Most redesigns are pretty obvious -- and sometimes, far from being an improvement. Hence the general rule: If it aint' broke, don't "fix" it.

With the updated '07 Mini Cooper, however, you'll have to look closely to tell it apart from the original -- even though there are many significant differences, inside and out.

And these subtle changes are also improvements -- a rare trick these days.

For openers, the new version's about 2.5 inches longer overall. The stretch job was done primarily to improve the car's crashworthiness by increasing the car's "crumple zones" -- especially up front. More metal to bend and absorb impact forces in a wreck means less energy imparted to the passenger cabin -- and those riding inside. But what's really neat is that while the exterior had to be re-skinned to accomplish this, the wheelbase of the '07 version remains the same as that of the '06 version at 97.1 inches.

Thus, the car's signature slot-car handling characteristics haven't been compromised.

It hasn't porked out, either.

The '07 Mini hatchback only weighs about 20 pounds more than the outgoing '06 version -- appx. 3,362 lbs. vs. 3,340 lbs. Weight added here was cut there -- so that the net effect of the sheetmetal revisions is negligible. An '07 Mini driven by someone weighing 170 pounds will actually be lighter overall than an '06 Mini driven by a 200 pounder.

It will also be significantly safer.

But more important than any of that stuff, the increased length is hardly noticeable to the eye. You'll need to get out a tape measure -- or park a new Mini next to an older model -- for the difference to become apparent. And even then, it's subtle -- like comparing a '70 GTO with a '71 model. The extra length has been integrated without affecting the overall proportions of the car. Like the old Goat and other instantly recognizable Automotive Greats of the past, the Mini retains its "Mini-ness" -- the distinctive bulldog presence that made it instantly iconic. If you liked the looks of the original, you'll find nothing not to like about the new one.

Inside, the changes are more obvious -- including a revised dash layout with larger centrally mounted speedo and center stack. But all the signature old-timey cues remain -- including the bank of toggle switches below the speedo and the hot-roddy tachometer mounted on top of the steering column. The same cheery combo of metallic facings and body-colored hard plastic trim pieces continues as well. It not only looks great, it's among the most user-friendly interior designs you'll find in any new car. No over-complex "interfaces" or "menus" to deal with. You want to open the window? Hit the toggle and there you go. The rotary knobs for the AC are self-explanatory -- and the "daisy" LED display for the gas gauge absolutely brilliant. (As the tank runs down, the "petals" go dark, one by one.)

The car's large glass area all around (including the tall front windshield and door glass) provides superb visibility, too -- and despite the physically small size of the exterior (even this new, "larger" version) you'll be surprised at just how roomy the passenger cabin is -- especially if you cross-drive some other sporty coupes for comparison. Even folks well over six feet tall and in the 200 pound range (like me) will find there's plenty of leg, head and elbow room up front. You never feel cramped or (worse) claustrophobic in this thing.

And unlike most sports cars and even many sporty coupes, the Mini's interior has several strategically placed cubbies and nooks for things you might want to bring with you but not have stuffed in your pockets -- like cell phones, snacks, extra keys, a pack of cigarettes -- whatever.

Small attention-to-details design features like that make the Mini surprisingly practical -- an adjective not easily (or at least, honestly) applied to most cars of this general type. Sure, it's cute. But would you want to drive one every day? Could you drive one every day? If it's a Mini, sure you could! There's even a decent-sized trunk behind the rear hatchback that will take a duffel bag for an overnighter. Fold the rear seats down, and you've got space enough for two people's stuff for cross-country junkets. It's no Vista Cruiser -- but it's a lot more serviceable than a Miata.

There are significant changes under the hood, too. The standard Mini gets an up-rated 1.6 liter engine making 118-hp (vs. 115 previously). A new six-speed manual transmission is standard, too -- in place of the five-speed used before. The optional transmission -- a six-speed automatic -- is also new for '07. Previously, base Minis offered a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) as the optional transmission choice.

High-performance S-models, meanwhile, now get a turbocharged (instead of supercharged) 1.6 liter engine that develops 172 hp (vs. 168 previously). Like the base model, the Mini S comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission or, optionally, a six-speed automatic.

The extra gear (and tighter gear spacing) of the six-speed transmission makes the base model a bit more zippy-feeling, even if it's not appreciably quicker than the outgoing version. There's also a potential fuel economy gain to be had. And the optional six-speed automatic creates less of a racket under hard acceleration than the old CVT -- which may be the reason Mini dropped this transmission in favor of a more conventional automatic. As for the switch from a supercharger to a turbo on the S model, the "feel" under hard acceleration is a bit stronger now -- but some may miss the distinctive whine of the blower spooling up. The turbo four is quietly powerful -- and seems more like a naturally aspirated V-6 than a force-fed four.
And that's probably what Mini had in mind.

Base price for the '07 Mini is $18,050 (hatchback with six-speed manual transmission) and $21,200 for the S (again, with the six-speed manual). You can upgrade the standard model with most of the S model's firmer-riding suspension gear (including larger anti-roll bars and 16-inch wheels shod with more aggressive 55-series run-flat tires) by ordering the optional Sport package ($1,400). This also gets you a revised front-end treatment with fog lights and air dam, rear spoiler, contoured sport buckets and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) with integrated traction control. A GPS unit with in-dash LCD display ($2,100) is also available, as are a long list of individual upgrades, such as Xenon HID lights ($550), multi-level heated seats ($270), Sirius satellite radio ($950) and a cold weather package ($300) that adds heated windshield washer jets, heated outside mirrors plus heated driver and passenger seats. Beyond that are more than a dozen possible interior/exterior color and trim combinations -- making it possible to order up a highly personalized Mini that's virtually a one-off custom.

S models are built around the more potent turbocharged engine and automatically come with the more aggressive suspension tuning (which can be notched up even higher with 17 inch rims and 45-series run-flat tires, if you like) as well as all the other goodies that are available with the standard model. No word yet on the John Cooper Works (JCW) package, but expect some news before mid-summer.

In any case -- and whether it's the base model or the high-performance S version -- driving a Mini Cooper is as fun as it looks. This car delivers the intimate partnership between machine and man (or woman) you'd find in a single-minded two-seat sports car -- but without the limited usefulness of a two-seater toy that almost requires you to buy another car for daily-driving. And with the Mini, you get to drive one of the most recognizable (and well-liked) cars around. Everyone will smile.

You most of all.

PS: An updated convertible is on deck for next year (the current model is still available as a carryover, with no major changes from 2006).