Despite the revolution that the Mini underwent in the transition from the final Alec Issigonis–designed derivative to the first model developed under BMW ownership, the car managed to remain a real icon, instantly recognizable the world over. As one might expect, then, the design of the third-generation "new" 2014 Mini Cooper takes no risks. The boxy Brit is slightly longer, wider, and roomier but otherwise familiar. For the first time, however, it shares key engineering elements with parent company BMW -- specifically a bunch of new front-wheel-drive models that BMW is going to market starting later this year.
Design-wise, we like the improved interior room, the more usable rear seats, the less quirky instrument panel, and the bigger trunk. The integration of grille and bumper, on the other hand, looks more heavy-handed, the large taillamps and the lower diffuser have diminished some of the coveted visual simplicity at the rear, and the longer and taller snout is controversial rather than pretty.
The cockpit attempts to blend tradition with modernity. The large circular central instrument -- which harks back to the original Mini -- survives but no longer houses the speedometer, which moves to join the tach in a small cluster atop the steering column. This brings essential information closer to the driver's field of vision, but because of the small scale and the busy calibration, you may nonetheless feel compelled to buy the optional head-up display. On the credit side, the bigger climate controls are now easier to operate, and the window switches shift to the door panels.
The redesigned interior moves closer to BMW in functionality. The central controller's shape and logic are akin to the iDrive system on which it is based, and Mini now apes BMW with its driving modes (green, mid, and sport). The modes calibrate throttle response, steering action, shift speed, damper control, exhaust note, and even the ambient lighting. Speaking of lighting, one cannot ignore the LED ring that frames the main instrument binnacle. It reflects the selected driving mode by glowing red, green, or amber; changes to red or blue as you increase or lower the cabin temperature; and lights up bright red when the engine approaches redline.
Slip into the comfortable and supportive sport seat, and the new Mini feels every bit as different from the competition as did its predecessors. Different, though, can sometimes just be wacky. Dial in Dynamic Music, for example, and the sound processor will match a chosen song to your driving style or to the turn-signal sequence. One also can earn points for at-the-limit cornering along with a computer-generated "Good job!" from the friendly spy in the cab. Silly? Yes, although these features can be switched off.
While the first- and second-generation models were wanting in the quality department, the materials are of a much better grade in this latest iteration, and the available equipment is more comprehensive. The touch controller is every bit as intuitive to use as BMW's iDrive, the 8.8-inch color monitor looks good, and the pricey LED headlights easily outclass the previous xenons. In addition to the larger trunk, owners are likely to appreciate the more generous leg and shoulder room up front and the 60/40-split rear bench (with optional recline), although getting into and out of row two still requires a certain amount of physical fitness.
Helping create that roomier cabin is a wheelbase that has been extended by 1.1 inches and a track that is up to 1.7 inches wider. To enhance that coveted go-kart handling, the engineers have increased torsional stiffness, improved weight distribution, lowered the center of gravity, and retuned the suspension (which again combines damper struts and a twist beam). Chassis assistants include torque-steer compensation and a brake-activated electronic differential lock. Extracost options include Dynamic Damper Control, which lets you choose between a sporty and a more comfort-oriented setting, as well as active cruise control with collision warning and automatic brake actuation.
We drove the Cooper S with the automatic transmission. Additional engine choices for U.S. buyers are a 1.5-liter three-cylinder in the base Cooper and the follow-up to the brawny John Cooper Works, with a 231-hp twin-turbo 2.0-liter. The 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder in the Cooper S develops 189 hp between 4700 and 6000 rpm (with the limiter at 6500 rpm). The maximum torque of 207 lb-ft plateaus from only 1250 rpm to 4750 rpm, thereby covering nearly 60 percent of the rev band. Better still, there is a brief full-throttle overboost function that ups the twist action to 221 lb-ft. The autobox version is not only 0.1 second quicker than the manual to 60 mph (6.4 seconds), it's also more economical (in the European cycle, at least). The sport version brings shift paddles and faster gearchanges.
The test car felt generally more grown-up than the model it replaces, which occasionally wavered between agility and twitchiness. Pushed hard on the autobahn, the new Mini is more firmly planted, less susceptible to crosswinds and pavement grooves, and quite stable overall. Through high-speed corners, however, we once or twice experienced a disconcerting rear-end liftoff shrug -- the kind of stuff that makes your neck hair bristle even though stability control remains totally passive. While wind and road noise are well suppressed, the intake rasp and the exhaust rumble are just about loud enough to remind you that this is the Cooper S. Still, on the autobahn the newcomer collected points for its solid braking performance and remarkable full-throttle grunt. As long as you keep the revs up by shifting down a gear or two, this little road shark will successfully chase much bigger fish.
On imperfect secondary roads, the seventeen-inch winter tires did nothing to help the rather brittle ride, and switching the dampers to comfort mode didn't help much. Although the new Mini copes much better with longer undulations, it needs a flat surface to excel. On a bumpy road, torque steer and a certain snappiness near breakaway speeds impair your confidence when you really push it. At the limit, understeer enters the scene before stability control eventually interferes with due subtlety. As it should be, the Mini III is a minimum-input, maximum-effect driving machine. A flick at the helm is all it takes to change direction, a stab at the brake squashes kinetic energy with vigor, and one pull at the downshift paddle summons enough revs for a slingshot acceleration maneuver. On smooth tarmac, the Mini is at its best, blending mind-boggling grip with ultrafast responses and amazing tactility. At the end of a ten-mile stretch of magical road, we instantly turned around and went back for an encore.
The range of Minis has grown with every generation, and this one is likely to again spawn two or three additional body styles. Later this year, Mini is expected to add a four-door hatchback. Due in 2015 are the four-seat convertible and the new Clubman, which this time gets four conventionally hinged doors and sits on a stretched wheelbase while retaining the split tailgate. Looking further out, we see follow-ups to the Countryman, the Paceman, and the two-seat coupe and roadster body styles. Still unconfirmed are other models, including a minivan and a sedan. In total, we could see as many as thirteen different body styles over the third-generation Mini's lifetime. Even so, you'll probably have no trouble recognizing all of them as Minis.