Last updateTue, 19 Sep 2017 5pm

On The Road

Small car, big buy: MINI Cooper Checkmate is driving fun in practical package

Preferences in automobiles today have as much to do with what a car looks like as what it can do. Most of us aren't happy just getting from point A to point B anymore; we want to make some sort of statement as we go by.

The MINI Cooper Checkmate we drove last week is all about statements. But it's still a very practical and efficient way to get from point A to point B.

How about a price less than $24,000, miles-per-gallon ratings that can't be bettered by anything except a hybrid, and accessories and build quality that would do justice to a BMW? Which the MINI is, of course.

As far as making a statement, the MINI is entering its fifth year of manufacturing, and its bulldog-like appearance still elicits positive attention from the Donut Derelicts at the Main Street Cafe & Books on Saturday mornings. There's something about that little car that just makes people smile.

The basic MINI Cooper is priced at $17,450 for the standard 115-horsepower engine and comfort-focused suspension package. The MINI Cooper S is $21,150 with the supercharged 168-horsepower engine and sport suspension.

The cars have received excellent reviews from the motoring press since their introduction in 2002, including "Car of the Year" from several of the major magazines. Everyone, it seems, likes the responsive handling that comes from a combination of BMW suspension tuning and the short wheelbase. "Handles like a go-cart" is probably the most overused but nevertheless accurate description of how the car feels on curvy roads.

The compact exterior and spacious interior that result when you push the drivetrain and suspension out to the corners are widely appreciated attributes. Even very tall drivers can be comfortable in the front seats because of the exceptional headroom and seat movement. Though the back seats don't bring limousines to mind, two adults can tuck themselves in for short trips out to lunch, and two children will be fine. Put the rear seats down and the car has as much hauling space as some station wagons.

The optional sunroof, with a second panel over the rear seat, makes the interior seem airier, although the sunblocking screens may not block as much sun as one might like on a hot summer day. However, the air-conditioning is more than up to the challenge.

We've put in many miles on the more powerful Cooper S, but this was our first opportunity to drive the smaller-engined Cooper, coupled in the press car to a satisfying 5-speed manual transmission. We were pleasantly surprised to find that as long as we used the transmission to keep engine revolutions over 3,000, the car was more than up to the cut-and-thrust of Bay Area freeway traffic, and fun on backroads, too.

Since different people define "performance" in different ways, we also have to note that the five-speed manual and normally aspirated (that means it doesn't have a turbo or supercharger) engine is EPA-rated at an exceptional 27 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. That's the kind of mileage one can brag about at any environmental issues seminar.

For a person with a long commute, this is the best of all worlds. Let the engine idle along at low revs during the weekday round-trips, then kick it down a gear on weekends for fun and games.

We were also very pleased with the fit and finish of the new model. When the MINIs were first introduced, as with any completely new car, they had a few reliability problems. However, during the last two years, this issue largely has been corrected, and the MINI is now on the Consumer Reports Recommended List.

As one of its selling points, MINI stresses the flexibility a buyer has when designing his or her own MINI. Because the cars still have to be custom ordered - no buying off the dealer's lot - each owner can have exactly the color scheme, interior, accessories and performance options he or she wants. Before filling out an order sheet, clients are encouraged to "build their own" MINI at www.MINIUSA.com.

Because the customer is going to have to wait awhile for delivery of his or her very own custom MINI - the waiting period at the Mountain View dealer is about 10 weeks - we were amused to notice that after completing the selection of all the colors, options and accessories, the customer can download a computer screensaver of "their" car to look at until the real thing arrives.

But sometimes it's nice to leave the design to the pros, so if you want to order one that will be unusual but you don't want to have to figure it out yourself, MINI issues at least one limited edition model each year. This year, the feature car is called the Checkmate, and we had one to drive last week.

To build the Checkmate version, MINI first adds premium and sport options that normally aren't even available from other manufacturers at this price point. These upgrades include the panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control, cruise control on the multifunction steering wheel, sport suspension with Dynamics Stability Control, performance-rated wheels and tires, sport seats and fog lamps.

To enhance the looks of the car and distinguish it from other MINI's, the Checkmate has a checkerboard graphic on the front fenders just in front of the doors and a contrasting gray top. So that everyone will be sure this is the real thing, there is an attractive Checkmate badge on the B-pillar and on the footplate inside the doors. The Checkmate buyer can also elect to have a sporty racing-stripe graphic added to the hood, which our press car had.

The sports seats included in the package, which have excellent bolstering for support on tight corners and long stints on the road, are upholstered in an attractive dark blue leather with silver fabric inserts. This comfortable and practical trim is only available on the Checkmate.

In addition, our press car had optional chrome highlights on the outside and inside, a touch that we thought set off the deep Hyper Blue color on the body panels and dashboard. It was also fitted with the top-line Harmon Kardon sound system on the interior.

For all of this, our MINI Cooper press car was stickered at only $23,310. Had the Checkmate package been built up on the MINI Cooper S with its more powerful engine, the price would have been $3,650 more.

Some dealers still add a premium to the price to keep their waiting lists as short as possible, while other dealers waive any premium but have longer waiting lists.

About the only accessory or option that wasn't included - and which we probably would have added to our order - was the navigation system. If that is included, its screen replaces the large speedometer in the signature instrument cluster in the center of the dashboard. A smaller speedometer is then paired with the tachometer, mounted on pods that move with the four-way adjustable steering wheel. The navigation system would add $1,400 to the price.

We continue to be amazed at the quality of the cars that are available now for relatively reasonable prices. But among them, we think that the MINI Cooper, with or without the limited edition cosmetics, offers as much driving fun in a practical package for as little money as any new car on the road today.

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