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First Drive: 2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

We wouldn’t be surprised if it stole a small slice of the limelight from other small, upscale cars like the Audi A3, Mercedes-Benz CLA and Lexus CT200h, too.

Puerto Rico is like the land that time forgot.

It’s covered in beaches and rainforests and mountains. The trees all bloom in the most vivid colors in a way that almost makes you think you’ve arrived at Jurassic Park. But what may not be evident from first glance is the thriving interior of the country, which is fueled by San Juan’s robust metropolitan area. It’s every bit a modern city.

It would only make sense, then, that I’d find myself behind the wheel of a car that fits so perfectly in Puerto Rico. It’s a car that easily traverses the country’s narrow roads, a car that can blend in with bright flowers, and embodies its unchanging exterior that masks a thoroughly modern culture.

It’s the 2014 MINI Cooper Hardtop. And though it may still look like a classic, it’s absolutely the future of MINI’s lineup.

Growing up, staying the same

There are only a handful of cars on the road today that has maintained the same general shape and design over years of keeping up with the times. Think Porsche 911, VW Beetle, and MINI Cooper Hardtop. It’s for that reason that each of these remains so instantly recognizable, no matter the model year.

The MINI debuted back in 1959, and went nearly completely unchanged for four decades. When BMW bought the brand and relaunched it in 2002. The then-new MINI Cooper was significantly larger than the old model, but miniscule by comparison to most Americans’ Expeditions and Suburbans.

It kept with the brand’s reputation for super-sharp handling, easy parking, and spunky styling.

For 2014 and its fourth iteration, the MINI has grown again.

To start, the car’s shoebox proportions and assertive, squat, bulldog stance go mostly unchanged, but the Cooper Hardtop has grown in size. It’s 4.5-inches longer from end-to-end, 1.7-inches wider, and it’s sitting on a 1.1-inch longer wheelbase.

That’s only an incremental increase, and one that doesn’t even push the Hardtop out of the subcompact segment. However, park one next to a 2013 model, and the difference is noticeable. I think that’s a good thing, though, for reasons I’ll mention later.

Beaches and mountains

The trip to Puerto Rico came at exactly the right moment. While the rest of the country struggled through arctic vortexes and snow and in the South, I was enjoying 85-degree beaches, rainforests, and mountains.

I started the day with a Blazing Red base Cooper Hardtop, with the 1.5-liter engine, six-speed manual, and navigation. MINIs have always had notchy, easy-to-manage transmissions, and this one is no exception; the car would make a great vehicle for learning to drive manual.

Even then, it’s still a hoot, just a slightly more responsible one.

In place of the 1.6-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder, MINI has bolted a twin-scroll turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder, which will also find a home under the hood of the BMW i8. In the MINI, it produces 134 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque, and it’s expected to earn 30 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway.

The old 1.6 wasn’t a bad engine, but it certainly wasn’t quick. This new mill, however, feels like a relative rocket. Thanks to the turbo, it has torque from the lowest revs, and it’s genuinely entertaining to drive around town. Toss the car into Sport mode and enjoy yourself, or shift it over to Eco to save fuel. Even then, it’s still a hoot, just a slightly more responsible one.

While we ran around the coastal areas near San Juan, the Cooper proved to be quite the little charmer, with willing acceleration, a comfortable interior, and easy-to-read controls.

The leathers and new soft-touch dash materials felt great, and it became pretty evident that the new MINI, starting at $19,000, would be a great first car for someone committing to the brand.

2014 MINI Cooper S engine fullThe engine ran out of juice a little early on a few of the steepest hills we could find, but it was otherwise refined, especially for a three-cylinder. And, if you’re looking to really capitalize on the fuel economy savings with the smaller engine but want to option the interior out with all the fancy accessories, you can do that. MINI remains one of the only brands that won’t force you into buying the more expensive model, just to buy the features you want on a specific car.

After realizing that the base Cooper finally had enough oomph to really earn my consideration, I was pointed toward a Volcanic Orange Cooper S with nearly all the bells and whistles.

For folks familiar to the specific flavor of ‘fun’ that MINI offers, this will be the car for you.

With 189 horsepower and as much as 221-lb-ft of torque available in Sport mode, the Cooper S is a very quick little car, and it proved to possess almost more power than the island’s narrow mountain passes could handle.

Those roads truly pulled MINI’s go-kart-like qualities out of the suspension, and the engine produces more than enough power to charge up the hills. However, many of the streets were only wide enough for a single car to pass at a time, which made it obvious why we saw so many Coopers around town; they were the only cars that comfortably fit in much of Puerto Rico.

A few hours behind the wheel of the Cooper S gave me the opportunity to tinker with the navigation system, which is nearly identical to BMW’s newest version of iDrive. It has a powerful suite of new mobile application integrations, as well as a touch-sensitive dial that allows you to draw the letters as you spell out destinations.

The new 8.8-inch display is gorgeous, but the controls can be a little difficult to manage at times, entirely because of how low they’re mounted under the armrest. However, I think a little more time behind the wheel would likely shorten that learning curve. MINI also offers a new motorized heads-up display, which flips up from the dash, a la the new 2014 Mazda3.

Small car, big competition

If you’re into little cars, there’s little not to love about the new MINI. There’s slightly more room for your passengers inside, and a several more gadgets to keep you connected on the go. More than that, though, it feels like the excitable tiny clown car has finally grown up to match its nearly premium pricing, and that should be commended.

The Cooper Hardtop will likely continue to snag the hearts of a playful, niche audience of shoppers. But, we wouldn’t be surprised if it stole a small slice of the limelight from other small, upscale cars like the Audi A3, Mercedes-Benz CLA, and Lexus CT200h, too.

Highs

  • Best base engine in the Cooper to date
  • Tons of technology for those who want it
  • Premium interior that feels closer to luxury than economy
  • More spacious without feeling oversized for a MINI

Lows

  • Infotainment controls are too complex to sit completely out of sight