The MINI Cooper Hardtop is a sporty three-door hatchback that serves as the backbone of BMW's ever-expanding MINI brand. Now in its second generation, it combines quirky, vintage British charm with near-luxury levels of refinement and extremely agile handling. Three models are available: the 121-horsepower Cooper, the 181-horsepower Cooper S and the 208-horsepower John Cooper Works.
MINI also offers a small galaxy of alternate bodystyles: these include the Coupe, Convertible, Roadster, Clubman and Countryman.
For the latest model year, MINI has added the race-inspired John Cooper Works GP to the Hardtop lineup. It features numerous performance-enhancing modifications and will be sold in extremely limited numbers - only 500 will be shipped to the United States.
Outside, the latest Hardtop continues to feature the traditional MINI compact hatchback shape. Details like the rounded headlamps and the down-swept grille providing visual links to the original 1959 model produced by the British Motor Corporation.
Though one of the smaller vehicles currently on the market, the Hardtop is far larger than its truly miniature predecessors. Space is ample up front, while the rear seats are sufficient for small adults and children. Fold down them down and there's a compact-crossover-rivaling 24 cubic feet of cargo space available. The dashboard utilizes the traditional, quirky Mini control and instrumentation layout, with an enormous speedometer in the center of the dash and a steering-column mounted tachometer. The setup can take some getting used to, as can the fiddly, eccentric secondary controls on the center stack.
Thanks to its short wheelbase, well-tuned chassis and communicative steering, the Hardtop is as engaging to drive as its looks suggest, offering nimble responses in addition to a tolerable ride on poorly maintained roads.
Cooper and Cooper S
The entry-level Cooper is powered by a 1.6-liter inline-four cylinder that sports parent company BMW's flexible VALVETRONIC variable valve timing technology and produces 121 horsepower and 118 lb-ft of torque at 4,250 revs. That might not sound like much, but due to the car's light curb weight it's sufficient for a zero-to-60 mph time of roughly eight seconds. Fuel economy is rated at an impressive 29 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway with the standard six-speed stick, while opting for the extra-cost six-speed automatic lowers mileage slightly to 28/36 mpg.
In addition to a stiffer suspension, the mid-grade Cooper S packs a turbocharged version of the 1.6-liter that pumps out 181 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque at 1,600-5,000 revs (192 lb-ft in overboost mode). The forced-induction mill helps propel the car from naught-to-60 mph is achieved in about 6.5 seconds. Fuel economy is rated at 26 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway for the stick-shifted model, while the automatic-equipped variant returns 26/34 mpg.
John Cooper Works
After pioneering the superior-handling mid-engined layout and enjoying great success in the prestigious Formula One racing series, British racing driver and designer John Cooper turned his attention to transforming the original Mini into a performance machine. The resulting car, known as the Mini Cooper S, enjoyed a string of dominant performances at the Monte Carlo Rally in the mid-1960s, cementing Cooper's status as a racing legend.
Today MINI pays homage to Cooper with the MINI John Cooper Works models, which are the high-performance range-topping vehicles in the automaker's lineup. While the iconic hatchback was the first MINI model to receive the sporty JCW treatment, the brand's Convertible, Roadster, Coupe and Clubman offerings can also be had in JCW form.
True to its heritage, the JCW hatchback is a pure-bred performance car. It features an aerodynamic body kit, upgraded Brembo brakes and a version of the Cooper S' turbocharged 1.6-liter four that's tuned for 208 horsepower.
With a top speed of 147 mph and a zero to 60 mph time of 6.2 seconds, the JCW is built for thrills. The twin-scroll turbocharger helps the 1.6-liter engine churn out 192 pound-feet of torque under normal driving. An overboost function allows the JCW to eke out an additional 16 lb-ft for a total of 207.
While a six-speed manual was once the only transmission option for the JCW, MINI recently added a six-speed automatic to the options lists to appeal to clutch-averse buyers.
MINI also recently reworked the JCW's engine to achieve improved fuel economy; the result is an impressive 26 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway for the stick-shifted model, while opting for the automatic dings highway mileage by one mpg.
John Cooper Works GP
Sitting at the pinnacle of the hardtop lineup is the hard-core John Cooper Works GP model. Intended as a serious driver's car, the GP does away with practicalities like the rear seats, rear speakers and rear wiper in the name of weight savings while adding adjustable coil-over dampers, stiffer springs and a larger rear anti-sway bar.
MINI also upgraded the brakes, fitting upsized 13-inch vented front discs with six-caliper rotors compliment the carryover rear setup. The engine is essentially unchanged, although minor tweaks add three horsepower for a total of 211 ponies. Torque stands pat at 192 lb-ft (or 207 in overboost mode), and the standard JCW's six-speed stick is the only transmission on offer.
Outside, the GP is easily identifiable thanks to a unique body kit and red trim. A rear spoiler, underbody panels and a rear diffuser to help reduce lift at the rear axle by 90 percent at speeds greater than 62 mph. The interior features a meaty three-spoke steering wheel, superb Recaro seats, anthracite-faced gauges and a red-topped shifter knob. In back, a red bar spans the rear shock towers in the space where the rear seats once resided - it prevents luggage from flying forward during sharp stops.
All of the changes add up to an eye-catching and extremely engaging MINI, albeit one that doesn't score high marks for value.
Standard and Optional Features
Befitting the brand's quasi-premium intentions, the Cooper features a healthy list of standard equipment including speed-sensitive power steering, electrically adjustable exterior mirrors, height-adjustable seats, leatherette upholstery, air conditioning, power windows, power locks, 15-inch alloy wheels and a six-speaker audio system with MP3-compatible CD player and AUX IN connection. Bluetooth connectivity is newly standard for the latest model year.
Aside from its more powerful engine and firmer suspension, the Cooper S adds sports seats, alloy pedals, foglamps and 16-inch alloy wheels. The John Cooper Works brings grey-face gauges, 17-inch wheels, a unique gearshift knob, a sport exhaust system and JCW badging in addition to its performance-enhancing components (detailed above).
Optional equipment includes Park Distance Control, black headlight housing, xenon headlights, Adaptive Headlights, Comfort Access, automatic climate control, automatically dimming rear-view mirror and exterior mirrors, a storage package and for the aesthetically challenged, a rear luggage carrier rack. Entertainment options include a Harman Kardon sound system, a USB audio interface and a navigation system with a 6.5 inch display in the center of the speedometer.
In case the standard options aren't enough for you, MINI has added something entirely new known as MINI Yours, which allows further customization. The options include: an instrument panel covered in a smooth two-tone, soft-touch leather with exposed stitching, a two-tone steering wheel, a new MINI Yours 17-inch wheel, special pattern "Soda" mirror caps with a three-dimensional effect and MINI Yours Soda pattern Lounge Leather with unique Soda pattern on the sides of the backrests and headrests, as well as a contrasting black leather stripe that runs down the middle of the seats and is offset with premium piping.
All MINI Cooper Hardtop models come equipped with dual front, front side and full-length side-curtain airbags in addition to traction and stability control systems and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
As a quirky and nimble compact hatchback, the Cooper has only one true rival: the smaller, less-expensive and less-powerful Fiat 500. Other competitors include larger, more "traditional" cars such as the Honda Civic Coupe, Volkswagen Golf hatchback and Scion tC, as well as oddballs like the asymmetrical Hyundai Veloster and hybrid Honda CR-Z.
Alternatives to the Cooper S include the Italian-chic Fiat 500 Abarth, the uniquely-styled, high-value Hyundai Veloster Turbo and the refined Volkswagen GTI.
The John Cooper Works faces off against the Volkswagen Golf R, Honda Civic Si Coupe and the Ford Focus ST.