2002 MINI Cooper Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
March 31, 2002

New Mini, My Mini (3/31/2002)

Despite the shopworn bleatings of Madison Avenue and the very premise of whole ranges of adult videos, small can be satisfying. Witness the miniskirt, Mini-Me, or my personal favorite, the Frosted Mini Wheat. (Mini reviews are also good, but hang on for the next 1373 words anyway.)

While we’re tallying compact goodness, allow me to add on the 2002 Mini Cooper. At once flirtatious and frugal, it’s a small-car come-on that can be savored without much compromise or guilt.

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It does so with more than a wink and a nod to heritage and that makes the new Mini a rare and real enthusiast event. Think about its competitive set: the Focus telegraphs its hipness and the PT Cruiser breezily evokes the past, but neither will make your dad wax nostalgic for the days when he had real human hair.

The Mini’s in a whole different realm: it cajoles you into thinking that British cars always were sprightly, tossable, and exceptionally well built. Which, I am told by experts, they weren’t.

The Mini has a long and storied history that you probably know already. If not, try www.google.com. The last three years have been pretty fascinating, too. Picture this: a relative of the original designer buys the brand through a German company that hires and fires him, only to hang on to the Mini rights in a fire sale. There’s also a Rolls-Royce involved. You just can’t get this stuff on Days of Our Lives without having to also take on an evil twin.

Today, the Mini is a subdivision of those friendly folks at BMW, but the cars are actually built in Oxford, England — by, we presume, hordes of Rhodes Scholars who finally have real jobs.

Guts and glory

On with the guts of the story. That means a virtual walk around it, which if geometry serves, should take about a quarter of the time it would take to tour a Caddy DeVille. First off is the size. Mini engineers and marketers (they’re actually fully grown) told us that their vehicle is shorter than a Geo Metro, one of which we encountered later as if by accident. It’s true, the Mini is smaller. And, oddly, it smells better.

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2002 Mini Cooper

2002 Mini Cooper

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And if the Metro had one ounce of the charisma of the Mini, we’d all be driving Geos today instead. Like the Range Rover introed earlier this year, the new Mini stretches and smooths an authentic British silhouette into a larger, more exaggerated icon — with equal success. The basic shape is Rorschach-suggestive, autonomically recognizable. It’s also a palette for a varied range of customizable trim: you can paint the roof, mirrors and wheels white if you like, throw a Union Jack or Old Glory decal on the roof, and choose one of a handful of wheel styles. Chem majors — does the five-spoke design look like a P-orbital to you, too?

Ovals and circles dance all over the familiar silhouette. The guppy-mouthed grille goes hand-in-hand with the door panels and overhead lights inside, while the gimbaled vents align themselves with the gauges and the speedo/nav-system space on top of the center stack. The Mini logo echoes in the design of the climate controls. And if you look closely long enough, you too might see an angry gingerbread man made up of the tachometer and wiper/turn-signal stalks.

Long and winding road

The best way to revel in the Mini’s rebirth is to drive it, as we did, on the winding roads of northern Marin County, Calif. Here you’re never too far away from a beautiful vista or a place that grows its own alcohol, which makes us wonder aloud if it’s really appropriate for driving at all.

Here you’ll find that the Mini’s mini engine, a 1.6-liter, overhead-cam four-cylinder, is plenty grunty enough. Its 115 hp on paper might seem unseemly for a product one branch removed from the BMW family tree, but it pushes the Mini to 60 mph in nine seconds, and a top speed of 124 mph and delivers 35 mpg on the highway. In combination with a sharp five-speed manual gearbox, it’s a jewel of a powertrain. Only the Miata, in our estimation, offers so little brass and so much polish.

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Fashionistas impressed by the look will also agree that the Mini’s suspension “goes well” with the engine/tranny combo. The Mini Cooper uses McPherson struts in front and a multi-link rear derived from the BMW 3-Series attached to a very stiff body structure and stock 15-inch tires (16s and 17s are optional) to enable go-kart handling. Tracking is a no-brainer and the steering, though a little hefty, isn’t affected by errant steering miscues. Mini credits this to equal-length driveshafts; we give props to the non-threatening levels of torque.

When it comes to bumpy roads, though, the Mini and the road surface must agree to disagree, and often it’s not a polite conversation. Busy roads make for a lot of suspension movement that’s translated directly to the seats. The expansion joints on the Golden Gate Bridge sent my head into the sunroof molding and me to the chiropractor. A smooth operator even on grooved Interstates, the Mini gets a little tiresome when the road crews are a couple of years behind on pothole duty.

Why do they call it a cockpit?

We were wondering, too, when seated inside the Mini. There’s almost no room for animal fights, unless the two animals are in a long-term relationship and share, for example, a mortgage.

Though tight for linebackers and most gospel singers, the driving booth is an upstanding place to work the Mini’s considerable driving charms. The footwells are narrow, though, and a 12-wide shoe will stick between the clutch pedal and the brake every time. (Big feet aren’t always a blessing.) The front sport seats are comfy enough, given the tight dimensions and they leverage themselves into positions unheard of before the whole Enron thing. Mechanical memory positions make it easy to flip them forward, install rear passengers and re-accommodate those up front. In the back, the rear bench is scooped out slightly to suggest two adults could ride along. Make those guests infrequent. They should also be on good speaking terms.

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Back up front, ergonomics be damned, the speedo’s mounted on the center stack. This is an annoying 40-year-old trend that is overcome, fortunately, by the Mini’s goodness in other arenas. Elsewhere the placement of controls is good — it’s their texture and action that captivates drivers and co-pilots alike. Those are real toggle switches beneath the audio system, by God, even though they’re corralled by safety-mandated loops. The door handles belong on some rarer, costlier two-door. A CD player is standard and a Harmon Kardon audio setup is part of a package costing $1250.

All manner of safety features and electronic assistance come as part of the new Mini experience. Four-sensor anti-lock control also enables Electronic Brake Distribution, Cornering Brake Control and a tire-pressure monitor — all are standard — and Dynamic Stability Control, which is optional. Dual front and side airbags are standard, and the side airbags extend into the rear passenger area.

Final thoughts

You’ll be shocked, yes shocked we say, that the concessions to cost are few. You may notice the inexpensive plastic used to line the backseat armrest areas, for example, or the uncouched-metal hinges uncovered when the hatch opens. And while the advanced electric steering, ESP and BMW 3-Series rear suspension bits come from a high-rent neighborhood, the action of the steering-wheel stalks and some ancillary controls is more Target than Marks and Spencer.

Pricing for the Mini is nearly noncontroversial, too — it’s $16,850 including destination. The Mini Cooper S, with a 163-hp supercharged four, carries a base price of $19,850 (we’ll have more on it just as soon as we can). The Premium package (cruise, sunroof, auto climate control) and Sport packages (DSC, rear spoiler, 16-inch wheels, sport seats) cost $1250 more and a cold-weather package (heated everything) is $500.

This Mini’s on sale now — and technically, so is the supercharged, 163-hp Mini Cooper S although finding one might be a Herculean task. And how many of us are actually Herculean? Wait a while and it’ll pass.

With 70 Mini showrooms coming on line in the next year, the brand expects to sell 20,000 copies in year one. It looks fabulous, it’s quick, it handles zippy, and damn it, if there were more superlative auto-journalism clichés to use, we’d be driving on rails to apply them here.

It’s that good, if you were still wondering.

2002 Mini Cooper
Base price
: $16,300
Engine: 1.6-liter in-line four, 115 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 142.8 x 66.5 x 55.4 in
Wheelbase: 97.1 in
Curb weight: 2524 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 26/43 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side impact airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows, cruise control, CD player, leather and metallic trim, keyless entry
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

 

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