MINI takes the States, or How Digital Trends got its very own MINI Cooper Hardtop

On even-numbered years, MINI North America hosts a cross-country owner’s rally called “MINI Takes the States,” and this year we were invited to join.

In concept, the drive seemed straightforward enough: San Francisco to Boston over the course of two weeks with as many owners as the brand could muster. We’d take the scenic route between stops, adding hours and miles to the drive, effectively zigzagging across the country as we headed east.

I wasn’t convinced that I could actually afford to take two weeks of vacation on a whim, so I committed to drive to the halfway point in Dallas. As an east coaster, that would give me the chance to see parts of the country that feel more like Mars than America. So I wedged my six-foot-two-inch frame into a self-proclaimed small car for seven days of desert driving.

San Francisco to Grand Junction

The first few days of the drive revealed a desolate moonscape, mostly untouched by humans. That’s with a caveat, of course, because Highway 50 — America’s “Loneliest Road” — was filled with hundreds of MINIs and MINI owners as they passed, waved, and slowed down for photo opportunities with each other.

Related: Dodge makes the world’s most powerful sedan

The drive down the “Million Dollar Highway” from Grand Junction to Albuquerque included some of the most epic mountain views imaginable, and ABQ to Lubbock, Lubbock to Austin, and Austin to Dallas proved that everything really is bigger in Texas, especially the number of hours between cities.

For me, the drive covered six states in as many days, but there are a couple things that I walked away with that have changed my perception of MINI as a brand.

Firstly, the community of MINI owners is one of the most exciting, most enjoyable cults of driving enthusiasts in the business. These people love their cars with the same level of enthusiasm that Ferrari owners do, and they do it with a certain silliness and infectious zeal for life that we don’t see often enough.

I couldn’t help but laugh, smile, and wave as drivers in clown suits drove by in convertibles, or inflated space aliens rode shotgun in Countrymen. These are shoppers who truly love the joy of motoring, and they leave you wanton for a MINI of your own, just so you can keep hanging with the crowd.

Extras

While cute and undersized, these cars aren’t cheap. However, they aren’t necessarily inexpensive, either.

Backed by BMW, every style of Cooper feels better-built with better materials than similarly-sized Fiestas, Fits, and virtually any other subcompact on the market. The doors feel sturdy, the sound system is excellent, and the infotainment has been sourced directly from BMW and Rolls-Royce.

Related: Why self-driving cars are still way off in the future

Even after nearly 70 hours of driving, the seats never left me feeling achy or fatigued, and I never felt cramped for space. That’s not to say that the entire family could cross the country in one of these cars (at least not with their bags), but a week’s worth of travel for two is easily managed. However, MINI leans heavily on its ability to personalize each individual vehicle, and those options come at a cost.

MINI Takes the States

After asking a few owners, it became clear that nearly doubling the car’s base price with features and options wasn’t an uncommon practice, though many drivers seemed just as content to drive a standard model with just the basics.

I also had plenty of time to explore the MINI’s connectivity technologies, of which there are many. The 2014 Cooper syncs with your mobile phone to teach you how to drive more efficiently or with more spirit, and it integrates with many social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter.

The new Cooper Hardtop also offers a heads-up display, radar cruise control, and a self-parking system, much like the more expensive BMWs on the market, which has piqued our interest in learning more about MINI’s plans to keep up with the ever-evolving world of consumer technology.

Welcome to the garage

We are Digital Trends, after all, and MINI has promised that there are features coming down the line that will really blow our socks off. So, we’ve decided to add a 2015 MINI Cooper Hardtop to our long-term garage, where we’re going to throw all but the kitchen sink at it, in terms of mobile tech.

We plan to drive it down to January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, pair it to every device we bring into the office for review, and generally get a feel for all of the technology, features, reliability, and performance these pint-sized hot hatches have to offer.

And we’ll need your help deciding how to review it, too. Stay tuned for now, and in the meantime, motor hard.

Gaming

Xiaomi’s Gamepad 2.0 turns the Black Shark into a mini Switch

Chinese phone manufacturer Xiaomi has introduced the Gamepad 2.0 for its Black Shark gaming phone that launched earlier this year. The new gamepad is similar to the Switch Joy-Con, with one piece attaching to each side of the phone.
Smart Home

Put away that sponge and let us help you pick the best dishwasher for your buck

Tired of doing dishes by hand? Take a look at our picks of the four best dishwashers currently available and let a machine do the dirty work for you. They’ll do a much better job, anyway.
Deals

Want a fun, affordable instant camera? The Fujifilm Instax Mini 7S is just $49

Instant cameras have had a surprising resurgence of late, and no brand is better recognized in the instant photo space today than Fujifilm Instax. Walmart is currently offering the Instax Mini 7S for just $49.
Home Theater

Common AirPods problems, and how to fix them

Apple’s AirPods are among the best fully wireless earbuds we’ve seen, but they’re not perfect. If you’re having trouble, take a look at our guide to the most common problems and what you can do to fix them.
Cars

LM Industries’ autonomous shuttles head to Phoenix, Sacramento campuses

LM Industries will deploy Olli low-speed autonomous shuttles at school campuses in Arizona and California as part of its ongoing "fleet challenge," which asks local groups to propose uses for autonomous vehicles.
Cars

Bosch’s CES-bound shuttle concept takes us on a trip to a not-too-distant future

Bosch envisions a future in which driverless shuttles occupy their own market segment. The German firm won't build the shuttles, but it wants to provide everything else, ranging from the drive system to the apps used to hail them.
Cars

Driving a prototype 2020 Passat at Volkswagen’s Arizona Proving Ground

Volkswagen’s Arizona Proving Ground is where new cars are tested to the breaking point, including the 2020 Passat midsize sedan. Ride along as the new Passat completes testing ahead of its 2019 launch.
Emerging Tech

A lidar-equipped truck knows exactly how much de-icer to apply on roads

Lidar is best known as the laser-based technology that helps self-driving cars sense their surroundings. But the city of Knoxville has another, more seasonal use for it: De-icing roads.
Product Review

Boring takes a back seat as 2019 Corolla Hatchback mixes fun with practicality

We drive the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback, the latest hatchback to bear the Corolla name. As the best-selling nameplate in automotive history, Toyota has high expectations to meet. This model mostly lives up to the legacy.
Cars

Hertz speeds up car rentals with biometric scan technology

Biometric security technology that uses face, fingerprint, and voice recognition is gaining traction, with Hertz emerging as the latest company to incorporate it into its daily operations.
Product Review

Inside Maserati's Levante SUV beats the heart of a Ferrari

Maserati’s luxury SUV gets a shot in the arm by way of Ferrari-derived V8 power, but is it enough to go toe-to-toe with the established players in the high performance sport-utility segment? Let’s find out.
Mobile

McLaren puts the pedal to the metal in special-edition OnePlus 6T

The OnePlus 6T is yet another flagship killer smartphone, bringing powerful specifications to a much lower price than the competition. Now, OnePlus has teamed up with McLaren for the OnePlus 6T McLaren Edition.
Cars

Aston Martin’s 1,000-hp Valkyrie will boast the Mona Lisa of the engine world

Aston Martin has released new details about its F1-inspired Valkyrie hypercar. Co-developed with Red Bull Racing, the Valkyrie will be one of the most aerodynamic production cars ever made.
Cars

The redesigned 2020 Passat shows Volkswagen still believes in sedans

The sedan segment in America is shrinking, but Volkswagen still believes in it. The German firm has released a teaser sketch to preview the redesigned 2020 Passat it will introduce during the 2019 Detroit Auto Show.