EL DORADO, Puerto Rico – BMW’s Mini Cooper Hardtop took the U.S. by storm in 2002, surprising almost everyone that SUV-loving America would embrace a tiny, premium-priced B-car.

Twelve years later, the U.S. now is Mini’s single largest market and BMW is faced with a new challenge: How to hang onto a large base of loyalists while expanding the brand’s appeal to more mainstream buyers.

The third-generation 2-door hardtop coming to dealerships this spring should handle the task with ease. Despite protests from Mini aficionados who fear the design is drifting too far from its roots, the new hardtop likely will become the best-selling BMW-designed Mini ever.

That’s because it finally is big enough to accommodate larger drivers and the interior and powertrains are all-new and much improved. The nose and overhangs are quite a bit longer, but to all but the rabid cognoscenti, it still looks like a Mini.   

The car now is based on BMW’s high-volume UKL 1 front-wheel-drive platform, and it is stretched in every direction. It’s almost 4-ins. (3.9 mm) longer, 1.7 ins. (44 mm) wider and 0.3 ins. (7 mm) higher than its predecessor. The wheelbase also has been extended 1.1 ins. (28 mm), and the track width has been enlarged by more than 1 inch.

That may not sound like much, but to a Mini enthusiast, the new car feels huge compared with BMW’s two earlier versions. Even so, if the car feels too big to a Mini fan, it just may be adequately sized for the average American.

And even though the car is substantially larger, we find the numerous chassis, suspension and front-axle changes engineers have employed still give the car the agile turn-in response and precise steering that is Mini’s single most endearing characteristic: go kart-like handling.

It also is available with dynamic damper control, which allows the driver to dial in comfort or a more direct sporty response to road surfaces.

Puerto Rico currently is in financial distress and its roads are not well maintained, so we were able to test the comfort function extensively on its bumpy highways and side roads. This feature will be a welcome relief to even Mini diehards who find the hardtop’s traditionally stiff ride overly harsh on long trips and rough pavement.

Traditionalists also may gripe that the new interior lacks charming retro styling cues that harken back to the original Mini Cooper and Morris Mini-Minor of the 1960s.

To that we say good riddance.