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Looks can be deceiving in new Mini Cooper

The all-new 2007 Mini Cooper S might be a dead ringer for its pocket-sized predecessor, but it’s packed with big improvements. MotorHead, by Dan Carney.
The new Mini Cooper is still cute enough to make ‘Hello Kitty’ look scarily sinister by comparison.
The new Mini Cooper is still cute enough to make ‘Hello Kitty’ look scarily sinister by comparison.Mini Usa

As good as computers are at calculating your taxes, dredging up phone numbers and relaying critically important photos of Britney Spears in various states of dress, the human brain is vastly superior at pattern recognition. That’s why many Web sites use those drunkenly jagged passwords that humans can recognize and computers can not.

But the human ability to connect familiar-looking new objects with those we’ve seen before can leave us bored, even if those objects have changed in unseen ways. A case in point is the 2007 Mini Cooper S.

It’s a dead ringer for its predecessor, despite being an entirely new car with genuine improvements. That means it’s still cute enough to make “Hello Kitty” look menacingly sinister.

This apparent similarity is certain to confuse shoppers, who may think the car hasn’t changed, or, upon hearing that this is a new Mini, they might suppose that it is the usual sheetmetal “refresh,” such as the subtle changes wrought on this year’s Volkswagen “New Beetle.”

They’d be wrong, of course. The 2007 Mini Cooper and the high-performance variant I tested, the Cooper S, have new engines, new chassis, new everything. This new vehicle is 2.4 inches longer than before, with most of that increase going into the front end, which was stretched an inch and a half to help the car meet European pedestrian protection standards. The rest of the stretch went to beef up the rear bumper.

Underneath, the old car used an old engine, and there were opportunities to improve the suspension, so Mini parent BMW decided an all-new car was in order. The good news is that the upgrade is a success; the latest Mini improves on its predecessor without losing any of that car’s endearing playfulness.

But the Mini’s improvements, like its styling changes, while discernible, are small enough that consumers might overlook them. After all, the Mini Cooper has put more smiles on people’s faces than the American Association of Orthodontists, so there wasn’t really a lot of room for improvement.

Fashionistas who rush out to buy stylish accessories such as Mini Coopers may think this car looks too much like the one they had previously, but Mini is likely to hold on to them with its wide range of optional stripes, stickers (like the available roof flags), and color combinations that let buyers design their own uniquely personal Mini, explained Rich Steinberg, Mini’s manager of product strategy.

“There are an amazing number of combinations,” he said. “It’s part of the buying experience.”

Gearheads will readily appreciate the new Mini’s improvements, especially the new engines, which are both more powerful and more fuel efficient. In between the gearheads and the fashionistas is a vast middle ground of potential Mini shoppers who might only appreciate the upgrades if they take the time to notice them.

The new Mini features a softer suspension, so drivers don’t feel punished driving over imperfect surfaces. The interior is furbished with exquisite detailing, such as real brushed aluminum panels on the dashboard, and user-selectable cockpit ambient lighting color. The switches on the roof console are now nickel-finished toggles that match those on the dashboard. If Apple designed a car, it would be the Mini Cooper.

The center portion of the Mini’s dashboard houses an elephantine speedometer, bejeweled with enough chrome decoration to do a Wurlitzer jukebox proud. It looks dazzling, but is a triumph of style over function. People standing outside the car can read the speedometer better than the driver because it is out of the driver’s line of sight. That’s an unfortunate flaw in such a zippy car.

Just as the standard version’s suspension has been softened, while the harder-riding, quicker-reacting Sport suspension is available optionally to those who are so inclined, so other aspects of the Mini’s behavior are user-selectable, depending upon mood and circumstance.

A “sport” button on the console eases off the power steering assist for a more direct connection to the road and quickens the engine’s response to the gas pedal. For those cars outfitted with the optional six-speed automatic transmission, the “sport” mode also features quicker, harsher gearshifts. Thankfully, the test car was outfitted with a proper six-speed manual transmission.

Mini Usa

With the regular Cooper getting 32 MPG around town and 40 MPG on the highway, capering over hill and dale in a Mini is still one of the few remaining sources of politically correct automotive fun. Even the turbocharged Cooper S I tested scored 29 MPG in the city and 36 MPG on the highway. If U.S. consumers show interest, Mini could import the even more efficient versions it sells in Europe that use a smaller gasoline engine, or run on diesel.

Ripping through the gears, the 172-horsepower turbo motor demonstrates the challenge of funneling a lot of power through a vehicle’s front wheels, as the Mini tugs from side to side depending on which of the front tires scrabbling for grip has found better purchase. Many consumers (even driving enthusiasts) might be willing to trade away a bit of that power in favor of the greater fuel economy found in the regular Cooper model.

Other advantages to the Mini’s base model include a price that is $3,150 lower than the Cooper S version, along with a smaller gas bill and, presumably, a lower insurance bill. The model you buy depends on your priorities, but you can’t go wrong with either the Cooper or the Cooper S. The important pattern to recognize is Mini’s tradition of offering fun-to-drive, premium cars to people who value efficiency and tidy proportions.