I was conditioned at an early age to love tiny British hatchbacks. So when the concept drawings for the new MINI appeared in magazines in the late ’90s, I immediately fell in love. And when the iconic little car hit U.S. shores a few years later, I was one of the first to thrash it around the block. In the flesh, the MINI was better than I could’ve imagined. It was also much, much worse. I recently drove a turbocharged Cooper S and I still feel the same way. The MINI is one of the best and worst cars in recent history. Hit the jump to find out why.
The MINI is one of the best looking small cars ever designed. Inspired by Alec Issigonis’ iconic Mini, it has purposeful, yet whimsical lines. It has a muscular stance, but an angelic face. It invokes the classic boxiness of the original, but manages to have modern curves. It has a shape that’s easy to love and almost impossible to hate.
On the road, the MINI has the reflexes of a housefly. It weighs less than almost any other car on the road and its chassis and suspension were tuned by the masters at BMW. Originally, the MINI had an anemic 1.6-liter four cylinder that put out less torque than a Makita cordless drill. The supercharged Cooper S packed some serious punch, but only if you revved it within an inch of its life. In 2008, MINI reworked the engine to give it more grunt and better fuel economy. The S dropped its supercharger for a turbo and now makes 177 pound-feet at 1,600 RPM. The current model is a little monster, eagerly pawing at the pavement and squealing through corners with beastly delight. The Cooper S is one of the most enjoyable front-wheel-drive cars ever made.
The MINI’s exterior is an homage to Issigonis’ clean, classic design. Its interior is a mocking cartoon of the original. It’s comically bad, a collection of preschool shapes wrought in cheap plastic. The speedometer is hysterically huge, a dinner-plate sized gage that dominates the dash. The steering wheel, shift knob, and handbrake are monstrously chunky, as if they were made for chubby toddler hands. The seats are flat and unsupportive. The seat adjustment levers are flimsy. It just feels Playschool. The MINI’s interior is supposed to be youthful and fun, but it’s just plain childish.
To make matters worse, you pay a lot of scratch for that immature interior. The base cooper is priced at $19,500. The Cooper S starts at $23,000. But good luck finding either in their base configurations. Just like its parent company BMW, MINI makes almost everything an extra feature. Just a few options and you’re looking at paying more than $25,000 for a hot hatch. Oh, and if you think you can get a good deal on a lightly used model, think again. These little runabouts perplexingly hold their value better than almost any other car on the market.
I love the MINI Cooper, but I’d never buy one. It’s spunky. It’s fun. But it just doesn’t have enough class to justify its premium price. For the money, I’d rather have a GTI and a new wardrobe. Or maybe a MAZDASPEED 3 and a home theater system.