- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

It’s not what you would call an extreme makeover, mainly because the 2007 Mini Cooper looks pretty much like last year’s model. When you’ve achieved iconic status in a few years, you don’t want to do much tinkering.

The new Mini Cooper is deceptive. It has been revamped from bumper to bumper, inside and out. Changes include new body panels, headlights and taillights, a far-out new interior, and new engines, transmissions and suspension systems.

But the overall effect is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and the Mini Cooper retains the quirky British personality that has endeared it to hundreds of thousands of owners.

At the same time, the British-built Mini also benefits from the performance expertise of its owner, BMW of Germany.

BMW, which acquired the defunct company that had produced the Mini, decided to revive it in 2000. But instead of the original practical and miserly car, BMW decided to reinvent it as a premium small car.

Not long after its introduction, the Mini Cooper became one of the most sought-after cars on the planet, with resale values that had the rest of the industry salivating. Not willing to rest on its laurels, the 2007 Mini Cooper aims to build on its fan base and reach for new horizons. The new Mini is 2.5 inches longer than its predecessor — though still barely more than 12 feet long — and has new body panels, so subtly worked that an observer would be hard-pressed to distinguish it from an earlier model.

There are two models: the Cooper and Cooper S. Both have taut handling, as well as a driver-operated “sport” button that tightens the steering and reprograms the accelerator response to enhance the sporting feel.

The Cooper and Cooper S come with standard six-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic transmissions. But the S is way more powerful, with a turbocharger that boosts the horsepower to 172, compared with 118 in the Cooper.

Before, the only automatic was a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which operates with belts and pulleys and has no discernible shift points. That transmission continues on the Mini Cooper convertible, which is built on the previous-generation platform.

The new six-speed automatic, as on the tested base model, extracts the most power the 118-horsepower engine can offer. Though the zero-to-60 acceleration time is nearly 10 seconds, the transmission shifted appropriately on steep hills without the “hunting” phenomenon that sometimes afflicts automatics mated to low-powered engines.

In addition, it could be manually shifted with the shifter or paddles on the steering wheel, adding flexibility and control. However, BMW’s system doesn’t trust the driver and overrides the choice of gears if the computer so deems.

Mini Cooper buyers favor manual gearboxes. About half of all Coopers are ordered with manuals and about 65 percent of all S models have stick shifts. But the new automatic is a good choice for many in the U.S.

Regardless of the model, engine or transmission, the Mini Cooper is an entertaining car to drive. Its tidy dimensions and front drive contribute to snappy moves, but also to a choppy ride.

The front seats are supportive and comfortable, but the back seat, where there are seat belts for only two, is short on knee and head room, and there’s less than six feet of cargo space under the rear hatch.

However, the designers have thoughtfully provided a mechanism to prop up the rear seatbacks to make that space more accommodating. Folding the rear seatbacks expands the area to 24 cubic feet. The interior has the most radical changes, with a new speedometer in the middle of the dash that is so large it can accommodate the screen for the optional navigation system.

Because Mini owners like to personalize their cars, the options list stretches to the horizon, with nearly endless combinations. The test car, which had a base price of $18,700, had extras that included stability control, a double sunroof, sport seats, 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control and Sirius satellite radio, which brought the sticker to $24,750.

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