Looking for cheerful—indeed cheeky—character in a car? Look no further than the MINI Cooper, revived for 2002 under BMW management. Redesigned for 2014, the retro four-seater comes in three levels, based on engine: Cooper (base model), higher-performance Cooper S, and John Cooper Works edition. Base and Cooper S models got new turbocharged engines for 2015. Two- and four-door hardtop hatchbacks are offered, with front-wheel drive; but the two-door best retains the character of the Sixties original.

Pricing and Equipment

Starting at $20,700 (plus $850 destination charge), the base Cooper holds a TwinTurbo1.5-liter three-cylinder engine that makes 134 horsepower. Either a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic transmission may be installed. Most recently, we’ve driven a Cooper S, which holds a TwinTurbo 2-liter four-cylinder engine that develops 189 horsepower. Top performer is the John Cooper Works, with a 228-horsepower turbo four.

Standard equipment for the Cooper S two-door hardtop model (starting at $24,100) includes:

  • Getrag performance-tuned six-speed manual transmission
  • Performance suspension
  • Mesh grille
  • Hood scoop
  • Foglamps
  • Dual exhaust outlets
  • Sixteen-inch alloy wheels with run-flat tires
  • All base-model equipment, including a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated power mirrors and washer jets, leatherette seat upholstery, automatic climate control, Bluetooth hands-free phone, and Harman/Kardon six-speaker audio with HD radio.

Options include a six-speed automatic transmission ($1,250), rearview camera, head-up display, Sport package, John Cooper Works interior and exterior packages, forward collision warning with pedestrian warning, parking assistant, and speed-limit information system.

Performance Pros

Mini Hardtop
  • Steering/handling is the main attraction. Defiantly tight handling and quick, sharp steering place the Cooper high on the agility scale for any vehicle, not just cars in its price class. Though not difficult to drive, a Cooper demands a bit of effort. Maneuverability and tenacious roadholding are hard to beat, whether in base or Cooper S form.
  • Acceleration is bountiful with the Cooper S, but the current base model isn’t far behind. The three-cylinder base engine is peppier than the previous four-cylinder. Thriftier, too.
  • Transmission operation. Although the manual gearbox is a tad clanky, with longish throws, it’s a pleasure to manipulate, providing a close match to the classy clutch. Automatic-transmission responses are excellent as well, though the manual is in greater accord with the Cooper’s nature.

Performance Cons

  • Ride comfort isn't the reason to purchase a MINI Cooper of any level. Expect some rough going over imperfect pavement with the base Cooper; more so with the Cooper S. Weighed against the masterful handling, however, few owners complain about the ride.
  • Fuel economy with the base Cooper is estimated at 27 mpg city/37 mpg highway with automatic, and 28/39 mpg with manual shift. Cooper S gas mileage drops as far as 23/33 mpg.

Interior Pros

MINI Hardtop
  • Not only is the driver’s seat ready to provide near-ideal position, both front seats are snugly serious: comfortable and skillfully supportive.
  • Coopers are quieter than they used to be, and more attractive inside.
  • Cargo space with back seats up is only 9 cubic feet, but it grows to 38 cubic feet with those seats folded.

Interior Cons

  • Rear-seat space. Even though the back seat improved with the latest redesign, including 3 more inches of shoulder room, it's still not a welcoming place for average-size adults.
  • Controls and instruments have improved in usability and clarity, if at the expense of losing a bit of the car's iconic character.

The Most Pleasant Surprise

Designers and engineers have managed to give the Cooper constant improvement and added refinement, while retaining most (not quite all) of the car’s distinctive character. Moving to BMW-derived turbocharged engines boosted performance potential, making the base model a better value than the Cooper S, which costs $3,400 more.

The Least Pleasant Surprise

Coopers may have changed a little too much at the dashboard. The traditional big center dial is still there, but it now holds a display screen. The formerly-central, huge speedometer has faded away, moved ahead of the driver. Many MINI owners cheer these changes, but others lament the move to modernity. At least, they’ve kept the toggle switches. Though NHTSA gave the Cooper a four-star overall crash-test rating, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety declared it Good in each category. We also applaud the eight standard airbags, but a standard rearview camera would be better yet.

The Bottom Line

MINI Hardtop Rear Quarter

Classic design hasn’t faded away at all. Neither have the Cooper’s inherent joyful nature and supreme handling talents. Except for the Fiat 500 two-door, few vehicles approach the Cooper’s distinctiveness. Owners can still customize their cars with everything from exuberant bonnet (hood) stripes to upgraded mechanical and electronic components.