2012 Mini Cooper Driving Impressions

We've driven all the Mini Coopers on race tracks, streets and highways around the world, and rank them among the most fun and responsive front-wheel-drive cars available, enhanced by outstanding real-world fuel economy. All Minis have a basic sporting character. Yet most are quite comfortable as daily drivers.

The current-generation Mini, introduced as a 2007 model, is in nearly all respects a better car than the version that re-launched the brand in the U.S. as a 2001 model. It's even easier and safer to drive quickly, and benefits from changes to the suspension and increased engine torque.

For 2011, Mini upgraded its 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine across the line. The changes were aimed at improving efficiency, with less engine weight and friction, accessories that sap less power, and BMW's full, no-throttle Valvtronic variable valve timing. Still, engine output has increased slightly.

The 1.6-liter engine in standard Mini Coopers delivers 121 hp at 6000 rpm, 114 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm. The turbocharged 1.6-liter in Cooper S models generates 181 hp at 5500 rpm, with a minimum 177 lb-ft available from 1600-5000 rpm, plus an overboost feature that will deliver 192 lb-ft in short bursts. The extra-racy John Cooper Works models peak at 208 hp at 6000 rpm, 192 pound-feet of torque at 1850-5000 rpm plus an overboost delivering 207 pound-feet when needed. Measured by specific output, a technical label for the amount of power an engine delivers for its size, the Mini JCW four is one of the most powerful engines in any automobile.

Mini touts its new Mini Coupe (reviewed separately) as the quickest member of the lineup, but we think the Hardtop is the best body style from a driving standpoint. It seems the most fun to drive in the purest sense.

Mini says the Hardtop hits 60 from a stop in 8.4 seconds, which is not particularly quick, while the Mini Cooper S performs this feat in 6.6 seconds, which is quick.

The turbocharged Mini Cooper S engine reacts almost instantly to the gas pedal, with only the tiniest hint of turbo lag, and produces satisfying acceleration at all speeds. Its steady, even power delivery across a wide rpm range is impressive, as we've learned in a race track test drive, as well as public road experience.

Cooper S models come with a sport-tuned suspension, but their behavior is still quite refined, and more so than some other cars capable of similar track speeds. With a MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension, the Cooper S is flat and stable in corners, and absorbs small bumps and joints without discomforting passengers. With front-wheel drive, the car never feels at risk of spinning out, even with radical changes in throttle position or braking in the middle of corners.

A key factor in the Mini's sporting feel is its electromechanically assisted steering, which uses an electric motor, instead of a hydraulic pump, for steering assist. Despite the fuel-saving electric power assist, the steering shaft is still mechanically connected to the steering box, so the driver continues to enjoy great feel for the road. This system also varies the steering ratio and effort according to speed.

The effect of the electric steering is most apparent in tight, slow parking lot maneuvers, where very little effort or wheel motion is needed to make large changes in direction. In comparison, at highway speeds an equal rotation of the steering wheel results in smaller and less sensitive directional changes. Another advantage of electrically assisted steering, from the performance perspective, is that steering ratios can be optimized for various portions of a curve, and not just varied with vehicle speed. In the Mini, this means that the initial turn into a corner is cushioned slightly, so the car doesn't feel as go-kart twitchy as the previous generation. It feels a bit numb on center.

The 6-speed automatic transmission works reasonably well with both the standard and turbocharged engines. Paddles on the steering wheel let the driver override the automatic and shift manually; and when the driver stops using them, the transmission reverts to Drive, picking the gears itself. Automatics also come with a Sport mode button that switches to a more aggressive shift algorithm that holds gears longer to keep more power on tap. On all models, the Sport button quickens throttle response and chooses a quicker steering ratio.

The 6-speed manual gearbox offers more driver engagement than the automatic and wrings the most from the Mini's small engine. We strongly recommend the manual for the low-powered base models, and prefer it for the high-powered models. It's crisp, precise, and makes the driving experience more fun.

Mini brakes are first-rate. The four-wheel discs are large for cars of the Mini's weight, and they provide quick, stable stops with good, consistent pedal feel. They're also managed by one of the slickest control programs in small cars. Both the base and S models benefit from Mini's brake cornering control, which can use the ABS to apply individual brakes to inside wheels to help get the car through a corner.

The Convertible is almost as sporty as the Hardtop. This latest version handles better than the previous-generation, thanks to a stronger body structure that substantially reduces cowl shake and body shimmy.

The Clubman is nearly as fun to drive as the regular Mini Cooper Hardtop, and its extra length is an advantage in some ways. The longer wheelbase makes the Clubman a bit more stable in turns. The Hardtop is slightly more eager in quick changes of direction, but the Clubman is still nimble compared to similarly sized cars in tight quarters.

On the road, most drivers should find the Clubman a little more comfortable than the Hardtop. The longer wheelbase makes for smoother ride quality. If ride comfort is a top priority, the Countryman should be the Mini Cooper of choice.

Tires play a crucial role in the Mini ride-quality equation, and there is a variety of tires to choose from. All-season tires on the smaller rims deliver the most comfortable ride. This is most obvious in the Convertible, which tends to emphasize road shock and shakes. The run-flat performance tires on the Mini Cooper S Convertible with a Sport Package made us dread the early spring potholes blooming on Chicago streets. Be sure to actually drive a car with the sports suspension and big rims, regardless of the Mini variant, before buying. They may make the ride too stiff for some tastes.

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