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2008 MINI Cooper Test Drive Review

After a full redesign last year, the new Cooper has a fresh look with the same funky personality we’ve come to love.

7 /10
Overall Score

The Mini Cooper’s legacy and recognizability make it hard for the company to make any significant changes to the little car. Any major deviations from the decades-old formula immediately starts ruffling feathers in the purist community. Even so, Mini redesigned the icon last year, giving it a new engine and updated tech. The new cars retain the feel and styling that have made them famous. - a feat worth praising. Now in its second generation, the new Mini Cooper has more power and a wide range of available customization options.

The 2008 Mini Cooper is available in two trim levels and two body styles: Cooper hardtop, Cooper S hardtop, Cooper Convertible, and Cooper S Convertible.

The Mini Cooper is aimed at car buyers that want a vintage-inspired design in a modern package. The Cooper competes with a mixed bag of cars that includes the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Mazda 3, Audi A3, and even the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Look and Feel

7/ 10

The 2008 Mini Cooper, while unmistakably a Mini, has rounder headlights, a flatter hood, and a larger grille than its 2006 predecessor. The turn signals are now part of the headlight assembly, and the optional fog lights have been enlarged. Even with those changes, the front end is cleaner and more modern looking than the previous car. The new cars are slightly larger than the outgoing models, and the updated Cooper looks more muscular than before.

Inside, the quirky Mini interior remains quirky, sporty, and cozy, though everything is a bit more proportional than in previous cars. The large round speedometer sits in the center of the dash, while a tachometer is mounted on the adjustable steering column. The audio controls have moved closer to the speedometer with other controls clumsily jammed in beneath them. By condensing the controls into a part of the center stack, Mini has been able to reduce its size and increase knee and legroom in the footwells up front.

The upholstery and interior trim were both upgraded last year, making even the base cloth or leatherette upholstery feel premium and expensive. The optional leather upholstery has contrasting piping and a rich color that gives the Mini a decidedly luxurious appearance and feel inside. The seats themselves are large enough to handle most adults and are comfortable for the long haul. The updated seat shape and bolstering contribute to an excellent driving position, and the car’s large front window gives the driver a great forward.

The same can also be said for side visibility, as the Mini’s large windows and small pillars minimize blind spots.

The Mini’s rear seats are surprisingly functional for such a small car. All but the tallest adults can find a comfy spot in the back, and large car seats fit in with no problem. With those rear seats folded down, the small hatchback can haul a decent amount of cargo.


8/ 10

Previous versions of the Mini Cooper were cars of compromises. They were sporty and fun to drive, but that came at the expense of everyday comfort, which was a turnoff for many buyers. The new car addresses that problem and takes the car to a new level of fun with a far more comfortable ride than it had before.

The new engine was developed through a partnership with Peugeot and Mini’s parent company, BMW. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder has numbers that look awfully similar to the outgoing cars’ powerplant, but it has better fuel economy and produces fewer CO2 emissions. Even though it’s greener than before, the base engine is more than peppy enough for most drivers and handles daily driving in town a breeze. On the highway, the engine holds its own, and drivers will find no problems with passing or reaching desired speeds.

The Cooper S, with its 172-horsepower engine, is powerful enough to bring a smile to the face of even the most demanding drivers. BMW updated the engine, making it turbocharged instead of supercharged, as it was before. There’s a bit of turbo lag, but that’s a small price to pay for an engine that absolutely sings between 1,700 and 5,000 RPM. Selectable driving modes allow for a sport mode that sharpens steering and accelerator response.

The Cooper S is said to make the run from 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. That acceleration, along with the Mini’s BMW Z4-adapted suspension makes the car an absolute riot on the track and on the road. The car maintains its composure in the most demanding driving situations and remains flat and planted through the corners.

In everyday driving, the Cooper S is tame and comfortable, and handles the bumps and knocks from poorly maintained roads as well as can be expected from such a fun car. That refinement is slightly at odds with the Mini’s go-kart handling, but it’s a welcome surprise for buyers wanting to use their cars every day.

Performance doesn’t completely kill gas mileage, either, which is a big bonus for Mini Cooper Buyers. With the base 1.6-liter engine and manual transmission, the Mini Cooper has EPA-estimated fuel economy ratings of 28 mpg city, 37 highway, 32 combined, and 26/34/29 mpg with an automatic.

The Cooper S with a manual transmission is rated at 26/34/29, and with an automatic, those numbers change to 23/32/27.

The Mini Cooper Convertible is rated similarly on fuel economy. With the base engine and a manual transmission, the Convertible is rated at 23/32/26, and with a CVT, the numbers change to 22/30/25.

The Cooper S Convertible is rated at 21/24/29 with a manual gearbox and 19/29/23 with an automatic.

Form and Function

8/ 10

The Mini Cooper, though sporty and small, is a flexible and useful little car. The large rear hatch and folding seats make loading and carrying large items and cargo easy, and the low load-in floor eases heavy lifting requirements. With the rear seats down, the Mini can squeeze 23 cubic feet of cargo in its hold, which isn’t a ton but makes the car far more usable for people needing to travel or carry large items (or pets).

The interior is a mix of upscale and confoundingly cheap-feeling materials. On the one hand, the upholstery feels rich and luxurious, even with the base cloth seats. On the other hand, the controls and buttons are made of plastic that feels as if it could have come from a 1980s budget car. Making that situation slightly worse is the fact that those buttons are front and center in the cockpit for the driver to see every time they get behind the wheel.

The good news is that, with the optional panoramic sunroof installed, the interior feels as airy and large as a mid-size sedan, so there’s plenty to distract from the cheap buttons.

BMW’s ownership of Mini has brought many compelling elements of German driving dynamics and quality to the cars, but they’re still quirky and odd in a lovable way. The newest Mini Coopers are quite unique, so it’s important to get out on a test drive in one before buying.

Mini wins with its high level of customization options, as there are somewhere around 50 standalone options that can be fitted to the cars, many of which are available at no extra cost. That list includes everything from specialty paint colors to a custom steering wheel to a whole host of decals and stripes.

Tech Level

6/ 10

The Mini Cooper comes reasonably well-equipped out of the box. The base Cooper hardtop comes with an AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo that has six speakers, RDS, and pre-wiring for satellite radio, remote keyless entry with push-button start, cruise control, automatic climate controls, and power windows/door locks.

The Cooper S has many of the same features, with the addition of electronic stability controls.

Mini markets customization as a big selling point for the cars, which means there’s a list of options longer than we could ever put down on paper. Just a few options include two different Bluetooth options, a navigation system, Sirius Satellite Radio, a Harman Kardon sound system, and more.


6/ 10

The 2008 Mini Cooper was rated ‘Good’ for its moderate overlap front crashworthiness by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In every other category, the car only managed ‘Acceptable’ ratings. That covers the side-impact tests, roof strength test, and head restraints/seats.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rated it similarly, with four stars for front crash tests, four/five stars for side crash tests of the driver/passenger sides, and five stars for rollover prevention.

Standard safety equipment includes six airbags, electronic brake-force distribution, cornering braking control, and anti-lock brakes. Safety options include dynamic stability control and automatic stability control, both of which are standard for Cooper S models.


7/ 10

The Mini Cooper is a tiny bucket of fun, no matter how you slice it. Its starting MSRP lands right around $18,000, which sets it far apart from budget cars. That money buys a well-equipped car with enough power to make things interesting.

Stepping up to the Cooper S doesn’t cost all that much more—the S starts at around $21,000—and the added power makes the little car a formidable companion for a track day or runs on a canyon road.

Competitors like the PT Cruiser are cheaper, but not as refined and nowhere near as much fun. Moving to something like a Volkswagen Golf GTI brings more power and a slightly larger car, but a much bigger price tag.

Updated by Chris Teague

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MINI Cooper Questions

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