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We've driven all the Mini Coopers on racetracks, streets and highways around the world, and rank them among the most fun and responsive front-wheel-drive cars available, enhanced by outstanding real-world fuel economy. All Minis have a basic sporting character, yet most are quite comfortable as daily drivers.
Mini says the base Cooper Hardtop goes from 0-60 mph in 8.4 seconds, which is not quick, while the turbocharged Mini Cooper S performs this feat in just 6.6 seconds. That said, the standard engine does not feel that slow and is enjoyable to drive.
The Mini Cooper S engine reacts almost instantly to the gas pedal, with only the tiniest hint of turbo lag, and produces satisfying acceleration at all speeds. Its steady, even power delivery across a wide rpm range is impressive.
Cooper S models also come with a sport-tuned suspension, but their behavior is still quite refined, and more so than some other cars capable of similar track speeds. With a MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension, the Cooper S is flat and stable in corners, and absorbs small bumps and joints without discomforting passengers. With front-wheel drive, the car never feels at risk of spinning out, even with radical changes in throttle position or braking in the middle of corners.
A key factor in the Mini's sporting feel is its electromechanically assisted steering, which uses an electric motor, instead of a hydraulic pump, for steering assist. Despite the fuel-saving electric power assist, the steering shaft is still mechanically connected to the steering box, so the driver continues to enjoy great feel for the road. This system also varies the steering ratio and effort according to speed.
The effect of the electric steering is most apparent in tight, slow parking lot maneuvers, where very little effort or wheel motion is needed to make large changes in direction. In comparison, at highway speeds an equal rotation of the steering wheel results in smaller and less sensitive directional changes. Another advantage of electrically assisted steering, from the performance perspective, is that steering ratios can be optimized for various portions of a curve, and not just varied with vehicle speed. In the Mini, this means that the initial turn into a corner is cushioned slightly, so the car doesn't feel twitchy.
The 6-speed automatic transmission works reasonably well with both the standard and turbocharged engines. Paddles on the steering wheel let the driver override the automatic and shift manually; and when the driver stops using them, the transmission reverts to Drive, picking the gears itself. Automatics also come with a Sport mode that switches to a more aggressive shift algorithm that holds gears longer to keep more power on tap.
The 6-speed manual gearbox offers more driver engagement than the automatic and wrings the most from the Mini's small engine. We strongly recommend the manual for the low-powered base models, and prefer it for the high-powered models. It's crisp, precise, and makes the driving experience more fun.
Mini brakes are first-rate. The four-wheel discs are large for cars of the Mini's weight, and they provide quick, stable stops with good, consistent pedal feel. Both the base and S models benefit from Mini's brake cornering control, which can use the ABS to apply individual brakes to inside wheels to help get the car through a corner.
Tires play a crucial role in ride quality, and there is a variety of tires to choose from. All-season tires on the smaller rims deliver the most comfortable ride. This is most obvious in the Convertible, which tends to emphasize road shock and shakes. The run-flat performance tires on the Mini Cooper S Convertible with a Sport Package made us dread rough urban roads filled with potholes. Be sure to actually drive a car with the sports suspension and big rims, regardless of the Mini variant, before buying. They may make the ride too stiff for some tastes.