Launched in 1959, the original, classic Mini revolutionized transport in Europe a few years before the Mustang did the same in America.
The 2012 MINI Cooper isn't quite as revolutionary as its ancestor, but it's equally distinctive, and it shows that even small cars can be popular in America--as long as they're fun to drive, inexpensive to run and offer the same sort of quality you'd usually find in larger cars.
You can thank parent company BMW for that. The blueprint may be basic econobox, but the product is anything but. Like the original, it's an affordable car that transcends class barriers and opens up a whole new world of customizing and personal touches to owners.
The MINI Cooper's retro styling echoes that of the classic vehicle, with large, round lights at the front, wheels pushed out to the four corners of the car, and often a contrasting roof color that really catches the eye.
Inside, the retrospective theme continues, with a large speedometer dominating the cabin from the center of the dashboard.
This is one case where retro highlights the flaws of older designs, as reading vital information in the central speedometer requires significant head-turning on the driver's part, and the switches and knobs look like they've been thrown randomly at the dashboard.
The seats are comfortable and supportive, though there's more room in the front than for rear passengers, who remain something of an afterthought.
There are three trim levels - Cooper, Cooper S and John Cooper Works (JCW). That gives you the option of a 121-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder, or a 181-horsepower turbocharged unit in the Cooper S, or the 208-horsepower unit in the JCW.
Even the base car has decent performance, but the extra power of the turbocharged cars really ups the excitement levels and turns the MINI into a quick little car. The Cooper and Cooper S have a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions. The JCW is stick-shift only.
That performance doesn't come at the expense of economy. The regular Cooper is most efficient, managing 29 mpg city and 37 mpg highway, for a combined rating of 32 mpg. You can knock 1 mpg off each figure with the automatic transmission, while the quicker Cooper S manages 27 mpg city, 35 highway and 30 combined. You could see up to 380 miles from a tank of gas in the Cooper.
The MINI Cooper range is fun to drive, too. Steering is sharp and accurate, and the MINI really scoots around corners. Some may find the ride quality of the JCW a little harsh, but the Cooper and Cooper S ride the bumps pretty well.
So, fun and frugal--and safe too. The NHTSA gave the 2012 MINI Cooper a 5-star rollover rating, while the IIHS scores the Cooper with its best rating of "good" in crash testing. Throw in plenty of equipment and the MINI Cooper suggests that you don't have to give up big-car benefits in the pursuit of small-car economy.
For more details, see the full review of the 2012 Mini Cooper on our sister site, TheCarConnection.