Go-kart handling? Forget about it. Mini marketing for the all-new 2014 Mini Cooper and Cooper S Hardtops is all about "iconic go-kart feeling," but if you've ever driven a go-kart you'll remember something that rides like a pair of anxious roller skates on a sheet of diamond plate -- one that can swap ends easily thanks to a short wheelbase and snap-turn-sharp steering. Not the kind drama you want in your every-day car and not what the excellent new Mini Cooper 3-door hatchbacks acted like at all.
Instead, the new Minis performed like the best BMW-engineered Minis ever -- which they are.
The core of that engineering resides in a pair of engines developed for the cars: a 1.5-liter inline-3-cylinder and a 2.0-liter inline-4, both turbocharged and both available with a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. With 134 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of peak torque-power starting just off idle, the 3-cylinder Mini Cooper moves through traffic and up to highway speeds just fine. Better than fine, really, as long as you keep the transmission in an ambitious lower gear. Beyond the even, easy BMW-like roll-on of power, the inherent bonus in this engine is fuel economy that hangs around 42 mpg on the highway and 30 in the city.
Cranking out more low-end torque -- 207 lb-ft at 1,250 -- than the current John Cooper Works Mini Cooper, the new Cooper S hesitates at nothing when called into action. BMW massaged the architecture of the 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbo to inspire a 6.4-second 0-60-mph sprint out of the Cooper S with the automatic transmission (6.5 seconds with the manual), and still found a way to attract 40 highway miles out of a gallon of gasoline.
Many of the driving inputs like the ride, the braking and, especially, the steering feel more BMW than ever. The Cooper's ride is especially good as opposed the stiffer Cooper S setup, but the biggest surprise is the Cooper's near complete absence of wind noise at highway speeds. Using the center-console-mounted Mini Driving Modes selector, you can toggle between the default Mid setting and choose the Sport mode for more responsive steering and engine characteristics, and Eco mode to help maximize fuel economy. In the Cooper S, the Sport mode also stacks the optional Dynamic Damper Control's calibrations deck in favor of handling.
Visual differences between the new Mini Coopers and the models they replace are not earth-rattling. You've still got a compact 2-box configuration with sweet, muscular stance, "I'm-serious-but-fun" grille, and oval headlight covers laid into the front fenders. The 4-place Cooper is a touch bigger than last year's Mini, but not if you're riding in the rear seats, which are still on the very small side of small. You definitely get a sense of more breathing room in the front seats, however. The design on those sport seats, by the way, is superb in the way they hug you and contour to support you against gravity over long trips.
With the electric window switches moved back to the door and the speedometer moved back to the instrument panel (both were previously, over-cutely located in the center dash), all is quite right with the world. The center section of the dash is now the exclusive domain of infotainment/navigation screens and controls, as well as climate-control operations.
The Mini cute factor still gets plenty of play, however, and is upped by an LED light ring that surrounds the central display. It sounds like Vegas at first, but the truth is that the light ring communicates: It turns red when you switch to the Sport mode and Green in Eco mode, defaulting back to a visual tachometer (with light-blue lights moving toward redline as the revs climb) and (in navigation mode) blue lights that go out as you approach your turn.
Pricing for the 3-door 2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop hatchbacks starts at $20,745 for the 1.5-liter Cooper (including destination charges) and $24,395 for the 2.0-liter Cooper S. Arrivals will begin in mid-to-late April, and if you want to hold out for a 5-door version of the Hardtop (yes, it's coming), look for that by the end of this year. A hotted-up John Cooper Works version will greet us in 2015, while the convertible version of this new Mini is still two years away.