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2007 MINI Cooper Review - VIDEO ENHANCED

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2007 MINI Cooper

What a Hoot!
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

Alec Issigonis was a genius. In 1959 this talented British engineer introduced his innovative design to the world – a tiny car with a little four-cylinder engine mounted crossways in the front, driving the little (probably 10-inch) front wheels. The original MINI was big enough inside to fit most adults and handled like a go-cart. It became a legend in its own time being raced and rallied and driven enthusiastically by economy-minded and fun-loving folks throughout the British Commonwealth, Europe and the US.

(Editor's Note: To watch the ROAD TRIP Exclusive Interview with Jim McDowell, MINI USA's Vice President, in the 2007 Mini Cooper S, click the PLAY button at the bottom of the page.)

After four decades of production and 5.4-million units we might have thought the MINI went quietly away into the relative obscurity of great ideas that have run their course. Or maybe not. Maybe that idea is as good as when Sir Alec – knighted by the Queen for his phenomenal achievements – first put it all together. Enter BMW with pockets full of cash and the need for a small, cool car for their expanding lineup.

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Who better to engineer an updated MINI than the talented, no-compromise folks at BMW, but do they have that nebulous aesthetic sense needed to resurrect the MINI’s unique personality. The answer, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, is yes, indeed! I thought so when they brought it out in about 2002 and I still think so with the freshened design introduced to the media last fall on the 100th birthday of the Sir Alec.

Anyone who is old enough or car-crazy enough to have known the original MINI recognizes the new one immediately even though it is nearly twice the size and immensely more sophisticated in design than the original. Though this one is small, the original was miniscule. This MINI is categorized as a “premium small car.” No one in his right mind would have called the original “premium” in any sense, except perhaps handling.

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2007 Mini Cooper
Our test car this week is a bright Mellow Yellow one with black racing stripes along the hood – or should we say bonnet. It is a Brit after all - notwithstanding the German ownership - being put together in Oxford, England. Ours is not the hot, turbocharged MINI Cooper S. It’s just your basic, run-of-the-mill MINI Cooper. Well, maybe not run-of-the-mill. About a quarter of this one’s sticker price is options.

The base price of the Cooper is $18,050 and the bottom line on our yellow funster says $25,370 – still a bargain I say. (The turbo-charged MINI Cooper S starts at $21,850.) Options on our test car include leather interior, Dynamic Stability Control, leather steering wheel, heated mirrors and washer jets, rear spoiler, black bonnet stripes, chrome line interior, extended décor rings, color line mellow yellow, interior piano black trim, dual-pane panoramic sunroof, sport seats, heated front seats, front fog lamps, automatic A/C, Sirius Satellite Hd radio, and a destination charge of $650.

Under the hood is a compact, transversely-mounted, normally-aspirated, 1.6-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine with just 118 horsepower and 114 lb.-ft. of torque. BMW’s Valvetronic variable valve timing heads the list of high technology that would have boggled the mind of Sir Alec. We feel no buzziness, vibration or wheezing, even on full-throttle, as we often feel with other 4-bangers. The MINI Cooper S comes with a turbocharged version of this same engine rated at 172-horsepower and is a virtual little rocket, according to some of my journalist pals who have driven it. Can’t wait to get some seat time in that one. Our simple Cooper can make zero- to 60-mph in a leisurely 8.5 seconds, though it feels much quicker than that to me, and is rated by the EPA at 32-mpg in the city and 40 on the highway. The S does zero-to-60 in 6.7 seconds and EPA rates it at 29-city and 35-highway.

I’m not sure the Dynamic Stability Control is really necessary, though it’s summer here in Michigan so I’ve not had a chance to push it hard on slippery surfaces, nor have I had a chance to autocross it. Bummer. Handling on this new Cooper is described by many to be just like the original, that is, “go-cart-like.” The McPherson strut front and multi-link independent rear suspension setups are conventional in design but the geometry and tuning make it feel more exotic. After all, half the sedans built today have McPherson struts up front and some sort of mulit-link setup in the rear but none will handle like our MINI. The 15-inch tires, while too small for most cars, look and feel plenty big for this one.

The fun factor comes not just from the driving dynamics but from the styling and design as well. Overhang front and rear is so minimal it looks as though the wheels were pushed so far to the corners that it distorted the body. Trying to avoid the often dissed concept of “retro” styling, let’s just call it “heritage” styling and acknowledge that it is so cool it transcends the generations. Those of us who knew the original appreciate its updated relevance and those youngsters who were barely a gleam in the ol’ man’s eye back then recognize it as a classically aesthetic design.

That design theme continues inside the car. The huge, center-mounted speedometer dominates the dash. The navigation screen, when the car is so equipped, is located within that big gauge. Classic toggle switches control lots of functions and are protected by little curved metal loops – I suppose for passenger protection. Body colors continue inside the car on dash and door trim. The tachometer is mounted on the steering column and the shifter is positioned down low falling easily to hand. Seating position is upright and comfortable – just right for autocrossing.

This MINI is roomier inside than most would expect. My pretty blonde ended up in the back seat a couple of times this week and was comfortable. She can get a tad claustrophobic in some back seats. But when we were planning to go somewhere and pick someone up she kept forgetting that it wasn’t a two-seater. The original MINI, of course, being much tinier, could still accommodate some pretty big people and it even had a usable back seat.

Unless you had them side-by-side you would have a tough time telling the difference between this one and the ‘06 car even though every piece of sheet metal is different. The new one is 2 1/3 inches longer and there are lots of subtle appearance differences as well as engineering improvements, like more horsepower with both models.

Someone asked this week if I felt safe in such a little car. I said, sure. It has six air bags and a substructure designed like most cars today to crumple without encroaching on the cockpit. But mostly it feels like a car that could handle its way out of most problems.

This MINI goes to the top of the list of cars I’d like to spend more time with. I love looking out over the short stubby hood (I’m sorry, bonnet) and seeing the bulging fenders on each side, reminiscent of stylish ‘60s cars. In fact, I love looking at this car from any angle, particularly in yellow. And I especially love driving it spiritedly.

It’s so cool I can hardly stand it.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved.