By Nat Shirley
Tuesday, Feb 4th, 2014 @ 11:45 am
 

Appearances can often be deceiving, and such is the case with the latest MINI Hardtop.

Although it takes a practiced eye to tell it apart from its predecessor, the 2014 Hardtop is no mere nip-and-tuck job. Rather, it's a clean-sheet redesign that makes strides in the practical areas of cabin space, fuel efficiency and technology, while also managing to build on the playful, premium character that defined its predecessor.

Additionally, the Hardtop sets the tone for MINI's future, as its platform, engines and transmissions will serve as the basis for the brand's next-generation lineup.

Join us for a brief break from the harsh realities of winter as we take a closer look at the hatchback on the winding backroads of sunny Puerto Rico.

Engine Room

As with previous Hardtops, the new model is offered in Cooper and Cooper S forms, with a hopped-up John Cooper Works variant expected to debut in the near future.

In what amounts to a major upgrade, the Cooper receives a new turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder that will soon find its way into several other BMW Group products, including the BMW i8 hybrid sports car.

In this application, the mill produces 134 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque, with the latter figure rising to 170 lb-ft for brief bursts in overboost mode. Those numbers are much improved over the outgoing 1.6-liter four-cylinder's 121 horsepower and 118 lb-ft, especially in terms of torque.

The Cooper S also gets a new mill, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 189 ponies (up 8) and 207 lb-ft of twist, or 221 lb-ft with overboost (up 19). A six-speed manual gearbox with rev-matching - a defeatable function that blips the throttle for extra-smooth downshifts - is standard on both models, while a six-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters is optional.

Despite the additional muscle, fuel consumption has decreased - when equipped with an auto, the Cooper is good for an impressive estimated 30 city/42 highway, and the Cooper S returns 28/40 mpg.

Bigger MINI

Both motors are installed in a body that appears familiar at first glance but is actually larger in all dimensions - especially in terms of length, which has increased by 4.5 inches. That means there's more space inside and for cargo and passengers, although, predictably, weight is also up by 70-100 lbs. depending on model configuration. However, oversized head- and taillights effectively mask the fact that this is a larger MINI, while new touches like a restyled grille, larger front overhang and reshaped fender vents freshen the otherwise familiar look.

Inside, the theme of evolution over revolution continues, but the changes are more substantial. While the overall layout remains, the speedometer has migrated from its eccentric, heritage-inspired spot at the center of the dashboard to a more conventional location atop the steering column, a placement that necessitates a much smaller tachometer. The circular space that the speedo once occupied is now filled by either an optional 8.8-inch navigation screen or a smaller radio display, while a surrounding LED "light ring" shifts colors in response to factors like engine speed and radio volume.

Other ergonomic enhancements include a reworked center stack with knobs that replace many of last year's fiddly climate control buttons, as well as window switches that have finally been moved from the lower stack to the door panels, just as the car gods intended. The bank of toggle switches now includes a red engine on/off control that, depending on your viewpoint, is either an endearing quirk or a silly gimmick.

Material quality has improved throughout, further cementing the Hardtop's premium positioning, but the space increase is more difficult to discern. It doesn't seem that the extra length has translated into meaningful gains in rear seat room, although at least the cargo area, now at 8.7 cubic feet, is 3 cubes tinier than before. The front of the cabin remains airy and accommodating, and the sightlines - long a MINI strong point - are superb.

Continuing the industry trend towards the democratization of technology features that were originally exclusive to luxury vehicles, the Hardtop gains a host of new convenience and safety extras. Automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control and automatic high-beams are offered as part of the optional Driving Assistant package, and a head-up display is also available. In something of a curious decision for one of the smallest, most maneuverable cars on the market, MINI has added a parking assistant option, too.

On the performance end, the Cooper S can be had with a new adaptive damping system with sport- and comfort-focused modes.

Before such high-tech accouterments are spec'd, the Cooper starts at $20,745 (including destination), while the Cooper S commands $24,395 - prices that represent only $250 and $300 increases over the old models, respectively.

Motoring

On the picturesque but unpredictable mountain roads of northern Puerto Rico, where sleeping dogs, wandering livestock and charging 18-wheelers lurking behind blind turns often prompted frantic emergency maneuvers, it soon became clear that the new Hardtop picks right up where its fine-handling predecessor left off.

Steering response is even more immediate than before, and ample feedback from the tiller provides the driver with the confidence to fully exploit the quicker turn-in. The chassis is composed, planted and balanced to the degree that - heretical though such a sentiment may seem - we're suddenly not as worried about BMW's plans to use this front-wheel-drive platform in place of a rear-wheel-drive setup in several of its future models.

While the Cooper S' engine was predictably punchy, the big news is actually the Cooper's turbo triple, which manages to be both torquey (all 170 lb-ft come online at 1,250 rpm) and remarkably refined. Additionally, to our ears, it was more melodious than the four, with a noise not unlike that of a V6. Both boosted motors felt nearly lag-free, and their stop/start systems seemed much better realized than some of BMW's previous efforts, which could be quite uncouth when re-starting the engine.

The automatic provided quick, crisp shifts, and we appreciate that MINI has adopted the proper left-to-downshift, right-to-upshift paddle shifter setup, but we expect that many enthusiasts will want to stick with the stick shift due to its fluid action and well-executed rev-matching.

MINI clearly made more of an effort to differentiate the two models' suspension tuning this time around, with the Cooper getting a more comfort-oriented setup that allows moderate body roll. Body motions are much better controlled in the Cooper S, and our tester's adaptive dampers afforded a significantly more livable ride than the somewhat hard-edged outgoing S. The adaptive damping system is integrated into a Drive Mode system - standard across the Hardtop line - that offers Sport, Normal and Green settings. They adjust steering weight, throttle mapping and suspension firmness, providing either a noticeably fun or efficiency-focused driving experience.

Leftlane's Bottom Line

Don't be fooled by the familiar face - the third-generation Hardtop is appreciably better than its predecessor in nearly every way.

With its much-improved base engine, less quirky ergonomics and an even more enjoyable driving experience, there's a lot to like about MINI's latest model, and that bodes quite well for the brand's upcoming offerings.

2014 MINI Cooper Hardtop base price range, $20,745 to $24,395.

Photos by Nat Shirley.

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