the Cooper isn't rear-wheel-drive, and it's not especially fast compared to purpose-built sports cars. But the folks at MINI have managed to tune the Cooper's suspension so it drives better than virtually any other similarly priced car, regardless of drive wheels. It's also easy to get over the lack of a huge engine because the Cooper is just so eager to have fun around the corners.

The MINI Cooper also offers a retro-themed design that appeals to drivers interested in standing out. Thanks to unique styling updated for the 2014 model year, the Cooper boasts an iconic look that's not likely to get old anytime soon.

What's New for 2014?

Though it looks similar to last year's model, the MINI Cooper is completely redesigned for 2014. In addition to a redesigned exterior and a new interior, the Cooper also boasts new engines and several new features, including adjustable suspension.

What We Like

Great styling; sporty driving dynamics; enjoyable powerplants; surprisingly practical with the rear seats folded down

What We Don't

Gets pricey with options; looks a lot like last year's model; sport suspension means stiff ride

How Much?

$20,700-$24,500

Fuel Economy

The MINI Cooper currently offers two engines. Base models use a 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder that makes 134 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. With a standard 6-speed manual, that engine returns 30 miles per gallon in the city and 42 mpg on the highway; drivers who upgrade to a 6-speed automatic will see 29 mpg city/41 mpg hwy.

Next up is the Cooper S, which uses a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 189 horses and 207 lb-ft. Also offered with a manual or an automatic, that engine returns 25 mpg city/38 mpg hwy with three pedals, or 27 mpg city/38 mpg hwy with the optional automatic.

Standard Features & Options

This year's MINI Cooper is offered in two trim levels: a base model, dubbed Cooper, and a sporty Cooper S. A high-performance John Cooper Works model is currently unavailable, though we expect MINI to add it to the Cooper's lineup sometime this year, likely as a 2015 model.

The Cooper ($20,700) uses the car's 1.5-liter turbocharged engine. It also boasts 15-inch alloy wheels, Bluetooth, power accessories, a USB plug for music, air conditioning and HD Radio. The Cooper also offers driver-selectable driving modes thanks to new-for-2015 adjustable suspension.

Step up to the Cooper S ($24,500) and you'll get the more powerful 2.0-liter engine, along with larger wheels, sport seats and fog lights.

You'll really be able to customize your MINI by taking advantage of the hatchback's options list. Available equipment is plentiful, and it includes features such as a backup camera, an automated parallel-parking system, leather upholstery, a navigation system, larger wheels, a huge panoramic sunroof, keyless ignition and entry, a Harmon Kardon sound system, automatic windshield wipers and park assist. You can also choose from a multitude of exterior colors and available interiors.

Safety

All 2014 MINI Cooper models include anti-lock disc brakes, front-side airbags, side-curtain airbags, traction control and knee airbags. While the MINI doesn't offer as many cutting-edge safety features as some competitors (forward-collision alert or blind spot monitoring, for example), it does include a few safety-related options, such as park assist and a backup camera.

Because the newly redesigned MINI Cooper has just made its debut, neither the federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has had a chance to crash-test it.

Behind the Wheel

We're impressed with updates to the MINI Cooper's interior, which were largely designed to address customer feedback. For example, though we liked the look of the car's center-mounted speedometer, the speedo is simply more convenient when it's located behind the steering wheel. We also prefer door-mounted window switches to last year's position in the center control stack.

Even though the base-level Cooper's new engine is just a 3-cylinder, we thought it felt surprisingly eager when driven hard. With that said, it can feel a bit sluggish in routine driving. Three-cylinder or 4-cylinder, base-level Cooper models have always needed a little coaxing in order to get them going quickly. Meanwhile, 4-cylinder Cooper S models are zippier and more eager to go fast, thanks to a broader power band and a smooth, quick-shifting 6-speed automatic.

Inside the cabin, both Cooper models offer improved ergonomics, better materials, and our personal favorite feature, a novel ring of LED lights around the center display screen. The lights serve a number of different functions: They can act as a tachometer, they can show parking proximity and they even display upcoming turns for the car's navigation system.

Other Cars to Consider

FIAT 500 -- FIAT's subcompact 500 hatchback offers a lower base price than the MINI Cooper and similar head-turning looks. With the sporty Abarth model, it even boasts an enjoyable driving experience.

Volkswagen Beetle -- The Beetle boasts unique styling, a wide range of engines and a larger interior than the MINI, but it doesn't offer the MINI's sports-car-like driving experience.

Volkswagen GTI -- If an exciting driving experience is what you're looking for, then you might want to consider the sporty Volkswagen GTI. Based on the Golf, it offers a turbocharged engine and a choice between a slick-shifting manual or a dual-clutch automatic. It's also available with four doors for added practicality.

AutoTrader's Advice

We really like the MINI Cooper, and we think updates for the 2014 model year only give us more reason to appreciate the small hatchback. If it were us choosing, we'd go for a Cooper S with a few luxury options, though we'd try to keep the price under $30,000. Going over that figure would be tempting, but we think it's easy to get all the MINI you need, and all the equipment, for $30,000 or less.

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Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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