Though not the smallest car any more, that honor goes to the Chevrolet Spark, the MINI 2-Door Hardtop remains as cute as it is diminutive. The original-return-to-the-US model 2-Door Hardtop is also offered as a slightly larger 4-door Hardtop and 2-door Convertible. It was most recently redesigned in 2014 and, for 2021 regains its manual transmission option and gets a rally-inspired GP trim. Competitors are few and include the Hyundai Veloster, Mazda 3, Toyota Corolla hatch and Volkswagen GTI.
New for 2021 is the John Cooper Works (JCW) GP model. Rally-car themed, it features a 301-hp 2.0-liter turbo engine, significant changes to the bodywork to improve aerodynamics, front lip spoiler, huge roof-mounted wing, and carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic wheel arches. The JCW GP also deletes the rear seat. Also new is a Coral Red Edition that sports a contrasting black roof, headlight bezels, grille frame and side mirrors. It also gets Carbon Black leatherette upholster and piano black interior trim.
The 2-door Hardtop is offered in four trim levels: Cooper, Cooper S, JCW and new JCW GP. MINI also sells an electric version called the Cooper SE. The Cooper comes with a turbocharged 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine that makes 134 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. The Cooper S gets a 2.0-liter turbo four that makes 189 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. John Cooper Works trim gets an enhanced version of that engine that makes 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. The limited-availability John Cooper Works GP get a high-output 2.0-liter turbo four that makes 301 horsepower and 331 lb-ft of torque. All save the Works GP get either a 6-speed manual or 7-speed automatic. The Works GP is offered only with an 8-speed automatic. All 2-Door Hardtop models are get front-wheel drive.
Prices start as low as $22,400 for the base 2-door and climb to more than $44,900 for the JCW GP edition. Standard features include 15-inch alloy wheels, heated side mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, simulated leather seats, 6.5-inch touch screen display and forward-collision warning and mitigation. Also available are LED headlights, sport seats, digital instrument cluster, keyless entry and ignition, head-up display and Apple Car Play support. Blind-spot alert and rear cross-traffic alert are not offered. There are many optional trim and styling packages include Classic, Signature and Iconic.
Don't be put off by the Cooper's base 1.5-liter 3-cylinder. It provides decent acceleration and acceptable levels of smoothness. When pushed, the 3-cylinder will accelerate the Cooper from 0 to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds. That's certainly not quick, but acceptable for the class. Those wanting more punch can step up to the larger engine in the Cooper S. That turbo four accelerates the Cooper S from 0 to 60 in a touch under 7 seconds. It's also the better choice for those that spend a lot of time on the highway as it provides crisper passing punch and more relaxed high-speed cruising. The raucous engine in the JCW GP edition, growls, pops and crackles all the way to redline and provides a lot of extra punch.
Both engines mate well to the 7-speed automatic. While the transmission isn't the smoothest shifting in the class, it provides nicely spaced ratios boosting passing punch while still providing relaxed highway cruising. There is a selectable driving mode that allows the driver to choose between Sport, Auto and Green modes. Thankfully the manual transmission returns for 2021, as that transmission actually seems more appropriate for a car of this type.
EPA ratings for the base engine are 28 MPG city and 37 MPG highway. Cooper S models rate at 26 MPG city and 35 MPG highway. Those numbers are tops among direct competitors. Unfortunately, premium-grade fuel is required, which somewhat negates the MINI's overall frugality. Thankfully, it's easy to top the EPA's numbers in routine suburban commuting. Plus, the Cooper has a nifty auto-stop feature that shuts off the engine at stoplight, further enhancing overall fuel economy.
Compared to most vehicles, the MINI 2-Door Hardtop is a grown-up go-kart. That's not to say the ride is unacceptable, but the short wheelbase, direct steering and firm suspension conspire to provide a firm, sporty and athletic ride. Opting for the available sport suspension amps overall road holding at the expense of some ride comfort, so be sure to drive each different model before you buy.
On the flipside, the MINI is delightful to drive quickly. The steering is precise and nicely weighted. Brakes have great stopping power. There's almost no body lean. Tires have great grip on dry roads. Add it all up and the MINI, in any trim, is a blast to drive around town and carve through twisty roads.
Be careful though when considering the JCW models. They are really aimed at enthusiasts, first and foremost. They ride very firmly and are a bit noisier. Rewards include sharper handling and great straight-line performance. Interior noise levels on all models are higher than the class norm -- the class being the Hyundai Veloster and VW GTI. Road noise is a definite annoyance on rough concrete roads. There's a fair bit of wind noise at highway speed, as well.
With switchgear and instrumentation getting a throwback look, MINI's quirky quasi-retro interior theme is decidedly iconoclastic. Thankfully, functionality and materials remain quite good. Overall, the interior is appealing and modern while still retaining a bit of British charm.
Basic controls fall close to hand and the instruments behind the steering wheel are easy to read at a glance. Ancillary controls and even the start-stop toggle are a bit of a reach at the bottom of the center console. Also, the jog dial that controls the optional navigation system is located low between the seats, forcing an awkward reach. Thankfully, MINI has added touchscreen functionality to make the infotainment system easier to operate. Still, its clunky menus lead to more driver distraction than necessary.
Front seats are highly sculpted and somewhat confining, especially in JCW trim. They are certainly appropriate for the car's sporty nature but might be too firm for some. Front-seat head and leg room are generous. Visibility is quite good thanks to a tall and airy greenhouse and thin roof pillars.
Rear seats are nicely fitted, but don't offer much more than occasional room -- and even then, best left to children. (Of course, the JCW GP doesn't even get rear seats) Entry and exit are facilitated by a one-touch handle at the top of the front seatback that instantly flips and slides the front seat forward.
At just 8.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, there's not much room to stow gear in the MINI. However, fold the seats and you get 34 cubic feet, which is reasonable. It's certainly enough space for a weekend getaway, but you can't get a traditional golf bag to fit width wise. A few cubbies and bins help boost meager interior storage.
Bottom Line - MINIs in general certainly aren't the car for everyone. However, if you are looking for a fun-to-drive, affordable, two-seat fun machine it more than fills the bill. Fantastic fuel economy, a sturdy construction and surefooted front-drive configuration are certainly bonuses. Add to that the low cost of entry and free maintenance and you have a winner. A well-equipped 2-Door Hardtop comes in under $25,000, so prices are reasonable as long as you don't go crazy with options.