When a 2008 Mini Cooper S sauntered into our office recently, we couldn't resist saddling up for an Edmunds Test Drive before it galloped off into the sunset. Why? Separation anxiety, mostly -- we wanted to spend as much time with this lovable Lilliputian as possible. But we also wanted to highlight the Mini's remarkable combination of performance and fuel economy, which becomes more newsworthy with each report of skyrocketing oil prices. When it comes to SPGs -- smiles per gallon — the Mini Cooper S is in a league of its own.
Even the base Cooper induces its share of grins, what with its peppy naturally aspirated engine, playful chassis and still greater disdain for filling stations. But the turbocharged 2008 Mini Cooper S is a genuine pocket rocket. As for fuel economy, the EPA pegs it at 26 mpg city, 34 highway and 29 combined -- numbers that would turn many appliance-grade econoboxes gasoline-yellow with envy. We recorded multiple tanks above 30 mpg, which is quite impressive given that our lead-encased feet never tired of matting the Mini's throttle.
The miserly Mini did try our patience in some respects. Our aching vertebrae certainly could have done without the 17-inch wheels and sport suspension, an optional one-two punch that should only be considered by hard-core track junkies or those who have chiropractors in their families. Serious road noise at speed also mitigated our Mini enthusiasm; we know this is a performance car, but that doesn't mean it should apprise our ears of every change in pavement composition. Furthermore, while the Cooper's diminutive dimensions make it an excellent city vehicle, adults simply can't fit in back unless the front seats are pulled uncomfortably close to the dashboard. Additional demerits were assessed for the Mini's overstyled interior, which is long on form and short on function.
On the whole, though, there was a lot of editorial love for this rambunctious runabout. It went like stink, handled like a slot car and refused to guzzle gas no matter how mercilessly we flogged it. With the glory days of cheap oil likely behind us, one of the many new challenges for automakers will be to provide no-compromises performance in a fuel-efficient package. History may well remember the current-generation Mini Cooper S as the first contemporary car to have gotten this formula right.
The front-wheel-drive 2008 Mini Cooper S is propelled by a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that generates 172 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque 192 lb-ft when "overboost" mode is activated by full-throttle applications. Our Mini was outfitted with the six-speed manual transmission. We dispensed with the 0-60-mph sprint in 6.9 seconds and zipped through the quarter-mile in 15.0 seconds at 93.9 mph. Braking performance was similarly sharp at 115 feet from 60 to zero mph.
These are tidy numbers, to be sure, but they're only slightly better than those generated by traditional high-revving sport compacts like the Honda Civic Si. Take a Cooper S for a spin, however, and you'll realize that it's an entirely different beast. Peak torque is available from just 1,600 rpm, at which point the Mini lunges forward as if an invisible jockey were giving it the crop. Indeed, one of the turbocharged Cooper's most endearing virtues is that you don't have to drive it like a hooligan in order to extract maximum performance. Forget 6,000-rpm torque peaks and 8,000-rpm redlines; the Mini's turbo thrust is there whenever you want it, so there's no need to flirt with the rev limiter when it's time to scoot.
Happily, the Cooper S has the rest of the performance fundamentals covered as well. Our car's six-speed manual shifter was generally a model of precise engagement, though more than one editor felt it was too easy to confuse Reverse and the adjacent 1st gear. In fast corners, the Mini's distinguishing trait is its near-total lack of body roll, in keeping with its go-kart reputation. The electric power steering is tight and responsive, though it's lacking in feel. Our only serious complaint involved the car's exuberant torque steer under hard acceleration, which evoked an inebriated Sonic the Hedgehog.
We've covered fuel economy already, but we'll say it again the turbocharged Mini's allergy to gas pumps is possibly unprecedented at this level of performance. Suffice it to say that the Chevrolet Cobalt XFE, a bare-bones economy car optimized for fuel-efficiency, is EPA-rated at an identical 29 combined mpg.
Road noise is intrusive even at moderate speeds, and our test car's sport suspension and performance tires dialed up the impact harshness to a borderline intolerable level. Given its compact footprint, however, the 2008 Mini Cooper S is remarkably hospitable inside for two adults, with ample front-seat head- and legroom. The front buckets are adequately supportive, but their modest side bolsters are a poor match for the car's lofty handling limits. While backseat headroom is fine, legroom is basically nonexistent if average-size adults are sitting in front. Try the extended-wheelbase Mini Cooper Clubman if you plan to carry more than two people on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, Mini's interior designers chose to prioritize style at the expense of substance. Too many of the car's functions are actuated by identical-looking metal toggle switches, and the stereo buttons are arranged haphazardly, most notably the power/volume knob, which sits in no-man's land in the middle of the center stack. Speaking of the stereo, our Mini's base six-speaker unit made it sound as though we were listening to our music through a telephone. If you care about such things, ante up for the premium sound system and don't look back.
In our real-world usability tests, the Mini actually fared rather well considering its size. Cargo capacity with the rear seats up is minimal, as our standard suitcase fit upright with barely an inch to spare, and there's only enough room back there for a modest collection of grocery bags. Fold the seats down, however, and 24 cubic feet of cargo volume are at your disposal, or about 9 more cubic feet than you'll find in a typical family sedan's trunk. On the downside, a set of golf clubs is wider than the Mini's cargo area, so you'll have to fold down the seats and either slide the bag straight in or position it diagonally. Both of the child safety seats we attempted to install in the backseat were too large to fit, so parents of young children considering the Cooper will need to research compatible car seats on their own.
Design/Fit and Finish
The stylists nailed the Cooper's exterior design, in our collective opinion, producing an endearing shape that's at once cute and aggressive. The interior layout is another story, however. The operative euphemism would be "polarizing," but frankly, most of us were put off by its toylike appearance, which starts with the cartoonish center-mounted speedometer. Moreover, materials quality generally failed to impress, as there's too much cheap hard plastic on the center stack and console, and our tester's optional center armrest felt flimsy and had a nasty habit of squeaking loudly when touched. Other issues included an ill-fitting A-pillar trim piece and inconsistent gap tolerances between the door panels and the dashboard.
Who should consider this vehicle
At $21,850 to start, the 2008 Mini Cooper S is attractively priced for those who want a unique combination of performance and fuel economy in a stylish and even somewhat practical package.