Today, I found myself driving behind a tiny black hatchback with the license plate, "REAL MNI." Yes, it was a tiny original Mini from the 1950’s or ‘60s, with left-hand drive. The new MINIs debuted in the U.S. for the 2002 model year, and I have loved them ever since.
The MINI experience, even in the new, larger, owned-by-BMW form, is about fun. But it's also about practicality and economy. The original cars really were tiny but today's version can fit four adults comfortably and even carry an upright bass (if you leave two of those adults at home). I loaded in a week's worth of groceries with no trouble. And, with its 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine, it gives top fuel economy numbers.
I recently got my hands on a Chili Red MINI Cooper Hardtop. It's the familiar shape that has become a driver's dream in America. The current model looks a lot like the original 2002 model, and it hasn't seen any significant changes for at least six years.
The shape is still perfect, with big, round "eyes" up front. The traditional MINI grille makes the face spunky and ready for action. The windshield sits more upright than in any other car sold today, which means a lot of space between your head and the glass - making the small interior feel larger. That vertical glass up front also means that normal sunvisors would be virtually worthless, so MINI gives the driver his or her own side visor.
The interior features a large central speedometer, harking back to the original Mini. The interior is fun to look at and everything works fine. The audio controls sit within the large central circle; the buttons are a bit small but there are some redundant buttons on the steering wheel. I like flipping the sets of toggle switches on the dash and on the ceiling for windows, locks and sunroof.
Directly in front of the driver is the tachometer, a more important gauge to the motoring enthusiast than the speedometer. The three-spoke leather-wrapped wheel is great to grab while zipping along your favorite scenic back roads. The Sport button on the console electronically alters the steering and throttle for quicker reflexes at those times.
The Cooper's standard 1.6-liter, 121-horsepower inline four has enough energy to get the job done, but if you opt for the turbocharged engine in the Cooper S, you’ll get 181 horsepower, which makes it much quicker off the line.
The EPA rates the MINI Cooper Hardtop with the standard 1.6-liter four at 32 Combined (29 City, 37 Highway). I got 32.5 mpg. The turbocharged Cooper S loses 2-3 miles per gallon for its extra achievement.
My tester’s interior was mostly black, but didn't feel too plain. I remember earlier cars had more silvery plastic trim. The standard MINI Cooper starts at $19,700 these days, plus $700 delivery charges. My tester had only the Sport Package on top of that, which, for $1,250, contributes 16-inch alloy wheels, sport seats, a rear spoiler, and dynamic traction control. The bottom line? $21,650.
That price includes a ton of standard features, including a decent CD audio system with Bluetooth and a USB port, remote keyless entry, power windows with one-touch down and up, and even a three-year or 36,000-mile, no-cost Maintenance Program. Yep, no charge for oil service, belts, inspections, wiper blades, and brake disks, pads or fluid.
It feels good to step into a MINI. It’s close quarters, but not claustrophobic. And from the moment you push in the flying-saucer key and press the start button, it's game on. The sound is sporty without being noisy; the steering provides plenty of feel (thanks to the car’s BMW ancestry) and that close-ratio shifter really delivers. I like driving a MINI because it feels like home.
There are other small cars out there. Some are even hatchbacks, but the MINI experience is different and unique. The Coopers are built in Oxford, United Kingdom, so they are British, but they have a French Engine and a German transmission for an international flavor. It's the taste of European fun, on a budget.
You can customize your MINI Cooper in countless ways well beyond model and color. There are different seat designs, wheel styles, door panels, trim patterns, and some of the choices are not just add-ons - they're alternatives. And you can do all this configuration at MINI's amusing and informative website - miniusa.com.
It's easy to feel good driving a MINI for environmental reasons. It gets a solid 8 out of 10 for Greenhouse Gas and a decent 5 for the Smog score. It's not as clean as a hybrid, but it doesn't drive like one, either. MINI fans all over the world know exactly what that means.