The new MINI isn't so new anymore. By any standards a rousing success, the little sports box has amused many more buyers than anticipated since its arrival stateside as a 2002 model. Besides its go-kart handling and spunky presence, a key feature of the MINI is choice-lots of it. From colors to wheels to dress-up equipment to power enhancements, when you order a MINI, it's just the way you want it.
You can buy a plain MINI coupe with the standard 115 horsepower engine and manual five-speed transmission for exactly $18,000 and have loads of fun with it. Even at the most basic level, you still get to select from different wheels, and decide whether to have the top white or black, or body color-no extra charge. Stepping up to the S model, you gain a supercharged 168 horsepower engine, rear spoiler, larger wheels, and many other little upgrades.
If you want a convertible, go ahead. It'll cost you more, but it'll be worth it. The MINI convertible top drops in a mere 15 seconds with no more effort than holding down a little button on the windshield header. Another button drops all the windows, too. You can even open the front part of the roof by itself, like a sunroof! When you restore the roof to its upright position, it closes all the windows automatically. And it gets better-you can drop the top using the keyless remote, too.
My test car was a Hyper Blue S convertible, with a suggested retail price of $25,950 before options. You can see I've already added $8,000 to the base car, but the extra power and fresh air make a big difference. My tester appeared to be a demo vehicle for everything you can get in a MINI, and included a long list of wonderful upgrades, starting with beautiful leather seats. Combo #1 Premium added automatic climate control, an onboard mileage computer, neat little circles of audio controls on the steering wheel, chrome interior accents, and an oval folding center armrest.
Combo #2 Sport added upgraded 17-inch alloys and Dynamic Stability Control, which lets the car's computer keep you in line. Run-flat tires are handy, particularly because they eliminate the spare tire, giving the small trunk a bit more storage capacity. Xenon headlamps add visibility (and style), as do the fog lights below them.
The accents in a standard MINI are a nice silvery plastic, but my tester had the $200 upgrade to body color door panels and dash. The chrome package for the outside put shine on the trunk hinges, door handles, and mirrors. The Hyper Blue hood got thick white "bonnet stripes."
But I'm saving the best option for last. My tester received the John Cooper Works Tuning Kit. This combination of mechanical and cosmetic upgrades turns the 168-horsepower Cooper S into a screaming 207-horsepower rocket. Now available as a factory-installed package, the kit enhances the Eaton supercharger and adds a high-performance cylinder head to the engine. Other changes, including a move to performance spark plugs, contribute to the power boost.
At the other end, low restriction electronic air induction opens an additional air duct at higher engine speeds. This increases acceleration in the midrange while producing a banshee wail. My 16-year-old neighbor loved this on the little test ride I gave him. Finishing off the effect is a stainless steel exhaust system with fancy dual chrome tips.
To help stop this demon on wheels, the Cooper folks upgrade the brakes, too, with red calipers up front wearing the John Cooper Works logo. For all the performance enhancements, the Cooper Works kit doesn't scream out its presence, sticking to modest chrome badges at each end of the car and a pretty intercooler surround and an individually numbered valve cover plaque.
The John Cooper name goes back sixty years, but is probably best known for its association with the Monte Carlo Rally winning cars of the mid 1960s. John Cooper's son, Michael, runs the company now, and they are still helping people make the most of their MINIs.
There's a price to pay for all this technology and beauty. My tester totaled out at a breathtaking $37,750. That sounds like a maxi price for a MINI, but when you look at what you get for it, it's a fair deal. If you're not buying a MINI for economical reasons, you'd better move fast, because these are limited editions. If you already own a MINI Cooper S, don't despair. You can get the John Cooper Works Kit installed at the dealership. It'll cost you, but it'll be well worth it.