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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

MINI Cooper

A modern interpretation of the much-loved British Mini of the Sixties and Seventies, the MINI Cooper returned to the U.S. in 2002 as a three-door hatchback. Since then, the line has expanded in several directions: a convertible; a small wagon with one door on the left side, two doors on the right, and a pair of vertical "church doors" at the rear; the low-slung two-seat Coupe and Roadster models; a larger three-door Paceman hatchback; and various John Cooper Works hot-rod editions.

Various MINI models compete with different cars, though the lineup that's most directly similar to the Cooper range comes from the Fiat 500. The Italian car, reintroduced to the U.S. market a decade after the MINI arrived, already includes not only a three-door hatchback, but also a convertible, the Abarth hot-hatch version, and then an upcoming 500L larger five-door hatchback that goes head-to-head with the MINI Countryman. But as a style statement, the MINI also competes against vehicles as varied as the Volkswagen Beetle, Mazda Miata, and perhaps even the Nissan Juke--plus a handful of more pedestrian subcompacts like the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit.

The original 1959 Mini pioneered the front-wheel-drive “econobox” with a transverse front engine that has since become the standard layout for small cars. Small numbers were sold in the U.S. through 1967, and in Canada into the 1980s. Then, in 2002, the all-new and larger version proved that even U.S. drivers would purchase mini-cars, if they offered style, power, sporty handling, and good perceived value for money.

The first generation of the new MINI Cooper, sold from 2002 to 2006, was the first MINI sold in the States since 1967. Unlike its U.K. home market, which included an ultra-fuel-efficient MINI One model, it was only offered here in sporting Cooper trim and two model variations: The standard MINI Cooper, with a 115-horsepower, 1.6-liter engine, and the MINI Cooper “S”, with a 168-hp supercharged version of the same engine. A convertible was added for 2005. A five-speed manual gearbox was standard, and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) served the function of an automatic.

Completely redesigned for 2007 (the Convertible followed in 2008), the latest MINI Cooper closely resembles the earlier model but offers a number of feature and safety refinements. The second-generation MINI introduced a new 120-hp, 1.6-liter engine, which in the “S” model received a turbocharger that took its power up to 175 hp. A six-speed manual gearbox was standard, with a six-speed automatic optional. A high-performance John Cooper Works model was also available.

For 2011, the Cooper range was upgraded to 121 horsepower in base models through reduced internal engine friction, while the Cooper S increased to 181 horsepower with additional tuning. The John Cooper Works models from 2011 forward now rate 208 horsepower, and include an upgraded suspension and unique appearance items. Other updates for the 2011 and 2012 model years include freshened exterior appearance elements including a new bumper, a new set of interior and exterior customization options, and, for 2012, a new MINI Yours personalization program. A six-speed manual transmission continues to be the standard, while an automatic is available on the Cooper and Cooper S variants. John Cooper Works models remain manual-only.

The MINI Countryman crossover, launched in late 2010 as a 2011 model, also shares the same basic powertrain options as the rest of the Cooper range. It expands the Cooper range to all-wheel-drive (optional) and larger, more off-roady proportions. For 2012, a new two-seat Coupe model joins the lineup, again sharing the same engines, trims, and basic options as the standard Cooper, and soon, a convertible version of the Coupe, dubbed the Roadster, will reach retail sales as well. The Clubman wagon, launched a few years before, provides a rear seat that’s actually usable, due to its longer wheelbase versus the original coupe and convertible. They're really two-person cars despite the vestigial back seat.

On the 2013 MINI Cooper—and actually, on the entire MINI lineup, the brand made the formerly optional Bluetooth system and USB/iPod connectivity standard. There's also a special John Cooper Works GP edition on the way in spring of 2013. 

Base-priced below $19,000 (though options add up quickly), the MINI Cooper has had few direct competitors in the premium mini-car niche, though the upcoming Fiat 500 aims right at it, as will the Audi A1—if indeed it is sold in the U.S. A new-generation MINI Cooper lineup, with both gasoline and diesel three-cylinder variants, is expected to arrive in 2014.

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