The MINI Hardtop Four-Door is grown up in every sense of the term.
Let's talk about the elephant in the room: the MINI isn't exactly mini anymore. The Hardtop Two-Door model has gotten noticeably bigger over the past three generations, and the addition of a four-door body style further stretched the definition of what a MINI should be.
The merits -- and faults -- of supersizing the MINI could fuel pub talk well into the night, especially when you toss a couple of brand purists into the conversation. We hopped behind the wheel of a Hardtop Four-Door in the beautiful Swedish countryside to look beyond the size debate and find out firsthand what the modern MINI is all about.
What is it?
Our tester is a Euro-spec MINI One, meaning it's positioned near (but not at) the bottom of the lineup. Loaded to the gills it ain't, but this is the variant that buyers are realistically likely to drive home in after visiting a MINI dealer with a blank check.
Power comes from a turbocharged 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine that makes 100 horsepower from 4,000 to 6,000 rpm and 132 pound-feet of torque from 1,400 to 3,900 rpm. Note that the 1.2-liter isn't sold in the United States, where the smallest engine available is a 1.5-liter triple.
The only configuration offered is front-wheel drive, which has been one of the British icon's defining features since the original model debuted in 1959. The turbo three is bolted to a crisp-shifting six-speed manual transmission.
Our first impression after slipping behind the wheel of the Hardtop Four-Door was that it's surprisingly spacious inside. We came away impressed with how well designers have managed to make use of the space that's available. It doesn't feel cramped; that's especially striking if you've driven the first two generations of the BMW-funded MINI.
The Hardtop lives up to its premium aspirations with materials that are generally above par, though the trim found at the top of the door panels and on the center console are exceptions to the rule. The dashboard's horizontal lines emphasize the cabin's width, and we like the retro-inspired toggle switches that hark back to the original model.
MINI moved the speedometer from the center of the dashboard, where it was on some -- but not all -- variants of the original car, to right behind the steering wheel. While the switch was necessary to free up prime real estate on the dashboard, it came at the cost of overall legibility. The numbers are much smaller than before, and the three-spoke steering wheel doesn't tilt very high so taller drivers will have a difficult time seeing the top of the instrument cluster.
We appreciate that the information screen built into the speedometer is a decidedly premium, high-resolution unit, not one that looks like the display on a Motorola pager. However, the digital gas gauge that's grafted on the right side of the speedometer looks all kinds of tacky. Replacing it with a third cluster that includes an analog gas gauge and a temperature gauge would do wonders in the instrumentation department.
Trunk space checks in at 9.2 cubic feet with four occupants on board, which is about a cube more than you'll find in the two-door Hardtop. It's a respectable amount for a car this size, and folding the seats down makes it possible to carry big, bulky items with relative ease. All told, the Hardtop is more practical than we ever thought a MINI could be.
How does it drive?
The MINI brand is all about handling, and the Hardtop Four-Door is no exception. It's an absolute blast to toss around because the steering is sharp and direct, the chassis is buttoned-down, and the suspension is tight enough to keep body roll at bay. The front passengers sit low, which contributes to the overall feeling of sportiness. The MINI Hardtop is the kind of car that makes you want to find every conceivable excuse -- no matter how untrue or far-fetched -- to get out and drive.
The turbocharger spools up fast, the lag is only slightly perceptible, and the engine follows suit in a timely manner. The little three-pot pulls hard, it delivers power steadily and linearly until it reaches its red line. 100 horses doesn't sound like a lot, and the MINI One isn't what we'd call fast, but we consider even this relatively basic, Euro-spec model an enthusiast's car because it delivers big in the thrills department.
The six-speed manual is a delight to operate, but we'd suggest upgrading the brakes. They lack bite, coming to a full stop from highway speeds takes longer than we'd like it to. That aside, the Hardtop is a pleasant machine on long trips because its ride isn't as choppy as we expected it to be. It's undeniably not comfort-focused, but no one's ever bought a MINI thinking that they were getting E-Class-rivaling coziness.
That said, engineers have gone to great lengths to make the cabin quieter than ever before. The Hardtop is whisper-silent at low speeds, and wind noise is perceptible on the highway but it's not intrusive enough to warrant complaining about it.
Though the MINI has grown, it's still highly maneuverable around town thanks to short overhangs, quick steering, and good overall visibility. There's virtually no difference between the Two-Door and the Four-Door model in that regard. Efficiency doesn't suffer, either. We averaged about 45 mpg, which is slightly below what MINI says the One should return regardless of body style.
Leftlane's bottom line
The MINI Hardtop Four-Door is grown up in every sense of the term. We understand that enthusiasts driving a 1987 Austin Mini City E feel like the Four-Door is a Ford Excursion in drag, but the two actually have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Even with an extra pair of doors, the MINI is a more accurate interpretation of its predecessor than the Volkswagen Beetle and the Fiat 500. It's bigger than the original, granted, but times change and some concessions are necessary. We've never seen anyone picketing in Wolfsburg to get Volkswagen to move the Beetle's four-cylinder right behind the rear axle, or to offer an air-cooled TFSI engine.
While the original Mini started life as a Spartan economy car, the current model is billed as a premium car with a price tag to match. The MINI Hardtop Four-Door is consequently one of the more expensive cars in its segment, especially for buyers who can't resist ticking boxes, but it's also one of the most rewarding to drive.