2014 Mini Hardtop first drive review

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The essence of the classic Mini Cooper is easy to define: it's endearingly small.

What happens when you mess with the "small" part?

In more than a decade since Mini transformed into MINI, its makers have laid progressively larger patches on the road with models like the Clubman, the Paceman and the Countryman, even the second-generation Cooper hardtop. Nowadays, none are all that small, and frankly, not all of them are endearing.

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You could worry that the gradual inflation and mission creep of the BMW-bred MINIs could threaten that quintessential Mini goodness. Kill off the core.

Or you could take a spin behind the wheel of the third-generation MINI Cooper. It's the biggest hardtop hatchback yet to wear the name. Yet with all the agita over its bigger waist size, it's still small enough--and it's still outsized in the endearing department, where it counts.

And it's still the MINI that suits us best.

MINI, not mini

The Cooper hardtop's as brilliant to drive as ever, or more so--if we can gauge that from a blaze around the palm-fronded, beach-framed roads of Puerto Rico, while the rest of the country got heartsick over an unending winter. (We're still waiting for The Weather Channel to start Wu-naming winter storms: "Tha Ol' Snowy Bastard.")

This third-generation MINI Cooper was revealed last year, and overlaps some of the current Cooper range for a year while it's hitting showrooms. The new hardtop is on sale now as a 2014 model; the Cooper Convertible, Cooper Clubman and Countryman are carryovers until at least the 2015 model year, with new versions (including a full five- or six-door Clubman) planned for upcoming model years. Eventually, all of them will ride on a new "UKL" architecture that will underpin the entire MINI lineup, as well as a few cars over at the BMW mothership.

The trick with this third Cooper evolution has been to manage the MINI's heritage style on an ever-larger canvas. It's bulkier, but the new Cooper hardtop still has the unmistakable cues, the pop-eye headlamps, the floating roofline, the plethora of custom trim options. All the extra size is contained in a silhouette that looks absolutely, instantly familiar, even though those headlights are higher, though the front end's considerably taller to meet European pedestrian regulations.

For a sense of scale, it helps to look back at the previous Cooper, and around the block to other subcompact hatchbacks. Sir Alec Issigonis might not consider the new MINI small, but it is, given its current context. At 151.1 inches long, 68 inches wide and 55.7 inches tall, it's some 4.5 inches longer, 1.7 inches wider and 0.3 inches taller than its predecessor, with a wheelbase 1.1 inches longer at 98.2 inches, and a track of 59.1 inches that's wider at the front by 1.7 inches and at the rear by 1.3 inches. A Kia Soul we passed on the outskirts of San Juan looked huge by comparison, at 163 inches long and 63 inches tall.

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Even better, the new Cooper's human package remains as utterly useful as its upright shape implies. The driving position's nearly perfect, and the sport seats on both our test cars were very form-fitting, and highly adjustable. There's an obvious uptick in head room, too. It's also the first MINI Cooper back seat I've been able to sit in comfortably. An inch more knee room is nice, but it's the three extra inches of shoulder space that's more liberating.

Expanding inside also means more cargo space around the split-fold rear seat; storage is up 3 cubic feet to 8.7 cubic feet behind the rear seats, or 38 cubic feet in all behind the front seats, up from 24 cubic feet. MINI's fashioned in plenty of cubbies and bins, and fits an optional storage package in back that adds a tiered shelf, package nets, and seatback map pockets.

The biggest complement to the space is more attention paid to touch, feel, look, and sound. The new Cooper doesn't creak or lash out waves of road noise as it has in the past. The suspension's almost silent, and there's a perfectly appropriate level of engine noise piped into the cabin, depending on your choice of three-cylinder Cooper or four-cylinder Cooper S.

Which one would we choose?

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