Lifestyle

Maximum Mini


The Mini Cooper S Convertible, John Cooper Works edition, is the top-of-the-line model. It's fast and plush, but should a car this small cost $31,150?

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It's no secret that the BMW's Mini Cooper has been wildly successful in the five years since it hit the market. Anyone who loves cars has to be intrigued by the boxy little Mini because it's inexpensive, has excellent fuel economy, and handles like a pint-sized Bimmer.

However, potential Mini buyers face a dilemma this year: Buy now or wait?

That's because Mini is being redesigned, and a new version of the car is expected to hit the U.S. market in the first part of 2007. Early word on the '07 Mini Cooper is that it will probably look a lot like the current one, but the size of the car's standard four-cylinder engine is likely to be increased to about 150 hp in the new Mini, up from 115 hp now. That would be a big improvement, because the current base model Mini is a bit underpowered. The big risk, of course, is that the car's price will rise substantially next year, too.

What to do? My take is that the current version of the Mini Cooper has a lot to offer, whether you're looking for performance and handling or practicality and fuel efficiency. The basic Mini Cooper is incredibly cheap for such a fine piece of machinery. The hatchback version starts at $18,000, while the new convertible (introduced last year) starts at $22,500. Add about $3,500 to the price and you can get the much peppier S versions of the car, with a 168-hp, supercharged version of the same engine.

If you're really into fast driving and want something very distinctive, the John Cooper Works Mini that I test drove starts at $31,150. For the extra money you get a fancier supercharger on the engine, a standard six-speed manual transmission, some distinctive exterior badge work, plus upgraded brakes and suspension. The Cooper Works package is now also factory installed, rather than being a dealer-installed option as it was in the past.

SOFT-TOP CONVENIENCES.

However, the less expensive versions of the Mini are very sophisticated vehicles, too. For starters, you get BMW-engineered steering and suspension. On the base models, standard gear includes power windows, locks and mirrors, a tilt steering wheel, tons of safety equipment, and a five-speed manual transmission or a sophisticated optional, continuously variable, six-speed automatic transmission ($1,300) with a Steptronic feature that allows you to do the shifting yourself if you prefer.

In addition to a supercharged engine, the S version of the car includes standard run-flat performance tires, 16-inch wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

If you go with the Mini convertible, the top is fully automatic, very solidly made, can be opened halfway to form a sun roof, and fully retracts into a small space at the back of the passenger cabin. Unlike in the Pontiac Solstice (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/14/05, "Solstice: A Brawny Beauty") and Saturn Sky (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/31/06, "Sky High"), there's actually room for a little luggage in the Mini convertible, even with the top down. With the top up, there's more than 20 cubic feet of storage space if you fold the rear seats down.

As anyone who has seen Minis on the road knows, you also can customize the car in all sorts of ways. For instance, you can add bonnet stripes to the paint job and various types of special wheels free of charge. Extra exterior chrome can be added for a mere $250 and a metallic paint job for $450.

BEHIND THE WHEEL.

Trouble is, the '06 Mini Cooper isn't easy to get your hands on. Surprisingly, Mini Cooper sales are down 8.9% in the first half of this year, to 3,336 units. But that's only because parent company BMW lowered production while it retooled and expanded the Mini factory in Oxford, England. Demand for the '06 model remains high: The Power Information Network estimates '06 Mini Coopers spend an average of only 24 days on dealers' lots before selling, about half as long as the industry average.

There's one big doubt about the Mini: It only earns a two-star initial quality rating from J.D. Power & Associates, though that's offset by very high customer-satisfaction ratings. Owners love it, even if it has some quality glitches.

The Mini doesn't feel mini when you're driving it. The hood slopes down so you're not aware of how stubby the front end is. The steering wheel is chunky and has hand holds at two o'clock and ten o'clock like a performance car's steering wheel. Legroom in the front seats is very good, even though the car is only 12 feet long. I have a friend who is 6-foot-5 who says the Mini is one of the only compact cars he can sit in comfortably.

The back seat is another matter. In a real pinch, you could cram a couple of smallish adults back there for a mile or two. But it's best to think of the Mini's rear seat, like the one in a Porsche 911 (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/15/05, "For My Money, Make it a Porsche"), as mainly suitable for small children or storage.

INTERIOR FEEL.

The base versions of the Mini may be a bit pokey, but the Mini S does 0 to 60 in a respectable 7 seconds, while the upgraded John Cooper Works version does the deed in 6.5 seconds or so. The car weighs less than 2,900 lbs., but the wheels are positioned out at the corners of the body so it feels very solid on the road. The stick shift is chunky and solid-feeling. Shift throws are short, though I found shifting a little sloppier than in BMWs I've driven.

The supercharged engine in the John Cooper Works Mini that I test-drove had a pleasing, high-pitched whine. And the car is very responsive. A mere twitch of the steering wheel has a significant effect: You barely have to think about switching lanes at highway speed and you're in the next lane.

The ride, as in most BMWs, is fairly hard. I test-drove the Mini right after the big floods in Northeast Pennsylvania, and when I hit a pothole or went over stones and downed branches I definitely felt them.

In general, you feel as if everything—speed, the quickness of turns, etc.—is enhanced because the interior is so close around you and you're sitting relatively low to the ground. However, I didn't feel cramped or unsafe, even at highway speed on roads heavily traveled by 18-wheelers. The Mini is so quick and nimble I felt I could zip out of tight spots if I needed.

TO WAIT OR NOT TO WAIT.

I wouldn't bother to pay $1,300 extra for optional leather upholstery in the Mini. I found the standard cloth and leatherette interior very attractive and easy to clean. One retro touch in the interior I really like: The Mini's windows and some other functions are controlled by very cool-looking, old-fashioned toggle switches.

The center stack and some of the Mini's other interior effects look a bit space-poddish for my taste. I also don't like the positioning of the speedometer, which is in the center of the dash. I find it distracting to have to look sideways to check my speed, though there's a second small digital speedometer directly in front of the driver. Also annoying is the fact that the clock alternates with the odometer reading. How hard would it be to add a separate clock?

The basic Mini is rated to get up to 26 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, and the Mini S does nearly as well. However, you pay a price for all the speed and performance of the Cooper Works version of the car. In a stretch of 313 miles of mixed highway and slower driving, I got a mere 22.2 mpg.

Buy it or bag it? By all means, buy a Mini now if you covet one. The current version of the Mini Cooper is destined to become a classic. It has tons of history behind it coupled with a hipness that will keep it appealing for years to come.

RECOMMENDED VERSION.

You probably won't want to buy the new model, anyway, until the bugs have been worked out of it. And if you buy an '06 now, chances are that you won't lose much reselling it in two or three years. These cars really hold their value: Used Mini Cooper hardtops sell for an average of $18,396 for the base model and $22,300 for the S version, according to the Power Information Network—which means they're selling for about the same price as a brand new Mini without a lot of options on it. In my experience, in real life it's hard to find a low-mileage used Mini in good condition for less than $25,000.

Which version to get? I like the Mini S convertible. Unless you're into driving on a track, I wouldn't pay the extra $6,300 for the John Cooper Works version of the car (though you won't be unhappy if you do). The jump in power doesn't seem worth that much extra money. I'm also not normally a huge fan of convertibles, but the Mini convertible top is so solidly made and easy to use that I want one, anyway.

I'd forgo most options. The performance add-ons I'd consider are dynamic stability control and a limited slip differential, which at $500 apiece seem like excellent values. The $1,400 premium package, which includes an upgraded Harman Kardon sound system, steering wheel-mounted controls, cruise control, and a center armrest, also seems well worth the money. With those options, the Mini S convertible comes it at $28,350, which strikes me as a real bargain. And I suspect the '06 Mini's value will hold up, regardless of what the '07 is like.

To see more of the Mini Cooper S convertible, John Cooper Works edition, click here.


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