The Cooper S packs a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine mated to either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. There’s 189 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque available, and all of it heads to the front wheels. With my tester’s six-speed manual, Mini quotes a 0-to-60-mph time of 6.5 seconds. Not bad.
The engine’s power surges hard and boost builds right away. All the torque arrives at 1,350 rpm, and by the time you hit 2,000, you’ve got more than enough forward momentum. Even in sixth gear, you can get the Cooper S to pull at low revs, which is nicely appreciated in traffic. The 6,000-rpm redline arrives somewhat quickly, however, and power really drops off after the 5,000-rpm peak, so you’ll want to upshift more often than you think.
I definitely appreciate Mini committing to manual transmissions, but the one in the Cooper S isn’t my favorite. While the clutch is easy to modulate and incredibly forgiving — great if you’re a stick-shift newbie — the gearbox itself has a rubber-like feeling, and the throws between each gear are surprisingly long.
Mini’s MacPherson front strut and rear multilink suspension do a great job of keeping the Cooper S Hardtop firmly planted to the road, though this hatchback can be pretty harsh at times. Toss the Cooper S into a corner in Sport mode and you’ll notice the artificial heft of the steering, but the quick response keeps Mini’s go-kart-like ethos alive and well. The brakes are strong and have just the right amount of initial bite, and electronic brake force distribution helps with overall weight transfer should you need to slow things down mid-turn.
The Cooper S’ defining factor is its personality — there’s just an aura of fun to every part of this car. The hatchback bing-bongs to life with an arcade-like chime. The big, circular central display wakes up with active ambient lighting. Little toggle switches are fun to flick. All of these are things you won’t find anywhere else.
In the middle of the dash is a standard 8.8-inch touchscreen display that runs Mini’s infotainment system, which is essentially a reskinned version of parent company BMW’s iDrive 6. Wireless Apple CarPlay is standard but Android Auto isn’t available, and you can control everything either via the screen or on a dial placed aft of the shifter. Small buttons below the screen look like haptic controls at first glance, but they’re actually flush-mounted trim pieces, so there’s a reassuring response when pressed. The small digital gauge cluster in front of the driver only displays a few bits of key information — it’d be great if this was totally reconfigurable — and does have a tendency to wash out in direct sunlight.
Given the Mini’s size, space is obviously on the short side, but even then, interior storage is pretty scarce. The cup holders and a very small cubby ahead of them are the most convenient places to put your belongings, and the doors have small pockets, too. The small central armrest has a little space, too, but this is actually an ergonomic issue. With it down, you’ll smack it every time you use the shifter, and you have to reach underneath to grab the parking brake. It’s best to leave this armrest folded up and out of the way, but then what’s the point of having it at all?
If you plan on loading the Cooper S with cargo, you’ll find a scant 8.7 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats. Fold those flat and you have a much more usable 34 cubic feet, and with the Mini’s squared-off shape, hauling boxy items is a cinch. If this isn’t enough, you can always opt for the four-door Cooper S with its 13.1 cubic feet of space in the trunk. Folding the seats flat in the larger Hardtop model also reveals 40.7 cubic feet of cargo space. But, in the process, you lose a bit of the two-door’s charm.
All of the Mini’s personality is packed inside a stylish wrapper. My tester’s multitone roof is a $500 option, and it really works with the gray body paint. The LED lights look great in their circular housings, and the Union Jack taillight design totally works. This is a very expressive little car, and you won’t find half as much cheerfulness in any of its rivals’ designs.
Sure, there are cheaper ways to get a fun-to-drive, functional package — the Honda Civic Si and Subaru WRX come to mind — and the Volkswagen GTI offers a similarly premium experience with a lot more space to boot. That’s especially true when you load up a Mini with options; as tested, this Cooper S Hardtop checks out for $36,750 including an $850 destination charge. Of course, Mini also offers the Cooper S experience in its larger 4-Door Hardtop, Clubman and Countryman body styles, though the fun factor diminishes with the more weight you carry around. It’s hard to put a price on personality, but the Mini will win that battle every time.