We all love the classic Mini Cooper. It was a true icon, transcending classes, countries and taste. Designed as a means to get Britain motoring after the war, it went on to define a generation, and more so. A few years after it came out, John Cooper decided to put a bigger engine in it, and the rally legend was born. The rest, as they say, is history. The Mini Cooper continued, pretty much unchanged, until 1999, when the BMW-designed replacement arrived.
Many people hate that replacement. Personally, I like it. Sure it loses what the Mini originally was – cheap and cheerful transportation for an average family-, but it kept some of the original’s charm. What came after, however, was the pure example of getting stuck in a rut. Being too afraid to change the design, BMW simply did what Germans do best, made that design evolve, slowly but surely. What worked for the BMW 3 series and VW Golf, did not work for the Mini. It went from a cheerful call to the past, to some gross caricature of what the Mini was. I’ll be honest, I hate the design. To me, it looks like a cheap Chinese rip-off of what the Mini used to be. Almost as if BMW asked Geely from 5 years ago, to make a copy of the Mini from 5 years ago. It’s fat, bloated, the front looks like an open-mouthed carp, the rear resembles a baboon’s ass, and all its features just seem to be stretched somehow. From a distance, during a slightly foggy night, it kind of does look like the Mini, but when you get close, you realize it is no mirage, it actually is a really big copy done by someone, whom I suspect never actually saw a Mini. Those pictures on the internet are not joking, it is almost twice the size of the original Mini. And that’s the 3-door version, don’t get me started on the 5 door….
The Mini Cooper I got to drive was the basic version, as in above it, you have the S and the John Cooper Works. Fun fact, in North America, the Cooper is the cheapest version available. There is no such thing as a plain Mini. Even though it was the basic version, I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised with the interior. Sure there are a few options, but some, like the sun-roof genuinely make the car feel premium. The interior is a lot less plasticky compared to the older version. You actually have metal, leather, textured plastics and lighting all over. Gone is the big speedo in the center though, now the Mini is a real car, and instead, you have your infotainment system. Everything feels a lot more mature compared to Minis of old, as if it wants to be treated seriously. And seriously it gets treated. Sure, the retro-styling is still present, but everything has a pleasant feel of quality to it (and it should, most of the buttons come from BMW). The seating position is great, you can be truly low if you want and overall visibility is good (though that back window is small…).
The best thing in the interior though are those aircraft-style toggle switches. Why does no one do those anymore, it is an absolute joy to use! On the other side of the scale, the worst thing regarding the interior though, has to do with its name – it’s small! I don’t know how they did it, but as big as the car is on the outside, inside, it is genuinely cramped! I’m not a tall person, but with the front seat adjusted for my size, I hardly had any room in the back. Honestly, you can travel with 4 people in the Mini, but only if you don’t really like the people in the back. The same goes for the trunk, it’s mini! It really is weird, you would think that at twice the size of the original Mini, this 2016 version would be twice as big on the inside. It’s not. I’m even tempted to say that the original has as much, if not more, space on the inside for people.
Driving the Mini is also a pleasant surprise. At the price, few cars compare to it (at least in North America). It may be big, but toss it in corners, and the car feels nimble, the chassis is playful, yet sticks to the road. All in all, a good driving experience, even on Canadian roads. Thankfully the suspension is well calibrated, not being too stiff, but not too bouncy either. The Cooper is the basic version though, so it was to be expected. Engine wise, the big change here is the fact that we have a 1.5l 3-cylinder unit, developing 134hp and 162 ft/lb of torque. It won’t reach hyperspeed, but on highways it feels adequate. If you never opened the hood, or looked at the specs, you would never notice it. It even makes a decent sound. The only let down is the automatic gearbox (sigh), on the version I tried. It was not as bad as what I’ve tried in the Chevrolet Cruze, but gear changes seem slow, and the car does take its time to react. Overtake someone, mash the pedal, and a good 3 seconds pass by before the car decides to downshift.
Overall the Mini Cooper is a good car. And that’s the problem, it is just average. It should not be average; it is a Mini after all! Where is the legendary chassis, the legendary chuckability and the legendary look? All in all, the car has no character. I guess you could say it has finally been Germanized…. Honestly, if it were not for the neo-retro-ish styling in the interior, from the driver’s seat it felt no more special than a VW Polo or Honda Civic. If you get one to try out, please do, but to actually buy with real money, I’m not too sure. Other cars offer better styling, bigger interiors and better engines. Or you could just add extra, and get the Cooper S version, but in that case, why not get the legendary Fiat 500 Abarth? That car actually looks good, and has character.
It just feels like a marketing exercise to be honest… and if you don’t believe me, just ask yourself, what does Cooper have to do in the name?