A sparkling personality goes a long way toward making people fall in love. Whether it’s with another person, or in this case, and for me, a Spice Orange 2013 Mini Cooper S Hardtop, faults can be forgiven in exchange for unrelenting sun-shiny effervescence. This diminutive little car is aglow with charm combined with a scrappy mischievousness that I happen to find utterly irresistible. “Let’s get into some trouble,” it cajoles, “but not too much of it.” A Mini Cooper is not without its faults. But I could easily live with those faults. Most of the time.
2013 Mini Cooper S Hardtop Road Test and Review
2013 Mini Cooper S Hardtop Road Test and Review: Models and Prices
You’ve probably noticed that Mini Coopers come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The lineup includes the 2-seat Coupe, 2-seat Roadster, 4-seat Hardtop, and 4-seat Convertible. Each is available in standard trim, more powerful Cooper S trim, and performance-tuned John Cooper Works trim. For 2013, a limited-production John Cooper Works GP Hardtop is also available. Larger models are sold in the form of the 4-seat Cooper Paceman and 5-seat Cooper Countryman.
The vehicle we’re talking about here is the original: the Cooper Hardtop. I spent a week driving the Cooper S variant of the hardtop, which adds a turbocharged engine and a handful of upgrades designed to improve performance and handling. Prices for a Cooper Hardtop start at $20,495 including the $795 destination charge. The Cooper S Hardtop runs $24,095, and the John Cooper Works (JCW) costs $30,895. If you keep in mind that the Cooper JCW Hardtop is just about as close as you can get to owning a street-legal racing kart, that price sounds more palatable.
If you check out the Mini Cooper configurator at MiniUSA.com, you’ll see that it might be entirely possible that no two are ever built in exactly the same fashion. Mini takes personalization to the extreme, and you can spend as little, or as much, as you like. Load a Cooper JCW with all the extras, and you’re looking at spending $45,000. And that’s before dipping into the Mini Motoring Accessories goodie bag for cool stuff like a Union Jack or Checkered Flag roof graphic.
My test sample was not that expensive, but it wasn’t cheap, either. The total price came to $31,195, including the $795 destination charge. That ain’t chump change, but I’d spend it anyway, because there’s nothing quite like a Mini Cooper S to brighten one’s day.
2013 Mini Cooper S Hardtop Road Test and Review: Design
- No changes for 2013
In creating a modern Mini Cooper, parent company BMW successfully applies iconic design cues such as the round headlights, frowning grille, forward-leaning 2-box body proportions, contrast-color roof, and protruding center-mount exhaust outlet. Even the gray plastic wheel well and rocker panel trim mimics protective gear worn by the original Mini Cooper. A long list of colors, graphics, and aluminum wheel designs make it easy to make a Mini all yours. In fact, certain design elements are sold under a branded umbrella called Mini Yours.
Of course, the modern Mini is completely different from the original. It’s much bigger, believe it or not. I once drove a vintage Cooper, and the gearshift was wedged under my right thigh. And that was before I got fat. Even in my new and expanded body, I’ve no problems with front seat comfort, but more on that in the next section.
Like the car’s exterior, the Mini’s interior carries a strong whiff of retro, helped in large part by the enormous center-mounted speedometer, the tachometer that’s tacked onto the steering column, and an instrument panel stretching from door to door, punctuated with round air vents that look very close to the original. Buyers can dress a Mini Cooper cabin with a variety of colors and materials, and the ability to personalize the car to an extreme level serves to further endear a Mini to its owner.
2013 Mini Cooper S Hardtop Road Test and Review: Comfort and Cargo
- No changes
My 4-year-old daughter really wanted to go for a ride in the Cooper. Her car seat had been installed in a practical Kia Optima Hybrid all week, and she was looking to venture out with her dad for some twisty-road fun. Don’t get your knickers all in a bunch. When she’s aboard, I drive just fast enough for her to feel a g-force or two. Twisty road fun for Daddy and daughter is different than twisty road fun for Daddy.
Anyway, we zipped down the backside of a local mountain range, and she had plenty of room in the Cooper’s back seat. While installing her child safety seat, it became instantly clear that the LATCH anchors weren’t designed for frequent use. They’re located deep in the seat, making it hard to get the seat base latched down, or removed. But the effort was worth the grin on her face, and it also showed me that a Cooper Hardtop will, on occasion, hold a family.
The trunk, however, is smaller than a Miata’s when you’re carrying more than two people. Fold those back seats, however, and a Mini Cooper holds more cargo than two Cadillac ATS sedans combined.
I think three guys my size would fit inside the Cooper, but not four. Two taller people can pair up on the right side of the car as long as the front passenger doesn’t mind developing an intimate relationship with the dashboard. If you want more passenger space, just get a Cooper Clubman, which is a Cooper Hardtop with a wheelbase stretch, more rear seat space, and funky rear barn doors to access the cargo area.
When used as a 2-seater, a Cooper Hardtop’s front seat occupants cannot complain. Both seats offer manual height adjustment, and since I like to sit up nice and high with a good view of my surroundings, the Cooper delivered a perfect driving position combined with good thigh support. The standard sport seats lack lateral support when tossing the Mini down a favorite road, but I suspect the optional Recaro performance seats are too aggressive for most Mini buyers. Guess that’s one of those flaws you live with in exchange for cheeky good-naturedness.
2013 Mini Cooper S Hardtop Road Test and Review: Features and Controls
- Bluetooth is now standard
- Satellite radio is now optional
- Revised Technology Package contents
- New Premium Packages debut
A new Mini Cooper will bewilder anyone expecting a conventional control layout designed to modern ergonomic standards. This car’s dashboard is a mess. And that’s totally OK, because that mess is critical to the car’s retro look and feel. Plus, once mastered, it serves to cement one more bond between man and machine.
Let me provide examples. Want to power down the windows? Check that row of look-alike chrome toggle switches on the lower part of the center stack, beneath the climate controls. That’s not where you might expect power window switches, but once you know that’s where Mini puts them, you don’t care, because it’s unlike every other car on the road. And that’s one reason you paid extra for a Mini in the first place.
Looking for the navigation and Mini Connected screen’s controls? Don’t stab your fingers at the screen, because it won’t respond. Instead, you can cycle between primary functions and screen menus using that sharply pointed object sticking up from the floor, the one that looks like a pen trapped between the seats.
That sounds silly, and given that touchscreen technology is now the standard for infotainment displays, it is. But remember, BMW builds this car, and if you’ve ever used BMW’s iDrive controller, you’ll recognize that this Mini Connected system’s stalk works the same way using twists, tugs, and pushes to execute commands. Once acclimated, it’s actually very easy to use, especially thanks to the “Home” button that jumps the user back out to the main display.
Oh, I could go on and on complaining about this or that, but I won’t, because people buy a Mini Cooper for reasons other than ergonomic simplicity.
2013 Mini Cooper Road S Hardtop Test and Review: Safety and Ratings
- No changes for 2013
If safety is really important to you, don’t buy a small, lightweight car. You see, even if that car’s crash-test ratings are impressive, you must remember that the ratings are completely valid only when compared to vehicles of a similar size. Weight matters when it comes to frontal-impact collisions, and the bigger vehicle usually wins. For comparison, a Honda Pilot can weigh as much as a ton more than the Cooper.
The good news is that the Cooper S is equipped with hardware that can help you avoid an accident in the first place: Speedy engine, razor-sharp handling, stout brakes, and more. These work with dynamic stability and traction control, as well as cornering brake control, to give a Mini Cooper’s driver quick, confident reflexes when necessary. Rain-sensing wipers and adaptive headlights are optional, as well as, almost laughably, a set of rear parking assist sensors.
Seriously, how tight is that space you’re trying to tuck into? Get a bike.
2013 Mini Cooper Hardtop Crash-Test Ratings:
In the event your Mini is involved in a collision, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says it provides “Good” protection in the moderate offset frontal-impact test, “Acceptable” protection in side-impact and roof crush strength tests, and “Good” protection against whiplash-induced injury in a rear-impact crash.
As this review is written, the NHTSA has not performed crash tests on the Mini Cooper Hardtop.
2013 Mini Cooper Road S Hardtop Test and Review: Engines and Fuel Economy
- John Cooper Works GP model debuts with tweaked performance
Mini offers three engines for the Cooper Hardtop: too weak, too strong, and just right. The standard Cooper’s 121-horsepower, 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine is adequate if you can drive a stick. If you’re getting an automatic, it’s possible that a more alert driver in a Prius could beat you to 60 mph.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the John Cooper Works and GP variants, which have a massaged and turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine whipping up 208 horsepower and up to 207 lb.-ft. of torque with the Overboost function engaged. That’s a whole bunch of oomph in such a small, front-wheel-drive car. Plus, you need to know how to drive a manual transmission to enjoy a Cooper JCW or JCW GP.
That leaves the turbocharged, 1.6-liter engine in the Cooper S models as just right. It makes 181 horsepower and 177 lb.-ft. of torque spread across the rev range between 1,600 rpm and 5,000 rpm. That’s plenty to provide entertaining acceleration, even when paired with an automatic transmission. In fact, the automatic is almost as quick as the stick. Mini claims this model gets to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds with a clutch pedal, and in 6.8 seconds without one.
Despite spending plenty of time taking advantage of that torque curve, and thrilling to the Cooper’s speedy acceleration every chance I got, I still averaged 27 mpg during a week of driving. The EPA says I should have been getting 29 mpg. And thus, we discover another reason to love the Mini Cooper S. It is a cheap thrill.
2013 Mini Cooper Road S Hardtop Test and Review: Driving Impressions
Except for the fact that it’s hard to see overhead traffic lights if you pull too close to an intersection, the Cooper S is a brilliant little point-and-shoot weapon for combating city traffic. Powerful enough to lead the pack or thread the needle between less engaged fellow motorists, but not so much so that it attracts negative attention, a Cooper S can be driven with enthusiasm all of the time without incurring much in the way of penalties. In fact, other drivers almost expect the jaunty little car to cheerfully rip through holes in traffic and zip around corners like some kind of overexcited child in a crowded candy store.
“Aww, look. So cute!”
Because 59.8% of its weight sits over the Cooper S model’s front wheels, when equipped with the automatic transmission, and because the Cooper S is front-wheel drive, enthusiasts might expect that handling is compromised. I’m happy to report that this is not the case, and the sticky P205/45R17 Continental ContiSportContact 3 SSR tires aren’t the only reason why.
First, the Cooper S rides on a sport-tuned MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, helping to ensure maximum contact between the rubber and the road. Second, the Cooper’s equal-length driveshafts virtually eliminate a common problem with powerful front-wheel-drive cars; namely torque steer. Third, even if you decide you’d like to turn off the Dynamic Stability Control and Dynamic Traction Control systems for more “control” over the driving experience, the optional automatic transmission’s Electronic Differential Lock Control ensures that as much power makes it to the pavement as is possible. Translated to driving on a writhing section of a public road, these bits and pieces make a Cooper S feel like a genuine sports car.
What you might want to do is avoid long highway slogs in the Cooper S. Ever since Mini switched to electric steering, the Cooper has lacked resolute straight-line stability on anything but glass-smooth blacktop. In combination with the stiff suspension, the result is a nervous, jittery ride in a car all too eager to dart left or right if the driver muscles too far off the steering’s dead, numb center to feed small corrections in direction to the front wheels. Often, when traveling on straight stretches of highway, the car turns a boring drive into a nail-biter, feeling unsettled beneath your butt because your body’s internal gyroscope is telling your brain that the car is feigning a bit to the left or right, when it’s not. Or maybe it is. In any case, it makes not for a tasty recipe.
Circling back to the car’s powertrain, my test sample contained the optional automatic transmission, which I specified because that’s what kind of transmission most car buyers know how to operate. I’m glad I made that decision, because now I’m a believer.
You see, there’s a little button located in front of the shifter marked SPORT. If you like to have fun while driving, push it. It calibrates throttle and steering response for a more responsive driving character, quickens the automatic transmission’s gear changes, and adds some extra snap, crackle and pop to the exhaust note when decelerating.
Now, move the transmission selector to the left, which is manual mode. With full control over shift points, combined with quicker gear changes, the Cooper S is genuinely fun to drive with an automatic transmission. It is to me, anyway. Except for the back-asswards manual shift pattern that makes my brain hurt and causes significant cognitive distraction while driving hard and fast.
Patterned after Formula 1 racing, where it is necessary to pull back to execute an upshift and to push forward to execute a downshift due to the severe acceleration and deceleration forces inherent in racing, the Mini’s manual mode just seems counterintuitive in a car that takes almost seven seconds to accelerate to 60 mph.
Oh, and by the way, if you opt for the Mini Yours steering wheel seen inside of my test car, you’ll lose the paddle shifters. So don’t get it.
2013 Mini Cooper S Hardtop Road Test and Review: Final Thoughts
Nothing is perfect, and that includes the Mini Cooper S. The difference is that if some other performance-tuned hatchback, like the Ford Focus ST or the Volkswagen GTI, suffered the same flaws as the Cooper, I’d be far less forgiving, even if both of those cars represent better value and display greater practicality. The difference boils down to the Mini’s oversized personality and the ability to build the exact car you want, creating a bond between an owner and a Cooper that even a Tangerine Scream Focus ST can’t dissolve.
2013 Mini Cooper S Hardtop Road Test and Review: Pros and Cons
- Loads of personality
- Lots of ways to custom-build
- Incredible fun to drive
- Impressive gas mileage
- Jittery, darty highway demeanor
- Counterintuitive manual shifting
- Funky interior ergonomics
- High price tag
Mini supplied the vehicle for this review
2013 Mini Cooper S Hardtop photos by Christian Wardlaw