Full 2008 MINI Cooper Review
What's New for 2008
All Mini Coopers add long-awaited auto up/down windows for 2008.
The 2008 Mini Cooper is a "but…" car. It's tremendously fun to drive, but its taut suspension can be jarring on a daily basis. Its compact dimensions make parking and maneuvering through traffic a snap, but transporting four people and their stuff can be an iffy proposition. The modernistic interior is a design student's dream, but an ergonomic specialist's nightmare. The convertible is a whole bunch of fun in the sun, but rear visibility is poor regardless of whether the top is up or down.
All of these "but" scenarios would seem to indicate a car filled with compromises. However, like a good marriage, those compromises bring beautiful rewards. Since its North American reintroduction for 2002, the Mini brand has been in constant demand by a growing, loyal customer base. It is simultaneously a cultural icon, a sales success and a car enthusiast's plaything.
Despite this success, parent company BMW didn't rest on its laurels, completely redesigning the Cooper hatchback last year to address areas of weakness and reduce build costs. The result is a car that rides more comfortably, has better performance and has a friendlier driving position, all without losing the friendly and frisky nature that makes a Mini a Mini. The Cooper convertible maintains its previous-generation architecture for 2008, but its overall goodness goes to show that BMW probably could've waited a few more years before it conducted its redesign of the coupe.
The changes made on the new-generation Mini coupe (they'll eventually show up in a redesigned convertible) are best seen in the engine bay. A pair of new engines are more refined, more powerful and substantially more fuel-efficient. The base hatchback engine is a particularly impressive improvement and as such, most buyers should now find the regular Cooper to be more than adequate for their daily driving needs. The excellent turbocharged engine in the Cooper S is practically overkill. The convertible is a different story, and with the drop top we'd stick with the supercharged Cooper S.
Regardless of the generational differences between body styles, we wholeheartedly recommend the 2008 Mini Cooper. Although the Saturn Astra, Volvo C30 and VW Eos and GTI are worth a look, the Cooper oftentimes defies rationality and is a car almost without equal. There are plenty of "but" compromises surrounding the 2008 Mini; however, there's one attribute that's undeniable: It's a blast. No ifs, ands or especially buts about it.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Mini Cooper is available in two body styles: a hatchback coupe and a convertible. The hatchback coupe was completely redesigned last year, whereas the convertible carries over on the same platform introduced for 2002. Both body styles are available in Cooper and Cooper S trim levels.
The base Cooper hatchback comes standard with 15-inch alloy wheels, a selectable Sport setting for steering and accelerator response, full power accessories with auto up/down windows, air-conditioning, leatherette premium vinyl upholstery, multicolor mood lighting, a tilt-telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, a trip computer and a six-speaker stereo with CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Cooper S hatchback adds a more powerful engine, 16-inch wheels with run-flat tires, firmer suspension tuning and sport seats (optional on the base Cooper). The Cooper and Cooper S convertibles differ from the coupes mostly by offering a power-retractable soft top (with a sunroof function) and rear parking sensors, but do not come standard with an auxiliary audio jack, while the telescoping wheel and Sport settings are not available.
The options list is substantially larger than the car itself, with features available both à la carte and within packages. Mini is one of the few brands that encourages its customers to customize and special order their cars. These features include different wheel designs, a panoramic dual-pane sunroof (hatchback), xenon headlights, cruise control, rear parking assist (hatchback), front and/or rear foglamps, automatic climate control, leather and/or cloth upholstery, multiple interior color schemes, heated seats, heated power-folding mirrors, a multifunction steering wheel, Bluetooth, rain-sensing wipers, keyless ignition/entry (hatchback only), an auto-dimming rearview mirror, an integrated navigation system, a portable navigation system, HD radio, satellite radio, iPod connectivity and a variety of dealer-installed features and styling items. Each body style is also available with its own upgraded audio system: an eight-speaker Harman Kardon system in the convertible and a 10-speaker Hi-Fi system on the hatchback. The convertible can also be fitted with a Sidewalk Package that bundles numerous optional items with special exterior and interior styling elements.
Powertrains and Performance
The Mini hatchback and convertible come with completely different powertrains. The Cooper hatchback comes with a newly designed 1.6-liter four-cylinder that produces 118 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. The Cooper S hatchback features a turbocharged version of the same engine that produces 172 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. Both come standard with a six-speed manual, and a six-speed automatic with manual shift control is optional.
In performance testing, the Cooper S sprinted from zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. As for the base coupe, Mini claims it'll do the 0-60 drill in 8.5 seconds – but it feels even quicker, especially compared to the previous coupe. Fuel economy with a manual transmission is 28 mpg city and 37 mpg highway for the Cooper and 26/34 mpg for the Cooper S. The automatic drops fuel economy by 2-3 mpg.
The Cooper convertible also comes with a pair of 1.6-liter four-cylinders, but they are older, less refined designs. The base engine makes 115 hp and 111 lb-ft of torque, while the Cooper S has a supercharged 1.6-liter that makes 168 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. The base Cooper comes with a five-speed manual, and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) is optional. The Cooper S convertible has a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. Acceleration from zero to 60 mph is accomplished in around 7 seconds in the Cooper S convertible, while the base Cooper is about 2 seconds slower. Fuel economy with manual transmissions is 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway for the Cooper convertible, and 21/29 mpg for the Cooper S.
All 2008 Mini Coopers come with antilock disc brakes and side airbags. The S model also includes traction control, while stability control is optional on all models. The hatchback also comes standard with full-length side curtain airbags. The Mini Cooper convertible features fixed roll bars perched just behind the rear seat. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal-offset crash testing, the Cooper hatchback achieved the best rating of "Good." The previous-generation hatchback, upon which the convertible is based, also achieved a rating of "Good."
Interior Design and Special Features
Since they technically represent different Mini generations, the hatchback and convertible Coopers feature much different interior designs -- although actual interior space is about equal. While the redesigned hatchback features a much snazzier, modernistic control setup, it's a prime example of something looking great on paper, but working terribly in practice. The audio controls are bunched confusingly into the huge center speedometer, and both manual and automatic climate controls are also poorly designed. The convertible's, on the other hand, are much simpler and user-friendly, even if they don't look as cool. Otherwise, the hatchback's seat comfort and driving position are far superior to the convertible. Although numerous squeaks and rattles seem to be a Mini hallmark, materials and build quality do seem better on the hatchback.
Despite its small size, the Mini Cooper is actually surprisingly spacious for a wide variety of driver sizes. Even those taller than 6 feet will find a comfortable seating position. (The hatchback's telescoping wheel is a big help.) With those tall folks up front, though, rear seat leg space is practically non-existent, even if headroom is ample. Trunk space in both body styles -- especially the convertible -- is rather limited, but folding down the 50/50-split rear seat creates a rather useful cargo area.
They may look alike, but under the skin, the two 2008 Mini Cooper body styles are drastically different. The hatchback's new engines are much more refined and efficient, and provide more useful power. Despite its modest power numbers, the base Cooper hatchback's engine provides more than enough gusto for most buyers. The turbocharged version found in the Cooper S, meanwhile, is terrific, providing particularly strong acceleration when the special "overboost" mode is active. In contrast, the base convertible's engine is unimpressive (especially when attached to the CVT) and we'd suggest sticking with the supercharged Cooper S.
Although steering and ride are fairly different between body styles, all Mini Coopers are characterized by their phenomenally fun driving experience. Responses to driver input are quick, and the Cooper sucks its driver into the experience, delivering lots of feedback through the steering wheel, driver seat and pedals. The hatchback's electric power steering makes turning at slow speeds less of an arm workout, while its standard Sport feature tightens it up to match the convertible's constantly stiff, go-kart feel. This sporty nature comes at the expense of a somewhat stiff ride quality, particularly on models equipped with the sport-tuned suspension. But no matter what Cooper you choose, prepare to have fun.
Read our Mini Cooper S Long-Term 20,000-Mile Test