As before, the Cooper comes in base and S trim levels, and as a coupe and convertible. (The convertible has not been redesigned for 2007.) I tested a Cooper S coupe.
Exterior & Styling
To the casual observer, the 2007 model looks exactly like the prior generation. In fact, it's been completely reengineered. Though it's almost 2.5 inches longer and has grown an inch or two in other dimensions, the 2007 is more or less the same size — which is to say small but unexpectedly roomy inside. The window sills are higher overall and the shoulders are more prominent, best seen from the rear. The taillights are larger, as are the center-mounted tailpipes on the Cooper S.
The front headlight clusters now incorporate the turn-signal lights, which previously were separate on the bumper below. Fog lights, standard on the S, remain low on the front bumper. Some changes were by necessity, including a higher hood to accommodate the new engine. The hood scoop and center tailpipes are, as before, the best way to distinguish a Cooper S from a regular Cooper, though the scoop no longer serves a function with the new engine and turbocharger.
Mini skipped its opportunity to make more dramatic design changes, which was exactly the right call. Aside from not fixing what ain't broken, BMW remained true to the English brand's approach since the Cooper's inception in 1959: The original Cooper changed only slightly from year to year, and its overall shape never varied, similar to the Volkswagen Beetle.
The mound of media information on the new Cooper is thankfully free of the Queen's English, unlike the documentation we get from the likes of Jaguar (boot, bonnet, colour, tyre), but there's still a line I didn't understand: "Large wheels and minimum body overhangs both front and rear give the new Mini that typical 'stance on the wheels' character now famous for several decades, as if the car were literally resting on its wheels."
I got down on the ground to inspect, and can confirm that the car is indeed resting on its wheels.
Going & Stopping
A new, all-aluminum 1.6-liter has replaced the previous four-cylinder of the same size, which had an iron block. Where the previous Cooper S was supercharged, the new one is turbocharged — a change I dreaded, fearing that engineers had traded the car's healthy off-the line acceleration for the anemic launch that many turbo four-cylinders exhibit in the name of high-rev power.
My concerns were allayed: This drivetrain gives up nothing to the previous one — except the supercharger moan, which I like, but some owners tire of over time. My six-speed manual test car had solid torque off the line, but unlike the previous generation, which ran out of steam as the tachometer needle neared the redline, this one just keeps building and building. Mini cites a zero-to-60 mph time of 6.7 seconds; it's 8.5 seconds for the regular Cooper.
The specs below show that the torque output is substantially higher than that of the 2006 Cooper S (and 2007 convertible), and even the Cooper GP — aka John Cooper Works version — which had a lot more guts than the S.
|2007 Mini Cooper Engines|
|Cooper S||Cooper S soft-top*||Cooper||Cooper soft-top*|
|Construction||all aluminum||iron block; aluminum head||all aluminum||iron block; aluminum head|
|Induction (boost pressure)||turbo- charged (11.6 psi)||supercharged (11.6 psi)||normally aspirated||normally aspirated|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||172 @ 5,500||168 @ |
|118 @ 6,000||115 @ |
|Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)||192 @ 1,700||162 @ |
|114 @ 4,250||110 @ |
|*Same engine used in previous-generation Coopers. |
Further, the peak torque of 192 pounds-feet comes at the ridiculously low engine speed of 1,700 rpm. By the numbers, you'd think the old one was turbocharged and the new one supercharged. I couldn't believe it, like Luke Skywalker when Yoda raised his X-wing out of the swamp using only the Force. (That ... is why I fail.) This engine reminds me of the 2.0-liter turbo in the Volkswagen GTI, which similarly impresses with low-rev grunt and power to spare. The fact that Mini does it with a 1.6-liter is exceptional.
As important, the accelerator has virtually no lag, allowing for quick, smooth downshifts if you care to blip the throttle and match revs. This improves on the first generation, whose by-wire throttle introduced a delay any time you gave the pedal an initial nudge, and frustrated rev-matching.
The progressive, communicative clutch is a high point of the manual transmission. Though the gear ratios are well-chosen, the long-throw shifter is tall and a bit vague. With all that leverage, you'd think they could go with shorter throws.
Still not impressed? Despite the increased output, the gas mileage has improved, and though you can't see or feel it, it's good to know that the earlier car's pathetic pollution score of 2 (out of 10) has jumped to 6 in the EPA Green Vehicle Guide. The efficiency comes from the more sophisticated engine and doing away with the supercharger and conventional power-steering pump, both of which rob engine power. The turbo puts no load on the engine, and the steering now has electric assist, which demands energy only when the steering wheel is in motion.
The four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS, brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution and all that other good stuff are still exceptionally effective and confidence-inspiring. The Cooper S's ample power, strong brakes, small size and ability to dart in and out of traffic begs you to drive like an ass. It's hard to resist.
|Gas Mileage and Emissions|
|Manual fuel economy*|
|Automatic fuel economy*|
|2007 Cooper S||29/36||27/34||6|
|2006 Cooper S||25/32||23/32||2|
|2006 Cooper S GP||22/30||—||2|
|2007 Cooper S||24/31||22/32||2|
|2006 Cooper S||25/32||23/32||2|
|*Source: EPA-estimated fuel economy and Green Vehicle Guide.|
Ride & Handling
In terms of handling, the tired but justified comparison is to a go-kart. Though go-karts are rear- rather than front-wheel drive, the Cooper S is equally fun to toss about. My test car had optional summer performance tires, which wasn't the best scenario during my loan, when temps were in the teens and 20s, but I still got a good feel for the dynamics, especially midday on sun-broiled streets.
As expected, the Cooper S has an understeer bias, but perhaps the most noticeable change, and improvement, is that it doesn't plow wide as readily in sharp turns as the previous generation did. I found it easier to rotate the car on its axis and drift my way around the bends. With its nearly telepathic responses, the Cooper is one of the most controllable front-drive cars you'll find. The steering is impressive; aside from being precise, its feedback is excellent — especially for electric power steering. (In theory, electric assist gives engineers much more flexibility to pattern the response for any speed or rotation of the steering wheel, yet for some reason many other electric systems I've driven have disappointed.)
Pushing a Sport button in front of the gearshift decreases the power steering assist for more direct control and road feel. Though this mode changes the shift characteristics with the optional six-speed automatic transmission, it doesn't seem to alter the accelerator response, which I applaud. This step always seems pointless to me.
Firmer than the base Cooper, the S trim level's ride quality isn't for everyone. A harsh Chicago winter has made for disturbed pavement, and occupants are easily jostled. The car tracks straight and isn't skittish, but I imagine the firmness would wear on some folks if they drove it daily.
The S comes standard with traction control, and a limited-slip differential can be added as an option. An electronic stability system is a separate option that also adds traction control when chosen for the base model.
It would be easy to look at the Cooper's size and think of it among the growing class of subcompacts. This would be a mistake. The Cooper is no Toyota Yaris. It is a lot of car. It feels like a little tank ... if you can imagine a quick, nimble tank.
The new interior is a mix of some improvements, some things that should have been improved and some things that should have been left alone. I won't go into detail about the overall accommodations, because you'd need to try this car on for size yourself, but you should know that it's roomier than it looks from the outside. Six-foot-tall drivers have no problem in it, and the backseat is unexpectedly usable — though legroom depends on how much the front occupants are willing to give up.
Overall, the interior design is still whimsical, in a good way, but it's been simplified and the materials are of higher quality ... except for the center control-and-gauge panel, which is the opposite: complicated and cheapened. Almost every problem I have with the new Mini falls in a 1-foot-wide swath from the top center of the dashboard to the gearshift — once an understated black panel, now festooned with cheesy silvery plastic. The center-mounted speedometer has grown to clownish proportions — except for the mph numbers, which are now lost among fat marker lines, needlessly conspicuous idiot-light dots and a preposterously bright and prominent gas gauge.
A display and menu controls have appeared on the gauge face itself, mainly for managing the audio system, though the volume knob is farther down, under the CD player with the ventilation controls. So what's the knob near the audio controls? Evidence of the German parent company's slavish devotion to knob-based menu interfaces. Someone needs to grab that entire country and shake it.
The temperature and fan dials — down near the actual volume knob — are as difficult to use as they are to see. The seat heater buttons, though more prominent, are just plain odd. They flank a row of iconic toggle switches whose levers have been fattened and shortened to a state of newfound inauthenticity. If any of these controls annoy you, simply grab a beverage; the cupholders remain where they were in the previous model, ever-ready to block the switches from both sight and reach.
The only gauge more prominent than the fuel level is the tachometer, which sits atop the steering column. My test car's tachometer kindly displayed a supplemental digital speed readout. I'm one of the oddballs who doesn't mind the center-of-dash speedo; what I'm bothered by is the double-standard whereby Nissan, Saturn and Toyota have been painted heretical for this placement, while the Mini's is seen as fun and quirky. Whatever.
The parade of ergonomic foibles continues with the backrest adjustment levers, still positioned too far back but now inboard — possibly worse than before. The turn-signal stalk, formerly a peculiar pod-tipped silver lever, is now a peculiar pod-tipped black lever that springs back to center, BMW style. So basically, where once the stalk's position communicated to its driver which of three settings it was on (left/off/right), the Cooper's doesn't. What's the point?
Nor did Mini change the previous generation's moonroof sunshades, which are retractable, like window shades. Unfortunately, the material is a semi-transparent fabric that dims but doesn't block the sun. It also does nothing for noise. On the upside, Mini added a side sun visor because the front one was never long enough to block the side window adequately.
Having laid all this out, only now do I recognize that the Cooper's new interior thoroughly annoys me. This reinforces how engaging the car's performance is. While whizzing around town, the interior was the last thing on my mind.
Being brand new, the Cooper hasn't been crash tested yet by our preferred source, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Only a new test will reflect this car's performance, but I'll mention the previous model's relatively good crashworthiness history to reinforce that size and weight aren't the only issues in car safety. The Cooper actually weighs about as much as a compact Honda Civic, and it has always come with six standard airbags, including side-impact torso protection for front occupants and curtain airbags for head protection in the front and rear seats.
Other features include standard antilock brakes and optional traction control (except in S models, where it's standard) and electronic stability control. Props to Mini for making stability an independent option, not offered exclusively in a package with other items.
Mini offers a complete selection of standard and optional features (click on the buttons, above left), and is more generous than most brands at offering things a la carte rather than bundled in expensive packages or requiring some other option as a prerequisite. Among the exterior options are hood stripes, chrome trim and side mirrors, a rear spoiler (standard on the Cooper S) and interchangeable white turn and marker light lenses. The roof comes in body color, black or white for no extra charge. Xenon headlights are an option seldom found in this price class. Another is sonar rear parking assist — but if you can't park this little booger unaided, you ought to consider public transportation.
Leatherette (vinyl) seats are standard, but you can opt for checkered cloth at no charge, or upgrade to a selection of optional leathers. There's a rainbow of low-cost interior trim packages in complementary (and conflicting) accent colors, as well as more expensive wood and metallic options. My test car had the optional Chrome Line and separate Color Line Dark Grey treatment and some rich-looking brushed-aluminum appliqués across the dashboard.
As a standard feature, drivers can change the Cooper's ambient and accent lighting color by means of a switch. It affects sconces on the B-pillars and subtle LEDs overhead, in the storage bins and behind the door handles. It doesn't affect the gauge backlighting. While indirect lighting is a new trend, I don't think this counts. These lights are more to see than to see by, at least in a metro area like Cars.com's where it doesn't get pitch black at night.
Though it's not the Cooper's claim to fame, its capacity for cargo is better than you might think ... when the backseat is folded flat (forward, actually; it doesn't create a flat floor). When it's raised, there's very little room between it and the liftgate. The new model has an in-between, vertical backrest position that relies on a bracket that hinges up from either side of the cargo area.
Cooper in the Family
The Mini Cooper is a phenomenal car, which is to say a phenomenon. When you consider its solid feel, cult status and high demand, Mini could price it higher than it does. Even if it were so-so in terms of driving, the Cooper would sell because of its looks and size. We can presume the new model innocent, though the previous generation's reliability was below average for its four-year history. For some cars, reliability and cost-of-ownership problems can be the kiss of death. If only there were a way to gauge reliability against a car owner's acceptance of problems. If there were, I think you'd find most Mini owners willing to look the other way. A Mini is like the pet that occasionally wets the carpet. What are you going to do, get rid of it? It's family!
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