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2010 Mini Cooper, Cooper S still a blast on Tampa Bay roads

MINI Cooper S
The MINI Cooper and Cooper S continue to be a joy to drive. (Photo: MINI)

The 2010 Mini Cooper and S models continue to bring smiles to faces of owners who use theirs to scoot around Tampa Bay highways and byways. In both coupe and convertible versions, it continues basically unchanged, but is still a great option for good fuel economy and even better handling in a small package.

While its price tag in the $20k-30k range is fairly high, relative to its similar sized competition, it gives buyers BMW engineering for a fraction of the price of an entry-level Bimmer. For those who need more space than the regular Cooper offers, the Clubman adds more room for passengers and cargo, as well as a Saturn-style third door for easier entry and exit to the rear seat.

I recently had the pleasure of driving a turbocharged 'S' model with an automatic transmission. Both the Cooper and 'S' feature 1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder engines, with the turbocharged 'S' cranking out 172 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, to the base car's 118 ponies. The added juice lowers the highway mileage rating from 32 to 29 MPG, but for many, it's well worth it. Nobody will ever mistake the Cooper S for a Porsche or even a BMW 335i, but it launches off the line with authority and pulls through the gears all the way up to and past any posted speed limit.

MINI Cooper interiorIts looks remain distinctive, and the interior's quirky retro look is fun once you adapt to having a speedometer the size of a pie tin on the middle of the dash. A fat, sporty steering wheel, optional steering wheel controls, aviation-style switches help give the interior a unique feel.

Ever since its launch more than half century ago, the diminutive MINI has been renowned for its handling, and the modern version is no different. The only car that can perform Consumer Reports magazine's emergency maneuver quicker than the mini is a Porsche 911. This translates to pure pleasure when you are on the streets of the Tampa Bay area. The stiff body structure and firm suspension translate to a bit more of a jittery ride on a bumpy surface, as well as some associated squeaks and rattles, but not enough to throw it out of your garage. Another tradeoff that comes with light weight and high fuel economy is peace and quiet on the highway. Wind and highway noise  are a bit excessive if you spend most of your time on long-distance runs, but around town, it's a joy. Skip the sunroof if you plan on mostly highway driving and the added roof insulation makes a significant difference, especially if you opt for the upgraded audio system.

The 6-speed manual transmission is fun, but the slick 6-speed automatic makes much more sense for people who use their car in the real world, and still offers 95 percent of the fun. Both steering wheel paddles (borrowed from BMW) upshift with a pull and downshift with a press of the thumb, and offer manual control even when the car is in 'drive'. This means that when you need to pass, you merely give the paddle shifter a couple of thumb taps, revel in the rev-matched downshift, and away you go. It's the same for taking a tight turn: squeeze the brakes, tap for downshift, maintain your perfect line through the turn with both hands securely on the wheel and roll into the throttle through the apex.

Strong resale value results in used car prices that sometimes rival new car prices, but the flip side of that coin is that MINI often offers great lease programs. The last time I checked in with sales manager Doug Opie at Ferman MINI of Tampa Bay, a buyer could lease a regular Cooper coupe in the $300's with minimal start-up fees. A four-year / 50k-mile warranty (with loaner cars for service) that includes 36-month / 36k mile no-charge maintenance also add to the car's appeal.

The Cooper and Cooper S in coupe, convertible, or Clubman form are a great option for young families, except for those with children in car seats, due to the absence of a true rear door. Also, interior space gets cramped quickly if you are hauling teens on a regular basis. If you are in this demographic, the 2011 Countryman mini-SUV is scheduled for a late 2010 launch. If you want even more power, the John Cooper Works package is available in VERY limited quantities.

So if you want a car that is a hoot to drive AND offers stellar mileage and a functional package, head to the MINI dealer and take one for a test. Special 50th Anniversary editions include the Camden and Mayfair coupes with unique color combinations and equipment packages. In addition to the upcoming Crossman, look for a sporty and chic Mini Coupe, and perhaps a four-door Traveler model.

Visit Ferman MINI of Tampa bay in Palm Harbor on US 19.

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