Small Wonders: MINI Cooper vs. the Fiat 500
We pit the upstart 2012 Fiat 500 against the 2012 MINI Cooper hardtop in a battle of the flyweights.
In the early 1960s, a band from Liverpool, England, called the Beatles was quickly becoming a rock 'n' roll sensation throughout Britain. By 1964, the force of the quartet's popularity had brought them to the United States to appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show." With the Beatles' rousing television performance and steady radio play, America was hooked. Soon the British Invasion was going full-tilt, importing such acts as the Rolling Stones, the Who, Herman's Hermits and the Kinks.
A few years earlier, the European auto industry had introduced a new style of automobile. In 1957, the Italian automaker Fiat released a small car for the masses. At just 10 feet long, the Fiat Cinquecento (500) Nuovo was one of the first city cars and was ideally suited for tight European streets. Two years later, British Motor Corp. released a microcar of its own. Originally marketed under two brands as the Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor, this small car gave birth to the sportier and more powerful Austin Mini Cooper and Morris Mini Cooper in 1961.
While America had proven itself ready for British music, it wasn't ready for tiny European cars. Consequently, the 500 and Mini never came to the U.S. in any appreciable quantity.
Fast-forward 40 years. In 2001, BMW, having bought British Motor's assets, launched a reimagined MINI Cooper hardtop in both Europe and the U.S. Its retro good looks and surprisingly fun driving character made the car a hit, even here in the land of the SUV. The MINI went without any direct competition until 2007, when Fiat relaunched the 500 as a retro-styled small car in Europe. The economic crisis of 2008 gave Fiat an opening to come to the U.S. Fiat took partial ownership of the wavering Chrysler Corp., and finally brought the 500 to these shores through the Chrysler dealer network in early 2011.
With two cars so closely matched in concept and execution, a head-to-head matchup was inevitable. For comparison purposes, we'll consider only the hatchback versions, as the convertibles are substantially different. The 2012 Fiat 500 starts at $15,500 and is offered with only one engine, while the 2012 MINI Cooper gets a base engine and two more powerful versions in the S and John Cooper Works models, but its base price starts at $20,200.
So, which of these European flyweights is right for you?
Reviews: Find expert and user reviews
ROUND ONE: DRIVING CHARACTER
The MINI Cooper introduced Americans to a new driving experience. Its small size, light weight and BMW suspension tuning created a Go-Kart-like character that has become the basis for the car's appeal. Until the introduction of the Fiat 500 earlier this year, no other car besides the Mazda Miata had approached the MINI's fun factor.
Both the MINI and the Fiat react quickly to steering input, dive willingly into corners and generally feel like sports cars in hatchback packages. Of the two, the MINI has quicker moves, with sharper steering and less body lean in turns. The 500's steering is lighter, but it firms up nicely at speed to increase stability in high-speed corners.
While both cars ride well, they also suffer for their short wheelbases. The rear tires react to bumps shortly after the front tires, making the ride busy on rough roads and tossing occupants from side to side. The problem is worse in the Fiat, because the torsion-beam rear suspension means bumps that affect one side of the car transfer to the other side. The MINI has an independent rear suspension that isolates bumps side-to-side. The Fiat is also tuned a little softer, even the firmer Sport trim, so it doesn't pound as much over sharp ruts.
Power is limited in both cars. The 500 is motivated by a 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that makes a modest 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque. It is offered with a 5-speed manual transmission or a 6-speed automatic. The MINI employs a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder that puts out 122 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. It can be paired to a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic.
Both of the manual transmissions are easy to shift. The automatics work well enough with each engine, but Fiat drivers especially will find themselves needing to downshift to maintain speed on long grades. Despite a nearly 200-pound weight advantage for the Fiat, the MINI is quicker, accelerating from zero to 60 mph in a little over eight seconds, while the Fiat is in the mid-nines. Both have Sport modes that increase throttle response and hold gears longer when equipped with the automatics. We preferred driving in Sport mode most of the time in the city, but didn't find it useful at highway speeds.
Winner: MINI Cooper
Must-See on MSN
This seems very odd to me. Having done a lot of research on both these cars I can say that who ever wrote this did a poor job in coming up with their conclusion. There are a number of reasons that the 500 is a better option that the Mini. Yes it is less expensive and does have more cargo space. Price is a very big factor especially in these economic times.
The author notes that the 500's upright seating would negatively affect taller people. I have seen people who are over 6 feet tall get in and out of it with no problem. Also, with the upright seating, the driver has a better view of the road, and does not need to 'crawl' in and out of the car. The rear seats in the 500 also have almost 3 more inches of leg room than the Mini. The instrument panel is directly in front of the driver so they do not have to look to the sides.
What the author fails to mention in the amenities section is the vast number of features that the 500 comes standard with versus the Mini. Bluetooth being a major one. All 500's come standard with bluetooth technology. It is an additional charge for the Mini. Underneath the passenger's seat is a storage compartment that the Mini does not have. The author complained about buttons instead of knobs for the radio, however the 500 comes standard with radio controls on the back of the steering wheel. Not distracting or inconvenient at all. The gear shifter is located closer to the drivers hand, and an armrest is standard in the 500, not so in the MINI. The 500 has a 'hill start' feature that prevents the car from rolling backwards on steep roads. It also has more standard airbags than the MINI. In Europe the 500 has 5 star safety versus the MINI's 4 stars.
By no means is the Mini a bad car, but when it comes to standard features and more bang for your buck the 500 is a better option. Once you start pricing optional features, the highest a 500 will go is around $26000. The highest MINI will reach up into the 30's. The 500 does not have the aggressive feel the MINI does, nor should it. It is a very smooth ride. Its a great city car, and great commuter vehicle.
"The author notes that the 500's upright seating would negatively affect taller people. I have seen people who are over 6 feet tall get in and out of it with no problem."
The MINI has more headroom. Does the 500 have enough room for most people? Yes. Will taller people fit better in the MINI? Yes.
"The instrument panel is directly in front of the driver so they do not have to look to the sides."
In the MINI, the tachometer is right in front of the driver, and you can display your speed in the center of the tach, as well. There's absolutely no reason to look at the center speedo unless you want to.
"What the author fails to mention in the amenities section is the vast number of features that the 500 comes standard with versus the Mini."
Vast? Come on.
"Underneath the passenger's seat is a storage compartment that the Mini does not have."
And the 500 doesn't have the MINI's "secret compartment" storage compartment in the passenger dashboard.
"The author complained about buttons instead of knobs for the radio, however the 500 comes standard with radio controls on the back of the steering wheel. Not distracting or inconvenient at all."
The MINI has standard radio and cruise control on the steering wheel, as well.
"The gear shifter is located closer to the drivers hand, and an armrest is standard in the 500, not so in the MINI."
Unless the shifter is TOO far away in the MINI (it isn't), then that's a moot point. The armrest is optional in the MINI because many people don't even want it.
"The 500 has a 'hill start' feature that prevents the car from rolling backwards on steep roads."
The MINI has had this feature since 2007.
"Once you start pricing optional features, the highest a 500 will go is around $26000. The highest MINI will reach up into the 30's."
Highest possible price is a ridiculous way to gauge value. In fact, you can option a MINI to almost $50k if you really wanted to, but as far as building one comparable to a Fiat 500, a Fiat 500 Sport is most comparable to a MINI Cooper, and is around $3k cheaper, give or take.
I had a Fiat 600D that ran on 2 imperial gallons for a month. The 600cc engine was watercooled and had a ducting system that the engine fan blew air into the cabin for heat and defrost. The starter had a rope that was pulled by a lever next to the hand brake.
This was simplicity at the simple to run and repair. Much like the original VW.
For my $15K I'd have to go with a new Fiat 500....because you can't get a Mini for anywhere near $15K unless it's 4+ years old with 80,000+ miles on it.
And for the money a new Mini now costs, there are at least a dozen better cars to choose from. I like the look and handling of the Mini better than the 500, but the price is too high for what you get along with the dismal reliability record. Mini has consistently ranked near the bottom in quality and reliability surveys.