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2019 MINI Cooper Test Drive Review
Small and speedy cars are fun, especially when they exude plenty of personality like the 2019 MINI Cooper.
When we were growing up, my dad frequently took my brother and me go-karting. Sitting low to the ground on a tiny frame, feeling the wind in my face, racing around paved tracks no doubt set the stage for my love of small and fast cars. The 2019 MINI Cooper, especially the John Cooper Works trim, is such a vehicle. But given its handful of flaws, it's hard to adore the latest Cooper the way I did when MINI was first resurrected in 2002.
Look and Feel
When the MINI Cooper went on sale in the U.S. back in the early 2000s, I enjoyed a long-term test example of the supercharged Cooper S. Painted bright Electric Blue with a white roof and mirror caps, and equipped with chunky 8-spoke aluminum wheels, that car was instantly adorable, and I drove it every chance I got—including a road trip from Los Angeles to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and back, roughly 2,500 miles.
With its almost non-existent front and rear overhangs, floating roof, wrap-around glass, hood scoop, and classic Mini styling, that original Cooper promised big fun in a small package. And it delivered. The latest MINI Cooper does, too. But now it’s all grown up, bigger inside and out, and more technologically sophisticated.
Stylistically, the flavors remain the same, but the 2019 model's don’t come together with the simple elegance of previous Coopers. The headlights and taillights are too big, the front overhang is too long, and the car carries far too much of its visual weight over the front wheels.
Inside, the pie-plate-size, white-faced speedometer that made every ride inside the 2002 Cooper such a special experience has been replaced by a rectangular infotainment screen within a round, oversized housing ringed by mood lighting. The toggle switches and motorcycle-style gauges remain in place, now joined by an available head-up display.
No doubt, the 2019 MINI Cooper conveys the same sense of individuality that made MINIs of the past such a sensation, but the unavoidable technology overlay adds an unfortunate layer of complexity. That’s why, if I were to buy a new one, I’d get a Cooper S in Classic trim without any options aside from paint, wheels, and satellite radio. In my opinion, this car is best when basic and focused on performance—and you can get into the version I’ve described for under $30,000.
My test vehicle was not basic, but it was focused on performance. Decked out in new-for-2019 Knight’s Edition specification and limited to a production run of 150 examples, it had a window sticker of $42,565 including the $850 destination charge.
What makes the Knight’s Edition unique? For starters, it’s the only Cooper you can get with Melting Silver paint for the roof and mirror caps. The stripes on the hood and sides match, and the MINI badges are painted gloss black (a first for the Cooper). That gloss black finish matches the interior trim and the wheels, which bulge well beyond the tire sidewalls, making them susceptible to scratches.
When you buy a John Cooper Works version of the MINI Cooper, you’re driving home the hottest-performing version of the car. It has the most power, the best handling, the stoutest brakes, and the loudest exhaust system.
Starting under the scooped and striped hood, a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine cranks out 228 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 236 pound-feet of torque beginning at a low 1,250 rpm. Given the car's base curb weight of 2,845 pounds, this is good for acceleration to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds with the optional 6-speed automatic transmission. Stick with the 6-speed manual gearbox, and MINI says it takes 6.1 seconds to reach that same speed.
Personally, I’d trade the quicker acceleration for the greater engagement that comes with a clutch. The automatic offers a sport mode and a manual mode with paddle shifters, but it just can’t match rowing your own gears when it comes to driving satisfaction.
Equipped with a standard John Cooper Works Pro Exhaust Valve, my Knight’s Edition test car emitted plenty of snap, crackle, and pop. A Bluetooth-enabled remote control operates the exhaust valve, and it adds plenty of great noise, especially when the car is in Sport mode (instead of Mid or Green modes).
Pirelli Cinturato P7 all-season tires mounted to 17-inch double-spoke aluminum wheels provided good grip, but they did squeal more than I expected them to in sharp curves and corners. No doubt, a set of summer performance tires would resolve that issue.
Torque steer was also an occasional irritant, the front wheels scrabbling for traction when accelerating hard on uneven pavement. This was even more noticeable when the car was in Mid or Green modes, which require less steering effort and thus reveal the loose traction under the front wheels.
Bigger brakes come as part of the John Cooper Works massage, and they’re effective most of the time. During enthusiastic driving in the mountains, however, they proved the source of the Knight’s Edition’s biggest flaw. When braking and then turning into a corner, as weight transferred to the outside front wheel, I sometimes experienced an unexpected reduction in braking response.
Granted, racing instructors will advise you to complete your braking before turning in to a corner, but driving on public roads is different than driving on a track—especially if you're not familiar with the road. I ran into trouble most often when the road was rumpled pavement or had a change in camber—anything that might unsettle the front end a bit.
In any case, this troubling trait meant I trusted this performance-tuned John Cooper Works hardtop less than I should have, and needed to, in order to extract maximum enjoyment from the driving experience.
Form and Function
A MINI Cooper, even in 2-door hardtop form, is more useful than you might guess.
For example, I can fit into the back seat as long as a front passenger my same size is willing to slide forward until their knees are brushing the dashboard. Also, the 8.7-cubic-foot trunk can hold a full-size suitcase and a backpack.
Realistically, though, the Cooper is best used as a 2-seater with a huge 34-cubic-foot trunk. Both front seats offer a range of adjustment, and my John Cooper Works version had significant side bolsters along with manual thigh-support extensions. Slide the front seats all the way back in their tracks, and very tall people can fit into this very small car.
Controls adhere to a form-over-function ethos. MINI Coopers are all about style and personality, and sometimes sensibility and simplicity take a back seat. That’s why you get chrome toggle switches, almost useless infotainment controls on the center console, unconventional door release handles, and a wireless device charger that consumes what little storage is available in the center armrest console.
Based on BMW iDrive technology, the MINI Cooper’s top-level infotainment system, featuring an 8.8-inch display screen, navigation, and MINI Connected Services, is both a blessing and a curse.
It offers three methods of operation: voice control, a touchscreen, and physical controls. The physical controls, mounted low on the center console under the center armrest, are difficult to see and access, rendering them essentially worthless. The voice controls work reasonably well to find common points of interest and to program navigation instructions. The touchscreen is welcome, but many of the virtual buttons and bars are too small to easily reference and use.
Beyond this, the system sometimes lacks intuitive operation and behaves in unexpected ways. On a regular basis, I’d choose a specific type of data to display, only to find that the screen would change without further input. Adding to my frustration, there wasn’t an explanation for the change.
Wireless charging and wireless Apple CarPlay eliminate the need for a phone cord, and the available Harman Kardon audio system's depth and clarity sound impressive. Unfortunately for non-iPhone users, Android Auto is not available. My test car also had a head-up display, which is a plastic panel that deploys from the top of the dashboard to show a variety of information.
MINI's Parking Assistant helps with parallel parking, but it seems useless at first. After all, a MINI Cooper is a small car with excellent outward visibility. However, when you consider just how susceptible to damage the Knight’s Edition’s bulging wheel spokes are, you might actually want to use it.
MINI does not offer a robust set of safety systems for the Cooper. Aside from eight airbags and a reversing camera, the car has an Active Driving Assistant that includes forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, automatic high-beam headlights, and a speed-limit information system. Adaptive cruise control is available, packaged with the Parking Assistant and front parking sensors in the Driver Assistance Package.
What’s missing? A blind-spot-monitoring system, for starters. While outward visibility is excellent and the Cooper does have oversized side mirrors, nothing beats a blind-spot-monitoring system for making safe lane changes. And those systems usually include a rear cross-traffic alert that can help when you’re reversing from a parking space and huge SUVs are blocking both your view and that of drivers approaching from the side.
The MINI Cooper isn’t offered with lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, or lane-centering assist, either.
If a collision occurs, and that collision is with another vehicle that weighs about the same amount as the Cooper, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) claims you’ll be relatively safe in this car. It was a Top Safety Pick in 2018, although it lost that rating when the IIHS updated its requirements for the claim in 2019.
The federal government is not quite as impressed with the MINI Cooper’s crashworthiness. It gets a 4-star overall rating, in part due to a mediocre 3-star rating for rear seat occupant protection in a side-impact collision.
Buying a MINI Cooper is not a cost-effective solution to your transportation needs. This is a small car with a big price tag, starting at $22,750 for a base Cooper 2-Door Hatchback with no upgrades and running double that with all of the option boxes checked.
However, if you value cars with personality, if you want an affordable vehicle that you can custom tailor to specific preferences, if you have a deep appreciation both for its British heritage and German engineering, or if you want to be a member of the MINI tribe, then nothing else will do.
You’ll also like a MINI Cooper S or John Cooper Works if, like me, you’re a fan of small, quick, smile-inducing cars that are loads of fun to drive.
That means this car’s cost-effectiveness is entirely dependent upon who you are and what you value. A MINI Cooper might not make sense to most people. But to anybody who fits the profile above, or who is simply an extrovert seeking a set of wheels reflective of their personality, a MINI is the perfect answer to the question of what to drive.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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