When I think of cars, I always think "fun." Being an enthusiast, this comes as no surprise. If I was provided a naked chassis with four wheels, a la the Ariel Atom, I'd still think "fun."

That's not the case for every in-market consumer though. Some people think of automobiles as appliances with wheels. Simply put, it's a means to an end.

MINI Cooper

MINI has made it a point to align the brand with having fun and enjoying life. Its vehicles are tuned to excite and handle as though they're on rails, the company's quirky advertising is sure to give you a giggle, and even its auto show stands tend to feature jokes — remember, MINI gone MAXI? — and in once instance, KISS.

So, it should come as no surprise that when I picked up the all-new two-door MINI Cooper, I was presented with — you guessed it — a fun little machine. In this new generation product, it has increased in size all around.

MINI Cooper

As in the first and second-generation Coopers, space is aplenty. Even I can fit and I am 6'8 and 265 pounds. No one can fit behind me, but that's another story. If you're a normal-sized human you can likely transport four adults but I don't think your rear passengers would want to take a road trip. After all, it still is a MINI. 

Glancing at its exterior, you wouldn't really know it's an all-new MINI unless you're an auto nerd or you parked this generation Cooper against the other two. The styling largely remains the same, however, to me it seems that some elements have become a bit cartoon-y. Take, for example, the headlights and taillights appear a bit larger, a bit more rounded and a bit more bulbous. It's not a bad thing, but I wager if I brought my significant other around and asked her "What do you think of it as the Cooper's aged over the years" she'd reply "Oh, it's gotten cuter."

Getting more familiar behind the three-spoke steering wheel, you'll note that many of the controls and their respective placement remains the same. BUT, there is ONE key difference: everything feels a little BMWified. The switchgear, the HVAC vents, the seating. There's just a lot of little things that a previous BMW owner — like myself — would pick up on. Fit and finish in my tester appeared on point and I didn't pick up on any flaws. What will be interesting to see is how this generation Cooper holds up to the test of time — reliability has always been pretty poor in MINI vehicles.

One thing that takes getting used to is how the front windscreen is pushed SO far out ahead of you. I completely forgot about this as it's been a LONG time since I've driven a Cooper.

If you're observant, by now you can tell this review gives a distinct "so far so good" vibe. But, a big reason why people buy a MINI is its driving experience. That said, let's get down to brass tacks.

Now equipped with a turbocharged 1.5-liter, three-cylinder motor, the standard Cooper produces 134 horsepower and 162 lb.-ft. of torque. As it weighs in around 2,600 pounds, it's a peppy vehicle that possess a 7.4 second zero to 60 time. It's certainly not a supercar but I think this is more than enough zip to handle daily chores and get you onto the local highway without any concern. Oh, and I am happy to report I obtained an impressive 32 mpg after a week's worth of driving. It's a fuel sipper you can have fun in.

One thing I love about the all-new three-cylinder is how it sounds. Rather than have a bassy, buzzy and unrefined four-cylinder motor, the three banger is reminiscent of a six-cylinder engine. At low revs it may sound a touch groggy but once you get it above about 1,500 it changes its tone. And when you're getting on it, you will think "Damn, this sounds like a BMW six."

Personally, I like this character change.

My standard tester was equipped with a six-speed, row-it-yourself gearbox. This was refreshing. With a relatively tall shifter that snapped into gear and a clutch with a low take up, it felt quite BMW-like. While the older MINIs didn't require much precision to drive well, this one does require a bit more attention. In other words, don't get too sloppy with the clutch or you'll feel what I like to call the "rumble of defeat."

Putting this front-wheel drive auto through the corners, you may be shocked at just how capable it is. That's because FWD vehicles are known for their understeer and awful cornering characteristics as they become overwhelmed with steering and power inputs. As in previous MINI products, that's just not the case here until you're really pushing the car at the ragged edge. You have to seriously be giving this Cooper the beans for it to lose traction.

MINI Cooper

Speaking of the twisties, you will come to appreciate how MINI tuned this steering rack. Rather than go the direction of most European automakers and overweight the feel, MINI chose to hang back and keep it manageable. While working this car on the switchbacks, I made a point to note that the Cooper was lacking that new, artificial weighting that pervades all-new BMW products. What really separates it from its small car competition is how direct it is. Rather than be dull, it can be best described as sharp — you point it where you want the car to go and it's heading there, quickly. This is a big difference from the Volkswagen Golf that is far less direct and requires more input while cornering.

So, the engine is fantastic, the shifter and clutch work harmoniously, and the steering is optimal compared to its competition. While these are all positives, there is an Achilles Heel in the Cooper. It's ride quality is a bit suspect.

This has always been a weak point in previous generation MINI Coopers, so this doesn't strike me as a surprise. What I will say is that it's come a long way in terms of absorbing bumps and overall refinement. It just needs a bit more work at the end of the day. While it doesn't feel like a hopped up go-kart slamming over bumps and imperfections anymore, it is still going to give your kidneys some abuse in an urban environment, which is where I tend to see Coopers being driven the most.

In addition, if you're looking to lease or purchase a Cooper you will have to exercise some caution. That's because these cars are like Porsches. A lot of the menu is a la carte and things add up quickly. It's not unheard of to run across a $30,000+ Cooper. These people probably need a sanity check. Of course if you have the means, more power to you, just be wary if you're on a budget with a hankering for some British motoring.

Looking back at my experience, I think you'll note there was a theme that kept resurfacing in this review. The underlying reminder that this is a BMW Group product. To me, the preceding Coopers felt a bit like bastardized children of the umbrella company. The interiors felt cheap and the standard Coopers were supplied with meh powerplants. This all-new Cooper, on the other hand, feels like a BMW, which is why I kept going back and comparing it to my other Bavarian experiences.

This is a HUGE plus for the marque and shows a very clear evolution of the brand, which is maturing.

The Good:

- Now the standard Cooper comes with an excellent turbocharged 1.5-liter, three-cylinder motor — power is ample
- Great sound that sets it apart from other small cars that feature buzzy and bassy engines
- Since there's not an overwhelming amount of power, torque steer is non existent and the Cooper's handling will astonish you

The Bad:

- Although the suspension has made strides compared to previous Coopers, it still is not by any means comfortable — city driving can be punishing
- It is a MINI so don't expect its backseat to comfortably transport four adults over long distances
- Reliability is a concern that would remain on my mind if I were an in-market consumer looking at a MINI — the company's history does not bode well but we'll have to wait and see the data with this generation product

The Lowdown:

In the small car class, the all-new MINI Cooper makes an especially strong case for itself. Now equipped with an excellent motor, I am going to go on a limb here and say that it is actually the better pick between the standard car and the Cooper S. Sure the S has more power but it sounds so so and you get torque steer with your helping of added power. Personally, I'll pass. Two anecdotes that really bring home how good the all-new MINI is: 1) After driving the all-new Volkswagen Golf, to me it's VERY clear that VW whiffed on the MKVII Golf. And, 2) if I had not invested so much in my daily driver, a MKVI Golf, I'd probably be looking into swapping it out for a standard Cooper. Yes, it's that good.

MINI Cooper

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