The original Mini Cooper might have been gone and forgotten were it not for a small cadre of performance fans who kept their old cars tuned and running—and racing. The pint-sized import was a legend on the autocross circuit, quick and surprisingly nimble.
The reborn Mini that hit the highway earlier this year seems to be generating a far broader appeal. In its first seven months in the U.S., it racked up more sales—about 10,000—than the original Mini did during a seven-year run back in the 1960s. To keep the momentum going, Mini’s new parent, BMW, is offering a range of kitschy options—such as a British flag roof decal—as well as what is likely to be an expanding range of models.
Minis Old and New
But those numbers tell only part of the story.
The Mini’s odd stance may seem a bit ungainly, but it has an unexpectedly bulldog-like grip on the road. This car was born for the autocross. It is nimble and sure-footed and a pleasure to whip around the track. Equal-length drive shafts all but eliminate torque steer, the nasty gremlin that so often defeats efforts to turn a front-driver into a performance machine.
It also helps that the body shell is 50 percent stiffer than that of the BMW 3-Series. Indeed, the British coupe has a lot in common with its Bavarian cousin, including a modified version of the 3-er’s multi-link rear suspension, drive-by-wire throttle, and a variety of electronic enhancement systems, including ABS, electronic brake force distribution, corner brake control, standard traction control and optional stability control.
It’s a handsome package, on and off the track, and a surprisingly affordable one, at that. One thing that sharply differentiates Mini and BMW is price: the Cooper S starts at $19,300 for a fairly well-equipped car, exactly $3000 more than the entry-level Cooper.
Along with the supercharger, the S model adds a rear spoiler, more aggressive sills and bumpers, as well as a functional scoop on the hood—or bonnet, if you prefer. There’s a dual, center-mounted exhaust and a chrome fuel filler cap. Inside, the Cooper S gets a center-mounted speedo, a huge tach taking the speedometer’s place between the steering wheel spokes. Add a six-speaker CD stereo, aluminum pedals and retro toggle switches.
2002 Mini Cooper
For the most part, it’s as much fun on the street as it is on the track. The car is nimble, and quick and holds its own on the highway. The relatively tall seating position overcame our concerns about what it would feel like to be surrounded by big SUVs and other trucks.
In reality, the new Mini is a good deal larger than the one Americans first saw more than 30 years ago. A lot of that added space is gobbled up by the bigger and more modern powertrain, as well as contemporary crash standards. If anything, there’s slightly less useable interior space. That said, packaging is quite incredible. You really can fit four adults inside, though those in the rear seat probably wouldn’t want to be there very long.
The one real negative with the Cooper S is road harshness. To save space, the S comes with run-flat tires that eliminate the need to fill the modest cargo compartment with a spare. But the stiff sidewalls needed to allow these tires to, well, run flat, make them especially jarring when paired with the rigid Cooper S suspension. If you live in a place like Michigan or New York, where the roads are particularly potholed, you’ll probably wind up making friends with a chiropractor.
The other concern we had was with build quality. On the whole, our bright blue hatchback was well assembled, with far better fit and finish than the original, but there were a couple notable issues, including a side marker light that kept popping out of its mount, hanging on by a thin pair of wires and banging against the fender.
If you buy a Mini, whether the base Cooper or the performance S, you better build a little extra time into your travel schedule. This is a vehicle that turns heads. Everywhere we went, people wanted to stop and ask about the little car that could.
A wide range of accessories, such as the aforementioned roof decals, make the car even more distinctive. In the first few months, Mini reports nearly every other buyer has opted for some for of customization. Key options have been grouped into a handful of reasonably affordable packages.
The bottom line? The Mini Cooper S provides the dictionary definition of “pocket rocket.” It’s fast and it’s fun. It does have a few drawbacks, but considering the price, it may be the best deal on the road right now.
2003 MINI Cooper S
Base price: $19,300
Engine: Supercharged and intercooled 1.6-liter four-cylinder, 163 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 97.1 in
Length: 143.9 in
Width: 75.0 in
Height: 55.8 in
Curb weight: 2678 lb
Fuel economy (cty/hwy): 24/33 mpg
Safety equipment: Four wheel ABS with electronic brake assist; front, side and roof pillar-mounted airbags; ISOFIX child seat tethers; central remote locking system, run-flat tires and tire pressure indicator
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles