Establishing its legacy by costarring with Mr. Bean, hauling the loot twice in The Italian Job and bearing the iconic Union Flag in Austin Powers’ Goldmember, the Mini has positioned itself as a bona fide pop culture phenomenon.

A symbol of the English auto industry since its 1959 launch in Oxford as the Morris Mini-Minor, Mini was inherited by BMW in 1994 following a tumultuous history of ownership. Immediately, plans were drawn up to relaunch the famously small car with an updated look and the technological and advanced design expertise that consumers had come to expect from the Munich-based BMW Group.

Today we sit behind the wheel of Mini’s next chapter, the third-generation Mini Cooper, on its first test drive along the beaches and mountains of Puerto Rico, and are we in for the ride of our lives.

From the moment we engage the clutch and shift the blazing red Mini Cooper into first gear, we can feel there are some notable modifications in this upgrade. To start, Mini has replaced the base four-cylinder engine with a three-cylinder. The benefits of developing this smaller engine are evident in the upgraded horsepower and sheer torque as we get going around the first few turns.

From a numbers perspective, the 1.5-liter three-cylinder excels over its predecessor, boosting horsepower from 121 to 134 between 4500 and 6000 rpm, an increase that allows it to claim zero to 60 in 7.3 seconds as compared to the previous 8.4 (both in manual). While this modest increase is impressive considering the smaller engine size, it’s the torque that steals the show. With a bump from 114 to 162 pound-feet, the hatchback revs up the narrow twisting jungle roads, with second or third gear sufficient to maintain the responsive “go-kart experience” of the Mini driving style.

When we look for the window controls, it’s a pleasant surprise to realize Mini has finally relocated the switches from the center console to the doors, ending the odd layout owners have struggled with. We also appreciate the new heads-up display that rises elegantly out of the dash. Combined with a welcome realignment of the speedometer and tachometer to their traditional spot above the wheel, the Mini’s pie-sized dial in the center dash is now freed up for the 8.8-inch Mini Connected navigation/entertainment system, now with Twitter and Facebook integration. With these changes, Mini has solved several of the most common past customer and critic complaints about this vehicle. We like it, but will the fan base?

When we attended the Mini United festival in France two years ago, the brand was in the customer feedback stage on the prototype of the Mini we’re driving today. Then-Mini USA CEO Jim McDowell told us that customers were concerned the brand would become too conventional and lose the intrinsic quirkiness of the Mini.

The overhaul on the third-generation Mini feels like a compromise. The improved engine options offer rich performance value and reconfigured technology that improve utility, but the exterior of the vehicle remains largely untouched. The body style hasn’t undergone any major changes, but the size has been beefed up: the Mini is longer by 4.5 inches, wider by 1.7 inches and taller by a mere 0.3 inches. The wheelbase has also been given 1.1 inches of additional height, which looks fantastic paired with the 17- or 18-inch wheel options. We wouldn’t have been offended if Mini had gone further with the vehicle’s exterior transformation, but we appreciate the nostalgic value. One doesn’t just mess with a concept that has been loved by millions for generations.

Mini has added turning LED headlamps and adaptive light distribution—the first offered in the compact premium segment—as well as a new daytime LED ring around the ovals, which adds a modest update to the classic front façade. On the rear of the car, the revised spoiler options look incredibly sporty, especially when combined with the hot volcanic orange shade that has been developed exclusively for this vehicle.

The next trim level up—the Cooper S—looks and drives strikingly well. With a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder under the hood, the mid-tier Cooper S offers a peak power output of 189 horses, an increase from 181 between 4700 and 6000 rpm. Like the base Cooper, the S’s torque impresses here with a significant boost from 177 pound-feet to 207, even going as far as 221 pound-feet with a temporary overboost function. This translates to a zero to 60 acceleration time of just 6.5 seconds, shaving a second off the previous S’s time, and a top speed of 146 mph in manual.

These peppy TwinPower Turbo engines also deliver improved fuel economy, now handing over 34 mpg combined (city/highway) for the Cooper and 28 mpg combined for the Cooper S. These numbers are still awaiting official EPA ratings, but if the math checks out it suggests that Mini has done a fine job of engineering these powertrains, offering up increased performance even with a modest increase in the overall curb weight from 2,535 to 2,605 pounds.

The addition of bonus features such as the BMW iDrive control wheel integration while still preserving kitschy elements like the mood lighting—now extending to the circular central instrument based on driving mode, conditions or color preferences—means the new Mini strikes a delicate balance that is sure to engage new customers while captivating longtime Mini owners and fans.

Starting at $19,950 for the 2014 Cooper and $23,600 for the Cooper S. Learn more at