2010 MINI Cooper
Iconic or ironic? The Mini is both.
This little car has created a cult-like following and die-hard fans with lovable attributes that would be considered detriments on any other car.
Although it shares measurements and basic design elements with industrial-size refrigerators, people still consider Mini stylish.
Its ride is bumpy and rough, but people call it sporty.
While that "go-kart" feel in go-karts leaves your kidneys battered and your body sore, people clamor for more of it in the Mini.
Talking about the Mini is like sipping grape Kool-Aid and then discussing the tannins. Is this car a marketing coup or the real deal?
People go on waiting lists to buy Minis, and there's no reason to think this car will lose its popularity. Will someone tell me the punch line? I don't get it.
But I'm starting to. There's something about the 2010 Mini Cooper that is charmingly indiscernible in the same way a Scottish accent sounds beautiful but is nearly impossible to actually understand.
The runt of BMW's lineup litter -- the British Mini is owned by the German carmaker, which has a whole WWII twist of irony on its own -- remains the most recognizable vehicle on U.S. roads today. This car seethes with so much irony, every hipster in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, would own one if their parents would buy it for them.
The more I drove the Mini during a week of test driving, the more I started to understand why people love it. It's different, it stands out, people walk up to you and ask you about it. No other car with a starting sticker under $19,000 strokes an owner's ego as much as the Mini.
All cars are emotional purchases on some level or another, but the Mini is just more emotional. Maybe 10cc was on to something.
But we don't do everything for love, such as ride in the Mini.
Open cabin, road noise
On a recent trip from Gibraltar to Lansing, I discovered there are approximately 3,647 bumps, cracks and creases on Interstates 275 and 96 between these two fair cities. I felt all of them during the trip.
I also heard them -- just above the high-pitched engine cruising along at just over the recommended highway speeds.
The cabin, which is open and spacious, lets lots of road noise in. Fortunately, my Camden package, which was created to celebrate 50 years of Mini, provides sport seats, held me snuggly in place, and a Harman Kardon premium sound system drowned out most of the noise.
You need a good seating position in the Mini Cooper because you can toss this car around like a rag doll. Around town, it's a downright hoot, when you wind out the engine, letting all 118 horses pull you around. The Mini darts from lane to lane with ease and feels like it can almost instantly change directions.
The car is quick and responsive to every steering wheel input. The electric power assist steering remained very sensitive at high speeds, which makes the car jerk quickly and causes a quick rush of adrenaline at the slightest touch. It's kind of scary when you don't expect it.
Some of this is a product of the car's size -- a mere 145.6 inches long with a wheelbase of 97.1 inches. There's little room to absorb much of anything. (Though it will nearly park on a postage stamp for city dwellers.)
Harsh ride from stiff body
While many enthusiasts prefer the Mini Cooper S, with its turbocharged 1.6-liter engine that pushes 172 horsepower, I like the milder and tamer regular Mini. The S has almost too much power for this little car. There's heavy torque steer, and most of the power feels like a waste. The smaller engine still provides plenty of pep, though it does reduce bragging rights.
Overall, the Mini's ride borders on harsh. Some of that harshness is needed to whip it around. A car with a tightly wound suspension is just harsher, the body is stiff, and it can't roll too much or it wouldn't be able to handle as well as it does.
Inside the Mini, you find yourself tempted to pull the emergency brake and see if you can power slide around the corner. Some cars just do that to you.
The $4,500 Camden package may sound pricey (it adds more than 20 percent to the price), but all of the features improve the boxy car's look.
The 17-inch alloy wheels with a silver shield, unique exterior mirrors, fog lights and some special badges help spruce up this Mini on the outside. (You can grab 18-inch wheels with the Cooper S.) But 17s look right on this car, which doesn't need big tires to make a big statement.
The Camden package will only be around until July, when it will be discontinued, making it that much more special. Think of all of the Mini aficionados you can impress as they let out tiny oohs and ahhs over your model.
Aside from the sport seats, which are included in the Camden package, there is unique tech white color line that adds to the car's interior. And the Mini needs as much help as it can get to improve its dash.
First, there's the gigantic Flavor Flav speedometer/instrument panel in the center of the dash. While the speedo actually looks kind of cool, all of the other gauges inside the speedometer, such as the fuel tank gauge, are a little more confusing. Everything looks well-made, but there are just too many petroleum-based products on the dash.
There are also the funky toggle switches below the speedometer and along the roof that give the Mini the feel of a combat helicopter.
Then there's the stereo, which is abysmal to look at and difficult to operate.
Every time I wanted to turn up the volume, I would end up changing stations. Even after a week of driving it, I never got it right.
While Mini says this car is a five-passenger vehicle, it's more ideal for two.
There's plenty of space up front (more than 41 inches of leg room) but the back is rather cramped (just 29.9 inches of leg room).
Worse yet, it's so difficult to just climb back there that only certified yoga instructors should attempt it.
However, the second row does fold down nicely and creates 24 cubic feet of space, which could easily allow room for two golf bags, groceries and a big screen TV.
With the second row up, there's just 5.4 cubic feet of space. Practical, affordable fun
In many ways, the Mini defies expectations. It's certainly practical, affordable and fun to drive.
It also gets good gas mileage, hitting 28 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway.
The Mini defies criticism because it just feels like a smart, fun vehicle.
It's cute, it's a thrill to drive, and dollar for dollar a nice car.
Would I buy one? Sure, if my parents paid for it.
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Exterior: Good. Boxy and easily identifiable.
Interior: Fair. Nicer seats in the Camden Edition make this Mini more comfortable, but the very plastic interior, while well-crafted, feels cheap.
Performance: Good. Very nimble in the city and plenty of pep. Highway ride especially is rough and noisy.
Pros: Iconic. Fun little daily driver at an affordable price.
Cons: Ironic. The very things that people love about the Mini are qualities they dislike in other cars.
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