Citified But Gallant, Mini Cooper S Still Rollicks

June 19 (Bloomberg) — We city drivers are a beleaguered lot. In Manhattan, for example, car owners are beset by high garage prices, alternate-side-of-the-street parking (and precious little of that) and a general state of warfare between pedestrians and drivers. One could forgive us for trading in our keys for a MetroCard.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that — at least until summer comes around and you want run for the hills or the beach. Then prepare to go to war with the rental-car companies and their long lines.

There’s gotta be a better way.

The resurrected Mini Cooper hit the front lines five years ago, winning over many a metro trawler with its small stature (“I can park there!”), go-go spirit and surprising cargo space. A star turn in the remake of “The Italian Job” helped allay some male drivers’ concerns that its small size and cuteness made it a “chick car.” (It kinda is, though: Such is the price of convenience.)

Still, novelty wanes, especially when you find legions of the Skittle-colored scamps parked on city streets. Some drivers can’t help but worry: Where’s the exclusivity? Well, the BMW- built cars have been redesigned again for the 2007 model year. And while that might not answer the exclusivity issue, with a base price of $21,850, the latest incarnation makes a strong case for the moniker of Ultimate City Car.

I tested a “mellow yellow” Cooper S with a number of sports-minded additions from the company’s tuning partner, John Cooper Works. It included aerodynamic body molding, a roof spoiler, 18-inch wheels and enhanced brakes, pushing the price almost to $30,000.

Iconic Look

If you were expecting a big visual difference between the 2006 and 2007 models, get over it. The company believes that the Cooper’s basic look is iconic. In other words, it looks exactly the same to most eyes, including my own. Same bright-lidded front, flat roof and squat, rearing-to-go stance, like an eager bunny.

Where the changes matter are this bunny’s innards: The four-cylinder engine, formerly in supercharger form, is now enhanced by a turbocharger, with direct fuel injection. As far as small engines go, the Cooper has always had heart, yet there was also a point on the highway or a steep incline when it simply couldn’t patter any faster.

Toughest Test

On the front lines — the city streets — my front-wheel- drive Cooper S, with the standard six-speed manual transmission, scoots off the line much as I remember it, going wheel-to-wheel with the Crown Vic taxis, beating them often. It also wiggles past the dreaded, stopped garbage truck on a one-way street, which may be the toughest test for an urban vehicle. And when I decide to grab a coffee on my way out of town, I slot into a parking spot that normally wouldn’t even be a consideration.

Yep, the Ultimate City Car, just as I remember it.

It’s when I hit I-95 that the redesign asserts itself. The Cooper never feels like it’s running out of breath as I do battle with tractor trailers and sports cars. The horsepower is roughly the same as the previous model; yet the breadth of power is much more dynamic.

The company also has been mindful of fuel economy — the S gets an estimated 29 miles per gallon in the city. Expect less in the real world, but still. Another tick in the box of the Ultimate City Car.

Stiff Suspension

It’s also as nimble as ever: You can whip it around tight lane changes (or, say, a bike messenger who darts into traffic).

Bumpy, bad pavement, however, is a problem. The short wheel base and tight suspension mean hard hits, and on uneven pavement it sometimes jumps skittishly like a bunny, too. Forget about a Mercedes-smooth ride. You’ll have to put up with the jostling.

Conservative types might not dig the funky-as-ever interior, which has an overall quirky design, including the massive circular analog speedometer in the center of the dash. Personally, I think more automakers should take chances with their interiors. I love it.

So, a perfect city car? With the very reasonable price, compact size and ability to get up and go both in traffic and on the open road, the redesigned Cooper S proves itself almost as useful as that MetroCard in your wallet.

The Mini Cooper S at a Glance

Power: Turbocharged 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine, with 172 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.

Drive train: Six-speed manual (six-speed automatic with paddle shifters available as a $1,350 option).

Speed: 0 to 60 in 6.7 seconds.

Price as tested: $29,935.

Best feature: Versatility in a fun package.

Worst feature: Ride quality doesn’t qualify as comfy, particularly on rough roads.

Target buyer: The city dweller who doesn’t drive every day, yet wants something with zip when it’s time to get out of town.

(Jason Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)