2008 Mini Cooper
2008 Mini Cooper. Click image to enlarge
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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

Photo Gallery:
2008 Mini Cooper

Oshawa, Ontario – When it comes to buying a car, every now and again a vehicle comes along that breaks the rules. You’d normally reject this car for everything that’s wrong with it – too cramped, too expensive, too out-there – and yet, you’ll buy it anyway. That’s the Mini.

Its back seat is tough to access and very tight, its controls are very unintuitive, and its price is high in light of its miniscule footprint. But oh, man, I so very much want to own one, and I’m not alone.

I took two Minis out for comparison, living with each a week at a time – a naturally-aspirated Mini Cooper, and a Mini Cooper S that was further enhanced with a John Cooper Works (JCW) tuning kit. Both were 2007 models, but they’re virtually unchanged for 2008 save for trim items. The line-up also includes the Cooper Classic, similar to the Cooper but with fewer features, and the all-new 2008 Clubman.

2007 Mini Cooper
2007 Mini Cooper S
2007 Mini Cooper (top) and 2007 Mini Cooper S. Click image to enlarge

The 2007 models were all-new; Mini underwent several changes from the 2006 models. 2008 models are virtually unchanged. The Cooper’s optional automatic transmission is now a traditional six-speed automatic instead of a CVT, the car is slightly longer and taller, and most notably, the Cooper S switches from a supercharger to a turbocharger.

My testers were the Cooper, at a base $25,900 and optioned to $29,700, and the Cooper S, at a base $30,600 and optioned to a hefty $39,292. Which one I’d buy depends entirely on how many cars I’ve already got in my garage: if the Mini’s a secondary vehicle that I’m keeping for days when I just want to have some fun, then give me the Cooper S. But if this is going to be my daily driver for the commute and every little chore, then no question: give me the naturally-aspirated Cooper.

All Mini models use a feisty little 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine that was mated to a six-speed manual transmission in both of my testers (and which has a big chrome shifter knob that’s very attractive but feels like you’re shifting a Sno-Cone in winter until the heater warms everything up). In the Mini Cooper, the engine produces 118 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. The turbocharged version in the Cooper S makes 172 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, but my tester contained a JCW Tuning Kit, consisting of low backpressure exhaust, larger air box and enhanced programming in the electronic control unit, which topped it up to 189 ponies.

Both models come with a “Sport” button, which produces a quicker throttle response and more direct steering response, and quickens the shifts should the car be equipped with an automatic. As far as the sound goes, I didn’t notice any appreciable difference in the Cooper, but on the Cooper S it moved the exhaust up a few sweet notes. The JCW system was delightfully blatty around town, although it settled into a monotonous drone on a highway trip that wore very thin after a while.

2007 Mini Cooper
2007 Mini Cooper. Click image to enlarge

The turbocharger also costs more to run, although I expect my results were also because it’s just so much fun to drive hard. The naturally-aspirated Cooper is rated at a combined 6.4 L/100 km, while I got 7.3 L/100 km; the Cooper S rates at 6.8 L/100 km, while it cost me 9.3 L/100 km. I drove both cars in bitterly cold weather.

Every journalist who’s ever gone near a Mini uses the term “go-kart”, but that’s because there’s really no other way to describe it. This is as direct as steering can possibly get, but even with its hair-trigger reaction to input, the Mini never feels twitchy at any speed. Both models exhibit some torque-steer, but it’s far more noticeable on the Cooper S. Overall, while the turbocharged version was great fun off the line or powering out of a curve, I found the plain Cooper felt much better balanced, as if it was just the right size for its power. The brakes have great pedal feel and do a superb job of bringing the car down from speed quickly and accurately.

2007 Mini Cooper
2007 Mini Cooper S. Click image to enlarge

Both models also featured the Mini’s six-speed manual, which is a top-notch unit: the shifter snicks precisely into each gate, the clutch grabs right where it should, and it’s exactly the right weight. I’ve never had the opportunity to drive a Mini with an automatic transmission, but based on the manual’s performance, I can’t imagine wanting to spend time in the seat without that shifter beside me.

Save for some trim differences – including the very attractive optional Redwood Lounge Leather in my Cooper S – most Mini models are outfitted similarly. Fit and finish are exemplary, and all of the controls are scaled down so that they look proportionate to the car’s size.

Very little is intuitive, however. The huge centrally-mounted speedometer may be faithful to the original, but that information should be directly in front of the driver in any car. It’s also not easy to read its red-lit numbers in daylight at a quick glance. There’s a digital speedometer in the tachometer, which is properly mounted behind the steering wheel, and I ended up using that instead.

2007 Mini Cooper S
2007 Mini Cooper S. Click image to enlarge

The stereo and heater controls mimic the shape of the Mini’s winged logo, but they’re not the easiest to use. You’d think the knob in the middle of all the audio controls would be the power and volume button, but no, that particular control is all by itself, mounted down above the heater switches. It’s the only one that’s easy to work; you’ll need to study the owner’s manual to get all the other audio controls figured out, as nothing is simple or straightforward. The heater switches are far more clear-cut, with vertical dials for temperature and fan speed, and the vents spin easily and close completely.

The remaining switches are rows of identical toggles, all separated by little curved metal gates; one bank of switches is low on the centre stack and the other is mounted above the windshield. They look great, but you need to take your eyes off the road to see what you’re hitting, as they all look and feel alike and are differentiated only by tiny pictograms above them. Toggle one of them repeatedly and it changes the ambient lighting in the ceiling, door pockets and B-pillars to various colours. Sure, it’s unnecessary, but it’s really cool nevertheless.

Mini loves its toggles, and carries that over to the wipers, which definitely get a thumb’s-down from me. Rather than three positions, as with most other manufacturers, this model requires that you keep tapping the wiper switch up, one tap at a time, to go from slow to fast, and to rain-sensing (optional on the Cooper). And that’s also what’s wrong with them. Rain-sensing wipers never work well under all conditions, no matter who makes them, and they’re simply no substitute for variable intermittent (although I can’t imagine how many taps of the switch that would take).

2007 Mini Cooper
2007 Mini Cooper. Click image to enlarge

My Cooper S was optioned with Comfort Access, BMW’s name for a proximity key, which meant I simply hit the starter button to get everything underway. Lacking the feature, the Cooper required that I dock the UFO-shaped key into a slot in the dash, and then press the button. More grumbling: it’s no trouble to turn a key. Or if you must have an oddly-shaped one, then set it up like Volkswagen where you simply press the key further into the slot to start the car, rather than this silly two-step approach.

The seats are very comfortable; both models were optioned with sport seats, which are nicely bolstered and do a good job of keeping one’s posterior in place. Getting into the rear seat isn’t easy, and there isn’t a lot of legroom, but the chairs themselves are cozy, and much better than the ones I recall from the last-generation Mini, which reminded me of plastic tubs. The optional heated seats have three settings and will get and stay very hot on the highest setting, which is nice on icy days.

For a car of this size, there’s a fair bit of small-item storage, including a generously-sized glovebox and an upper compartment that holds the CD changer should you order the optional navigation system. Twin cupholders are an improvement over the last generation’s placement, but large travel mugs will still get in the way.

2007 Mini Cooper
2007 Mini Cooper. Click image to enlarge

Rear cargo space is a mere 37 cm in length when all the seats are up: you can bring home a two-four of beer, but you’ll have to put it on its side. The seats fold and increase the space to a length of 100 cm. It’s not a pickup truck, but then, it’s not meant to be.

That’s the deal with the Mini: it is what it is. It’s small, it’s hard on rear-seat passengers, and it’s expensive. But it’s also a blast to drive, the handling is incredible, and it’s a niche vehicle with no other direct competitors. Like the Volkswagen Beetle, which also shares a retro heritage, it comes down to desire – they’re both pricey for what you get, but if it’s what you want, no other vehicle will do. If you’ve been bitten, there’s simply no other cure.

Pricing: 2007 Mini Cooper

Base price: $25,900
Options: $3,800 (Sport Package of 17-inch wheels with run-flat tires, rear spoiler, sport seats, anthracite roof liner, sport button and white indicator lights $1,900; Premium Package of sunroof, auto-dimming mirror, heated seats, rain-sensing wipers and onboard computer $1,900)

A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,350
Price as tested: $31,150

Pricing: 2007 Mini Cooper S

Base price: $30,600

Options: $8,692 (Premium Package of sunroof, heated seats and onboard computer $1,600; Sport Package of sport suspension, 17-inch wheels and anthracite roof liner $1,200; Chrome Line Package $390; JCW Tuning Kit with stainless steel sport exhaust, larger air box, enhanced electronic control unit programming and badges $2,342; limited slip differential $650; Comfort Access $490; Piano Black interior trim $120; lounge leather $1,900)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,350
Price as tested: $40,742
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2008 Mini Cooper

    Related articles on Autos

    First Drives

  • 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman by Grant Yoxon
  • 2007 Mini Cooper/Cooper S by Laurance Yap
    Test Drives

  • 2007 Mini Cooper S by Greg Wilson
  • 2007 Mini Cooper S automatic by Greg Wilson
    Day-by-Day Reviews

  • 2007 Mini Cooper S by James Bergeron

    Manufacturer’s web site
  • Mini Canada

    Crash test results
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)
  • Connect with Autos.ca