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Mini goes mainstream

The Los Angeles Times
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BMW is for the first time making the Mini Cooper engines. Earlier Minis used engines built by Chrysler, then Peugeot.

The Mini Cooper has fought hard to seem quirky and irreverent since its rebirth 12 years ago, but don’t be fooled by its charm offensive.

The automaker — guided by parent company BMW — still needs to actually sell some cars.

So the all-new 2014 Cooper and Cooper S hatchbacks include large and small changes that help nudge the cars closer to the mainstream. These upgrades are a good thing; by making the Cooper a little less weird, the automaker also makes it a bigger threat to every other premium compact hatchback on the market.

For starters, this Mini is less mini. Nose to tail, the Cooper grows 4.5 inches longer and 1.7 inches wider. The front passengers are never cramped in their nicely bolstered seats, and the cargo area swallows an extra 3 cubic feet over the previous model, for 8.7 cubic feet total.

Tidy rear seats still exist, but put people in them only as a last resort.

The bigger Cooper is now more functional but just as easy to park in tight urban spots. It’s a hoot to drive, flitting about the road like a happy shopping cart. The ride quality is a little rough, an unfortunate weakness of all modern Coopers that isn’t helped by run-flat tires.

But at least the new front-wheel-drive platform is hearty enough to soak up the bumps that the tires and suspension won’t. Good thing too, since BMW plans to use the platform in its own cars and future Minis.

The engine in the base Cooper — which starts at $20,745 — is also notable because it has just three cylinders. Once a rarity in the automotive world, these are becoming more common as companies search for more power and efficiency in a smaller package.

The turbocharged 1.5-liter engine is an excellent fit for this bite-size car. Horsepower moves to 134 from 121, while torque leaps to 170 pound-feet from 114 pound-feet. It’s enough to help our test car — with the $1,250 six-speed automatic transmission — scoot from zero to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds.

The window switches are now on the doors, where your brain expects them to be, rather than hidden on the lower dashboard. Mini relocated the odd, pie-sized speedometer that circled that dashboard to its traditional spot in the instrument panel behind the steering wheel. And the goofy rail system for accessories and cup holders that ran through the center of the cabin is gone.

By adding in a smart dollop of extra space and power, while taking out many of the unnecessary quirks, Mini has made its Cooper and Cooper S better cars for a larger audience.

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