Scott Sturgis’ Driver’s Seat: Mini Cooper Hardtop a must-have vehicle

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2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop: Big fun, small package.

Price: $22,145 (very few options, including fancy paint and 16-inch wheels)

Marketer’s pitch: “The nimble, feisty, fuel-sipping bulldog that started it all.”

Conventional wisdom: likes the “sharp handling; high fuel economy; excellent performance in base (hatchback) and upper trims; highly customizable,” but not the “stiff ride in S and JCW versions; not much rear legroom; poor rearward visibility in convertible.”

Reality: a lot of fun and a few notable improvements.

Small and stylish: Other journalists and experts have described the Mini as the car that proved small-car buyers would pay for big-car features. So I was surprised when this Mini arrived on my doorstep in such an annoyingly stripped-down form.

Tuneless: A base model does not even come with CD player or Sirius XM. Heck, even our $15,000 Kia Soul Base has that.

Tough outlook: I had driven a 2012 Mini Convertible and loved it. The speedometer was mounted in the center around the round navigation pod. Cute and functional. But this 2014 base model features the speedometer cleverly mounted to the steering column like an aftermarket piece. Unfortunately, I could not read the speedometer between 40 and 120 mph without craning my neck. (No, I did NOT get to 120.) I do tend to sit rather close to the pedals and steering wheel, especially when driving a stick, but I’d always thought the Europeans drove that way, too.

Fun and fast: I spent four or five days with the Mini before I finally looked down at the shift lever and spied the switch to change from Green to Normal to Sport mode. This wasn’t in Sport mode?

I had a rollicking good time in it anyway. The 134-horsepower turbo 3-cylinder offers plenty of pep and almost no lag. Try out Sport mode and it moves a little more quickly while riding a little more stiffly.

Speaking of ride: It’s a little rough. Bumps are enhanced by the Mini, but since our family owns a Soul, we’re used to an even tougher ride. I imagine the optional 16-inch wheels made this a little smoother than the standard 15-inchers.

Shifty: The turbocharged engine is mated to an awesome 6-speed transmission. The dashboard shift guide wants you to upshift a lot, but if you want to have some real fun, ignore that thing.

Second gear is for busy city streets. Third and fourth are for secondary highways, especially when hilly or twisty. Fifth and sixth are best saved for limited-access highways, or when you’re behind someone who doesn't appreciate that you’re driving a Mini and they should do the honorable thing and pull to the side. Some people just have no respect.

Friends and stuff: The name is “Mini,” and it fits, even though it’s gotten a bit bigger with the 2014’s third generation redesign.

The car sits about skateboard-high, so getting in and out can be a challenge. One would think the back seat would be even more cruel, but Sturgis Kids 1.0 and 4.0 didn’t mind the ride. I found getting in and out of the back seat almost easier than the front. The door must be open quite a bit, so tight parking spaces can be a problem.

With the seat folded down, though, the rear compartment offers tons of space for luggage.

A tiny little cubby over the glovebox fits an iPhone and not much else.

Inside: Headroom is good. Back-seat passengers get a good amount of legroom, and the front seats allow feet underneath and don’t seem to have any metal pieces to snag your shoes.

Keeping cool: The round heater vents in the corners are easy to direct, and the rectangular middle vents are not bad. The dials on the front of the vents allow users to shut them down pretty distinctly. Dials control the blower, temperature and direct the airflow, always the simplest setup.

Controls: Cute toggles with the metal bar dividers control interior lights and other minor functions.

Comfort: The standard sport seats offer support and don’t leave occupants tired on long journeys, but the material is icky in humid weather.

Stalking: The wiper and turn-signal switches don’t physically change position when you operate them, so it’s hard to tell if signals or wipers are on just at a glance.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 35 mpg in a highway-heavy week of vacation travel. The Mini prefers a diet of premium fuel, though.

Where it’s built: Oxford, England

How it’s built: After a long stretch of fair to poor reliability scores, the 2013 model fared above average in Consumer Reports testing. It’ll be interesting to see whether this latest incarnation keeps up the good work.

In the end: If that improved reliability score holds for a few years, the Mini will go on my short list of must-haves. But I’ll take a convertible, please.

Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at

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