The murmurs began shortly after the 2014 Mini Cooper was revealed at last November's Los Angeles auto show. Of all the details that were announced, one particular aspect of the third-generation hatchback seems to have struck a nerve.
"I heard they're making the Mini bigger," they said. "Why would people looking to buy a Mini want that?"
Some bemoaned the irony of it all, and most openly fretted over the possible loss of the Mini Cooper's spritely demeanor and so-called go-kart handling.
They can all relax. We've just returned from a test-drive of the 2014 Mini Cooper and Cooper S and can safely conclude that the third generation of this iconic reboot is the best yet. Nothing essential has been lost, much has been gained and more than a few annoyances have been swept aside.
Not That Big, Really
For all this size-based consternation, the 2014 Mini remains diminutive compared to its peers. The entire segment still towers over the Mini, which has only grown the thickness of an unsharpened No. 2 pencil to stand 55.7 inches tall.
And while it may be one original iPhone (4.5 inches) longer than before, this new Mini remains stubbier than the Mazda 2 and Toyota Yaris hatchbacks. The large end of the B-segment hatch spectrum (the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit) dwarfs it by 8-11 inches.
Mini designers divvied up the added length between the nose, wheelbase (98.2 inches instead of 97.1 inches) and cabin to maintain the familiar Mini proportions. Then they added 1.7 inches of body width to retain the Mini's classic stubbiness ratio in plan view.
Visual tricks have been employed to hide the slight swelling. The headlights are somewhat buggier and there's a larger grille that echoes the trapezoidal shape from the vintage Mini.
Bottom line: You'd be hard-pressed to peg the 2014 Mini Cooper as larger unless you had last year's model parked alongside, and even then you'd probably need to take measurements.
Impressive Base Engine
Two all-new motors — one for the Cooper, one for the Cooper S — should assuage the doubters. Both are turbocharged and use direct fuel injection for maximum efficiency.
The base Cooper gets the 1.5-liter three-cylinder version, which makes 134 horsepower instead of the 121 hp available last year. But torque is the real story; the base mill now generates 162 pound-feet of the stuff instead of 114 lb-ft, and peak grunt is available at just 1,250 revs instead of 4,250 rpm.
These numbers only hint at the transformation. Mini says the base automatic can scoot to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, which bests the old car by more than 2 seconds. With the manual transmission it will do the deed in 7.4 seconds.
More than that, the new Cooper squirts from corner to corner with an eagerness never before seen in the base car, and its newfound deep reservoir of torque cuts way back on the need to downshift when it's time to go. Throughout, the unique three-cylinder exhaust note is subdued, never tiresome.
At a more relaxed pace the 2014 Cooper should deliver 34 mpg combined regardless of transmission. The six-speed automatic is said to achieve 42 mpg on the highway, one better than the six-speed manual. The year-over-year automatic improvement is particularly dramatic; last year it managed just 29 mpg combined and 34 mpg highway.
What of the Cooper S?
The new Cooper S engine is functionally similar to the base engine except for a second balance shaft and a fourth cylinder that ups the displacement to 2.0 liters. Its rated output of 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque represents gains of 8 hp and 30 lb-ft over last year.
Here again, the automatic is the fractionally quicker transmission choice. Its predicted 0-60-mph acceleration time of 6.4 seconds pips the manual by a tenth. These numbers also suggest the 2014 Cooper S won't be dramatically quicker than the previous model.
But the 2014 S automatic is sure to be far less thirsty at the pump, earning 32 mpg combined and 40 mpg on the highway, increases of 19 and 25 percent, respectively. The Cooper S manual is good for 28 mpg combined and 37 mpg highway.
The Cooper and Cooper S are both governed by three driving modes (Green, Mid, Sport) that tweak the throttle response and automatic transmission shift points (if equipped) to help you achieve your goals. In addition, the manual has a slick-shifting rev-match feature for smoother downshifts. And all versions come with a new stop-start system that kills the engine at intersections to save gas until the engine refires as you lift your foot off the brake.
You can switch it off with one of the classic Mini toggle switches, but we'd rather save the fuel. Besides, if we really need an early restart we can instead give the steering wheel a tug since it starts the engine to support the electric-assist (EPS) steering.
How About the Ride and Handling?
All versions of the 2014 Mini Cooper ride on the same sort of suspension as last year, but every component has been reengineered for enhanced rigidity and reduced weight. The extra body width is of particular benefit here because it allowed the track widths to swell 1.7 inches up front and 1.4 inches out back for a more stable platform.
Improvements to the revised MacPherson strut front suspension include stiffer shock towers, lighter aluminum knuckles and a hollow stabilizer bar. The multilink rear suspension is familiar in concept, but the springs and shocks have been separated so the bulkier springs could be repositioned to avoid intrusion into the rear seat and cargo areas.
Two-mode Bilstein variable dampers are a first-time option for $500. Their firmer setting (as well as a weightier steering effort calibration) comes into play when the driving mode selector is set to Sport. The mode differences feel appropriately distinct, but the overall vibe is similar in either case. The quick 14.2-to-1 steering responds immediately and both cars corner as flat as Iowa.
Sharp road impacts on the optional 205/45R17 run-flat tires tend toward the firm side, but they're neatly absorbed with very little aftertaste. And even though we drove on admittedly unfamiliar roads, we got the sense that less road noise gets inside. Furthermore, we're not surprised that the short-travel suspension retains at least some susceptibility to getting tossed about by roads distorted by numerous dips and slumps.
A full work-up must wait until we spend time on familiar turf, but from where we sit the 2014 Mini Cooper feels every bit a Mini, but with some of the roughest edges sanded off.
More Functional Interior
Inside, Mini designers have managed to sort out a lot of functional drawbacks without tossing aside iconic Mini design themes.
The driving position remains fantastic, and there are 1.5 inches more front headroom. The rear seat gains almost an inch of much-needed legroom, a full 3 inches of shoulder room, some decent armrests and a trio of cupholders. Seats-up cargo space now stands at 8.7 instead of 5.7 cubic feet, and that grows to 38 instead of 24 cubic feet with the 60/40 seatbacks folded.
Toggle switches abound, but the ones in the center now house systems like stability control, the stop-start function and a big red engine start switch (which can now function with the key in your pocket). The window and lock switches have been relocated to the doors where they should have been all along.
Last year's finicky Mini-logo climate control layout is history, replaced by three sensible knobs and a smattering of buttons. And the speedometer and segmented fuel gauge now join the tachometer in an enlarged clip-on-style instrument panel that moves as the steering wheel is adjusted for always-perfect straight-ahead viewing.
This leaves the central screen free for bigger audio and navigation interface screens up to 8.8 inches. The perimeter entertainment is now a superfluous multi-hued LED control feedback light show instead of a superfluous speedometer. Perhaps we'll learn to appreciate it over time.
Upgraded Technology Features
When equipped with navigation (Mini Wired package, $1,750), a single-point controller pairs with sensible on-screen menus to control audio and navigation functions. It's simple to learn and use, but the central armrest that comes with it is an oddly placed obstacle.
But you may want that armrest for what can be mounted inside: a fan-cooled snap-in smartphone dock. You can plug your own cord into the standard USB input if you prefer, but the Mini Connected app-based system provides connectivity to all sorts of online social network and entertainment heavyweights through your connected phone. And it's not just for iPhones; selected Android handsets are supported, too.
The automatic transmission gains a bigger brain when navigation is present because map data concerning upcoming grades and curves is fed into the mix. This Predictive Drivetrain logic avoids the sort of unnecessary gearchanges a manual-transmission driver would never make because he can see what's coming.
Newly available options include a back-up camera and a head-up display similar to the one found in our 2014 Mazda 3 long-term test car. LED headlights and taillights are also on the menu. There's even a parallel-parking assistant that will notify you of a sufficiently sized space and take over the steering once you shift to Reverse and work the throttle.
Not Terribly Expensive
Surprisingly, 2014 Mini Cooper prices are virtually unchanged. With destination included, the base Cooper goes for $20,745, an increase of just $250 over last year. Similarly, the $24,395 asking price of the Cooper S is only $300 more than before.
That's a lot of all-new Mini Cooper for not much more money. Sure, you'll puff up the price with options, but that was true before.
Both versions are mighty appealing on all fronts, but to our mind the base Cooper is the big surprise. Fuel economy is way up, particularly with the automatic, and it has gained enough power and torque that the Cooper S doesn't feel like a compulsory upgrade.
Yes, the 2014 Mini Cooper has gotten a teensy-bit bigger. But you'd never know it from the performance, the fuel economy and the price. The essential elements that give the Mini its mojo are still present and accounted for.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.