This story begins with the re-launch of a car that in 1959, with its four-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive and design packaging that enabled maximum interior space within a minimum exterior footprint, revolutionized the industry. Like that original classic Austin Mini, the reborn 2002-2006 model was also built in the U.K., but this time by a unit of Germany's BMW, which applied its considerable engineering knowhow and experience crafting class-leading rear-drive performance cars to the Mini concept. Though the 2002-2006 Mini was two feet longer, nearly a foot wider and more than a half-ton heavier than that classic 1959 iteration, it was much smaller than just about any other contemporary small car, was imbued with agile handling and could carry four grinning passengers. Its new BMW meisters wisely kept some design cues from the original and made the new Mini available with voluminous customization schemes, from contrasting-color roofs to dozens of wheel designs to various stripe packages and bold, roof-size flag motifs.
Why you want it
Nimble in tight cityscapes, agile on back-road twisties with quick and linear steering, the Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S define fun-to-drive in the subcompact/mini segment. Acceleration with the Cooper S model is lively. Ultra compact dimensions make for easy parking and despite tight rear passenger accommodations, a fold-down back seat and rear hatchback afford surprising cargo versatility. Outward visibility is good and room for the driver and front passenger is as generous as that of a BMW 3 Series. Everything, right down to the big central-mounted speedometer, egg-shaped steering wheel stalks, prominent toggle-switch array and sweeping aluminum-look bars and buttresses, looks like it was made just for the Mini, not lifted from some other sedan. Add in a huge dose of retro modernistic styling, inside and out, and the Mini serves up an enticing cocktail of urban driving enjoyment. This car has personality in spades.
Notable features and options
Though the Cooper and Cooper S look much alike, main differences involve the powertrain and tire/wheel package. The Cooper comes with a 115-hp normally aspirated 1.6-liter four-cylinder, a standard five-speed manual transmission and a compact spare with an air compressor, whereas the Cooper S upgrades to a 163-168-hp supercharged 1.6-liter, standard six-speed manual gearbox and grippier run-flat tires with no spare (the Cooper S battery lives in the spare tire well). Befitting a "premium" small car, both models net standard A/C, tilt wheel, four-wheel discs with ABS, alloy wheels, low-pressure tire warning, six-way adjustable driver and front passenger seats, leatherette seat trim, six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, power mirrors, windows and door locks with remote keyless entry, 50/50 split fold-down rear bench, cargo cover, and a cooled glovebox. The Cooper S also nets standard traction control, a partial dual exhaust, body color grille, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, rear wing and that mail-slot hood scoop feeding the supercharger's intercooler.
All Coopers and just the 2005-06 Cooper S were available with an optional continuously variable automatic transmission with six manually selectable ratios in Tiptronic mode. Other desirable options include Xenon headlamps, cloth and leather seat trim, dual sunroofs, navigation and dynamic stability control.
Cognizant of a world teeming with large SUVs, all Minis come standard with dual front and side-impact airbags as well as roof rail airbags.
2003: MP3 input port added to CD player. Dealer-installed John Cooper Works engine tuning kit with 200 hp introduced on Cooper S.
2004: Tachometer gains a digital speedometer readout. Rear 12V power outlet added.
2005: Cooper S output bumped from 163 to 168 hp, six-speed manual transmission is upgraded and limited-slip differential is made standard. John Cooper Works package adds 7 hp to 207 hp. Automatic transmission with paddle shifters now optional on Cooper S. Cooper/Cooper S convertible debuts. All Minis get revised headlamps, tail lamps, grilles and bumpers.
2006: Upgraded 214-hp JCW tuning kit becomes available as a factory build and includes bigger brakes. New Checkmate trim package is available.
Engines and performance
Though it tracks like it's on rails and handles speed well once it gets there, the base Cooper is a little poky in the acceleration department with its modest 115-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder. In their testing, Consumer Reports saw a 9.6-second 0-60 mph time for the Cooper, which means it can go fender to fender with a Prius. The base five-speed manual is more fun (and more reliable) than the CVT automatic, and of these the 2005-06 Getrag five-speed with better spaced ratios is a nicer bet than the 2002-2004 Midlands unit. Opting for the CVT automatic does allow buyers not adept at clutchwork to enjoy the Mini experience, and in Tiptronic mode there are six manually selectable ratios. Where the naturally aspirated Cooper shines is fuel economy, EPA rated at 25 mpg city/37 mpg highway, but it requires premium unleaded fuel.
Supercharge and intercool the Cooper S standard 1.6-liter four-cylinder, and the giggle factor increases exponentially. Power rises to 163 hp on 2002-2004 models and 168 hp for 2005-2006. Through 2004, the only gearbox available on Cooper S is a Getrag six-speed manual, but the CVT automatic with six manually selectable ratios is added starting in 2005. The six-speed manual shifter feels like it's lifted out of a 3 Series BMW thanks to careful mass tuning of the transmission linkage. Motor Trend magazine hurried a 2002 Cooper S to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, nearly a second quicker than a 2002 Honda Civic Si.
The ultimate Cooper S is the John Cooper Works package. This is mostly just engine breathing mods, bumping output to 200 hp for 2003, 207 in 2004 and 214 on 2006 models. Car and Driver magazine hustled a 2003 JCW to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds.
Recalls, safety ratings and warranties
NHTSA has announced the following safety recalls for the 2002 to 2006 Mini Cooper/Cooper S hardtop:
2002: Manual gearbox shift cable may become detached from linkage, preventing gearshifts.
2003: Tire inflation label may be incorrect for size tire installed.
2004: Incorrect programming may prevent tire pressure monitor from sounding an alarm if pressure drops below specification. Dealer will recalibrate as necessary.
NHTSA rated the 2002-2006 Mini Cooper/Cooper S hardtop at four stars for driver and front passenger frontal impacts and rollover performance. In side-impact testing, the car also received a four-star rating for the driver, but was not rated for the front passenger or rear passengers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Mini Cooper/Cooper S hardtop a good rating for front offset collisions, but didn't test for side impacts or roof strength.
Mini gave the 2002 to 2006 Cooper and Cooper S four-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and powertrain warranty coverage with 24/7 roadside assistance.
Called Mini Next, Mini's Certified Used cars can't be more than five years or 60,000 miles old to be eligible, which rules out earlier Minis. Those few that do qualify are restored by factory technicians and covered under a transferable extended warranty until they reach 100,000 miles or are six years old.
Word on the web
Aside from complaints about choppy/harsh ride quality with the 16-inch or larger run-flat tires and cramped back seats, the Mini forums are chock full of owners who love the handling, style and uniqueness of their cars-until it comes to repairs. The failure rate on CVT automatics and 2002-04 manual gearboxes is considerable and the repair costs, partly due to the car's high-tech compact design and partly due to European parts sourcing, are quite high. ConsumerReports.com rated the reliability of the 2002-06 Cooper S worse than average, particularly engine cooling, transmissions, body hardware and for squeaks and rattles.
The Honda Civic Si is roomier, less expensive, more reliable and handles just as well as Cooper S, but is about a second slower to 60 mph and lacks Mini chutzbah. VW's New Beetle Turbo matches the Mini's cute/funky factor and has more power, but its larger size gives no more room, just weight that hurts handling, braking and fuel economy. You might also consider a Mazda Miata MX-5,which holds two less passengers but is every bit the Coopers rival in the fun-to-drive department. Slightly larger but far more civilized in the VW GTI, which has room for four, a comfortable cockpit but is not as adept and handling curves as the Cooper.
The Mini gets a lot of performance out of a pair of small engines, and they reflect the European philosophy which assumes premium engines burn premium fuel, so don't try to stretch your budget by skimping and using regular-the car just won't perform like it's supposed to. If you are considering a Cooper S and live in an area with less-than-optimal road maintenance, stay away from the run-flat 17-inch tires as the Cooper S's already stiff ride may prove punishing. We recommend sticking with the 16s. If the car is offered with an optional warranty, take it. Transmission failures, mostly the CVT automatic but also involving some manual gearboxes, are not uncommon and the replacement cost with labor can approach the used car book value of the car.