SCOTTSDALE, Arizona - Redesigning of the popular Mini Cooper and its performance-package Cooper S companion hasn't changed the car's appearance much. "The design is completely evolutionary," said product manager Jeff Stracey. Still, every body panel is different, and hoods have been modified to meet European pedestrian-impact standards.
Interiors have been reworked too, Stracey added, but they still have "the signatures of classic Mini design." All-new engines, on the other hand, remain at 1.6-liter size but yield greater power. For the basic Mini Cooper, which makes its 118 horsepower at a lively 6000 rpm, the EPA estimates fuel economy of up to 40 mpg on the highway - 16 percent less consumption than before.
For even greater pleasure, Mini again offers the Cooper S, with a turbocharged engine that uses direct injection and gets a new cast aluminum block. Among other features, the oil pump works only when needed and an on-demand water pump is installed. Rated 172 horsepower at 5500 rpm, the Cooper S engine puts out 177 pound-feet of torque. EPA fuel-economy estimates are 29 mpg in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway.
Both models have a standard six-speed manual gearbox, but a six-speed automatic transmission is available, too. A Sport button on either Cooper model can enhance accelerator operation.
"Go-kart handling" has been one of Mini's objectives all along. When the car debuted for 2002, Mini "established a new category of the premium small car," said vice-president Jim McDowell. Minis also continue to offer plenty of customization opportunities for the young buyers who make up the bulk of Mini ownership. Dealers can supply some 200 accessories.
Six airbags are standard, along with run-flat tires. When a navigation system is installed, the speedometer's red pointer goes around the perimeter of the display face.
Continuous improvements haven't tarnished Mini's sheer fun-to-drive qualities. If you don't particularly enjoy driving, chances are a Mini Cooper isn't the car for you. Even the base-model Mini delivers virtually astounding tenacity and control. And yes, it seems even better-handling than before.
Performance is generally good with the manual-shift base-model Mini, but if you're in too high a gear, response can shrink to mighty meager. That can happen even if you're in 3rd gear, at times. As before, gearshift action is top-notch, with little effort needed for positive response, though you can occasionally wind up in the "wrong" gear.
Naturally, the Cooper S accelerates with even greater vigor, to the point where it sometimes feels excessive. On curvy stretches, for instance, tromping the gas pedal of the Cooper S produces a wallop that's not always easy to control. Thus, the base-model Cooper feels more refined overall.
On smooth highways, the ride is quite pleasant. More roughness becomes evident on winding two-lane roads. When you reach city streets, it can become downright harsh and jarring. That's the price one must pay for the Mini's breathtaking cornering and curve-carving talents. Steering feel is simply outstanding: taut, but responding with the greatest effectiveness at each speed, just as promised.
Seats are terrific: firm but satisfying with snug but not annoying side bolstering. If there's a bigger speedometer than the one that sits in the very center of the Mini's dashboard, it's beyond our recall. No speedometer could be easier to read at a glance, either. So is the large tachometer, which sits right ahead of the driver. Pushbuttons mounted low on the center stack aren't so easy to operate, but placing the radio's readout within the speedometer is a helpful touch.
Considerable turbulence occurs from the Mini's double sunroof, even when it's opened only partially. Also, forget the back seat unless your legs and those of the front occoupant are comparatively short.
In its 2007 form, the Mini Cooper stickers for $18,700 (including destination charge), versus $21,850 for the Cooper S. Those figures are $700 and $400, respectively, above the prices for 2006 models. Options include a sport suspension, limited-slip differential, Dynamic Stability Control, and a Hill Start Assistant that keeps the manual-shift car from rolling backward for about two seconds.
So far, 177,000 Minis have been sold in America, which is 2.5 times the original plan. "We have not discounted" prices, said McDowell. "We have never had a consumer incentive." Looking ahead, McDowell noted that "not too far in the future," the extended-length model shown as a design study is likely to appear at dealerships. McDowell also advised that the Mini's residual values, which are a measure of leasing terms and likely used-car valuations, are exceptionally strong, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Among other marketing innovations, Mini has constructed a series of "talking billboards" in selected areas. If a Mini fan is enrolled in the Owner's Lounge, he or she gets a special fob that signals billboards ahead, which deliver special personalized messages.
Mini ads call it "a small car that doesn't take everything from the world." Rather, it leaves something for others." In fact, it's promoted as "the joy of small."