2007 MINI CooperClick to enlarge picture

The new MINI Cooper may look unchanged from the previous generation, but the two share no body panels at all.

MINICooper

So the changes for the second-generation MINI Cooper would be evolutionary—definitely not revolutionary. "From the original to the original" was the philosophy, and designers held to this mantra quite admirably. Unless the two generations are parked side by side, it's hard to tell what's new.

But the 2007 MINI Cooper is indeed all new—not a single body panel was carried over from the outgoing model. Both available engines also are new, providing more power with better fuel-efficiency. And although a bit larger than its predecessor, the new MINI remains one of the smallest cars on the road.

In addition to keeping the styling intact, the MINI had to keep its go-kart-like handling and fun-to-drive characteristics to please the base of loyal MINI fans.

New Styling—Inside and Out

Most consumers will not recognize the revised MINI at first look. Logical, since first and foremost the new model had to be easily recognized as a MINI Cooper. But there are a number of subtle changes that those "in the know" will be able to identify. The grille is now one complete unit integrated into the hood, rather than split with part of the grille on the front bumper. Turn signals are integrated into the new headlights, and the headlights themselves are turned outward slightly.

The S and standard Cooper are easily differentiated by their unique front-end styling. The Cooper features three chrome bars across the grille, and the lower air intake is a bit narrower. Meanwhile, the grille on the S is all black honeycomb, with a wider air intake below the bumper. And of course, the S features an air intake built into the hood.

Taillights have been made larger. Although the car's rear end is wider, which provides bolder shoulders, the larger taillights keep the same solid proportions.

The new MINI is almost 2.5 inches longer than its predecessor, although many consumers won't notice this since the car's overall proportions have remained the same. More than half of this increased length is in the front section. This primarily makes room for the new engine as well as fulfilling new legal regulations concerning protection of pedestrians.

And while the MINI is just a few inches longer, designers have been able to make the interior roomier. "Enhancing and upgrading the design of the car, we sought from the start to offer maximum interior space within minimum dimensions," stated MINI's Interior Designer Marc Girard. This was primarily accomplished by reducing the width of the center console which provides more legroom for front-seat passengers. Kids or people of short stature ride best in the back seat, since as legroom is quite limited if the front-seat passengers are comfortable. That said, four adults could fit in the MINI in a pinch (no pun intended).

The center console is still dominated by the large, round speedometer—now even larger than before. Audio controls are integrated into the round space, which puts them in easy reach of the drive; however, we did have difficulty finding them at first.

When the MINI is equipped with the optional navigation system, the center of the speedometer is used by the display screen while the speed is indicated on the circle surrounding the navigation screen.

The tachometer is positioned on the center console, and for those who prefer high tech, a digital readout of the speed can be shown on the trip computer (MINI calls it BC, or body computer) screen.

The toggle switches that have created part of MINI's charm continue in this new version.

More Power Under That Little Hood

Two new engines have been introduced in this next-generation MINI. Both are 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engines; however, there are differences between the two.

The standard Cooper gets the normally aspirated version which produces 118 horsepower. Peak torque of 114 lb-ft doesn't arrive until the engine is turning at 4250 rpm. So the Cooper is not going to break any acceleration records, and we found when driving it through the twisty roads in the foothills north of Scottsdale, AZ, that high rpm in 2nd gear was our only hope of keeping our speed up. This is not the case for the S.

The 1.6-liter engine in the S gets the benefit of a turbocharger that boosts horsepower to 172, with 177 lb-ft of torque that arrives at a low 1600 rpm and stays constant through 5000 rpm. Power comes on quickly, and there is virtually no turbo lag. This is partly due to what MINI calls Overboost.

When accelerating, torque is briefly increased even further to 192 lb-ft, which gives the new MINI Cooper S even more power. Overboost only affects engine torque—horsepower remains the same. This Overboost system helps MINI claims 0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds. This was evident during testing. We had no problems with lack of power when climbing through the mountains in the S.

While both engines have more power than their predecessors, the all-important fuel mileage has also been increased. MINI Cooper is rated at 32 city / 40 hwy, while the S is not much lower at 29 city / 36 hwy.

Both Cooper and Cooper S come standard with a 6-speed Getrag manual transmission, but each can be fitted with an optional 6-speed automatic transmission. When equipped with the automatic, the driver can manually shift gears via steering-column-mounted paddle shifters.

Still Fun to Drive

One of the hallmarks of the MINI Cooper has always been its fun-to-drive qualities, and the new MINI is just as agile and sporty as it has ever been. This is no surprise given that MINI's parent company BMW produces some of the best handling cars on the road.

We had the opportunity to drive both Cooper and Cooper S models with both automatic and manual transmissions on a variety of roads, including an autocross course and a road course at Firebird International Raceway in Phoenix, AZ.

With its signature short wheelbase and wheels at the corners, the MINI seems to remain stable and balanced no matter what the situation. Part of this is due to the MacPherson spring struts on the front axle that keep the steering almost entirely free of drive forces both in fast turns, when accelerating and applying the brakes. Anti-roll bars in both Coooper and Cooper S, combined with the low center of gravity, practically eliminate any leaning, or body roll, in the corners.

For a quick change to a sporty feel, the new MINI comes with a sport button. Pushing the button changes the steering and acceleration dynamics so that both become more sensitive, reacting quickly to smaller inputs. The shift points also change on vehicles equipped with the automatic transmission. Most noticeable for us was the steering—it worked quite well on twisty roads, but was too sensitive for driving on the freeway where it became more difficult to make smooth lane changes.

The Cooper S does have an edge over the Cooper on the track, and it's not just in power. Suspension has been tuned differently for the S, and the top model gets larger brakes with higher-performance tires. Both Cooper and S are available with an optional sport suspension that offers harder springs, dampers and anti-roll bars.

Most surprising was how well the automatic transmission performed. The transmission can be shifted manually, but just leaving it alone was quite effective. Shifts were very quick and smooth, and on the autocross, the transmission always kept the car in the optimal gear.

Safety Minded

Many people unfamiliar with the MINI take one look and assume that something that small could never be safe on American roads that are filled with huge SUVs and trucks. Well, it may not have the mass of most other vehicles, but it can hold its own.

As many learned in Driver's Ed, the first tenet of safe driving is to avoid an accident. In addition to the MINI's agile handling, it comes equipped with a number of acronyms to designate the myriad safety features, including ABS (anti-lock brakes), EBFD (Electronic Brake Force Distribution), and CBC (Cornering Brake Control). The Cooper S adds ASC+T (Automatic Stability Control with traction control) as well as DSC (Dynamic Stability Control).

But if the accident is unavoidable, the MINI comes standard with dual front and side airbags, as well as side-curtain airbags which protect both front and rear passengers in the event of a side impact or rollover. Reinforced door structures and large deformation zones in the engine bay help absorb the energy of a crash, keeping it away from the passenger compartment.

In a severe accident the fuel pump is automatically shut off, the doors are unlocked and the interior lights and hazard flashers turn on automatically.

Pricing and Availability

MINI Cooper starts at a base price of $18,700 (including destination charge). For that consumers get a well-equipped car with features that include variable-color ambient lighting; push-start button; leatherette upholstery; air conditioning with a pollen micro filter; a split-folding rear seat; an AM/FM/CD audio system; power windows, locks and mirrors; and 15-inch alloy wheels.

In addition to the more powerful, turbocharged engine, the Cooper S adds the signature hood scoop, rear spoiler, dual exhaust, fog lights, sport seats, aluminum foot pedals, climate-controlled glove box, and 16-inch alloy wheels with a base price of $21,850.

Assembled just north of London, England, the new Cooper and Cooper S hardtops are on sale now; however, the convertible is still on the last-generation platform. Convertibles will likely move to the new style and chassis within the next 12 months, although at post time this had not been confirmed by MINI officials.

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