The Mini Cooper Hardtop has oodles of personality, go-kart handling and now, of all things, four doors and a big, color-changing "mood ring" on the dashboard.
Until the current model year, diminutive Mini Cooper Hardtops had only two side doors, plus the hatchback liftgate at the back. For four side doors, buyers had to move up to the larger and pricier Mini Countryman, which looks more like a station wagon. By lengthening the basic Mini by just 6.3 inches, engineers added two more doors, a more usable back seat and cargo space of up to 40.7 cubic feet.
The new Hardtop 4 Door offers the same turbocharged, three- and four-cylinder engines that are available for the Hardtop 2 Door. And the price, though at a premium compared with other small hatchbacks, is just $22,550 with six-speed manual transmission (starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge). With six-speed automatic transmission, a base model starts at $23,800.
Through May, U.S. sales of nearly 5,000 of the new 4 Door Hardtops helped boost total Mini brand sales 40 percent over levels from a year ago, despite competition from the five-door 2015 Honda Fit, with a starting MSRP of $16,470, and the five-door 2015 Fiat 500L, which starts at $20,325.
The test vehicle was the Mini Cooper Hardtop 4 Door S with the 2-liter turbocharged and direct injection four-cylinder generating 189 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque at a low 1,250 rpm. The engine was mated to the optional-for-$1,500 sport, six-speed automatic transmission that included paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
Strong power had the little Hardtop zooming forward quickly, and the car's ride-like-it's-on-rails handling made taking corners easy. Quick, evasive maneuvers around road obstacles even felt secure as there was little body motion in this low-to-the-pavement car.
But the ride can feel harsh at times on potholed roads and particularly when the Mini Hardtop's suspension is set to "Sport." The interior of the tester was not quiet, as road noise from the 18-inch tires and wind noise were evident.
A "mood" ring of LED, or light-emitting diode, lights arranged around the big display screen in the middle of the dashboard glows: red to signify the "Sport" setting; at other times, psychedelic purple, orange, bright green for things such as when the heat and air conditioning are adjusted. The lighting sort of coordinates with the LED arcs of light that are on the interior doors.
There also are unique toggle switches lower in the dashboard. One serves as a new start button, another activates the optional-for-$500 head-up display that rises from the dashboard behind the instrument cluster.
But for drivers, the big impression is the Mini Hardtop's nimble handling and easy parking ability.
From bumper to bumper, the Hardtop 4 Door is scarcely 13 feet long, so it's shorter than the Fit and the Fiat 500L. The Mini 4 Door slipped into small parking spaces that other vehicles, such as SUVs, couldn't even attempt.
Back seat legroom of 32.3 inches is better than the 30.8 inches in the Hardtop 2 Door, and children and two adults under 6 feet tall can find relatively comfortable seating positions. But headroom in the Hardtop 4 Door tester with panoramic roof was close, even for a 5-foot-4 passenger, and three adults in the back seat would be a tight squeeze.
With spirited driving, the test car averaged 27.4 miles per gallon in combined city/highway travel compared with the 29 mpg combined rating from the federal government. This test car's mileage range, therefore, was just 318 miles, which is disappointing for a subcompact hatchback. Plus, the Mini's 11.6-gallon fuel tank requires premium gasoline.