2002 - 2003 Mini Cooper Used Car Review

The Finest Fun Small Car

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author photo by John Rettie January 2009

Talk to any Mini owner, and you will more than likely find someone who is really fond of the car and enjoys driving it as much as possible. Even though it might be one of the smallest cars (it is the shortest) on the market in the US, it feels much bigger. It is also surprisingly roomy inside, and if you fold down the back seats, there is plenty of storage space.

All in all, it's much more than just a small hatchback it's a premium sporty car — fitting as it is made by BMW, the purveyor of cars that appeal to those who enjoy driving.

Iconic. It is the only word to describe the Mini Cooper. And we are referring to both the new car and the original. First introduced in 1959, the original British Austin Mini was revolutionary in design as it offered an unheard of amount of interior space for such a small car. Thanks to its front-wheel-drive configuration, it also offered hitherto unheard of handling for something other than a sports car. It captured the hearts and minds of millions over the following four decades, and it also took motor sports by storm with its incredible handling.

Fast forward to 2002, and by now the British auto industry had all but disappeared. Fortunately BMW, which at the time owned the last of many of the brands of the British Leyland empire, saw fit to re-introduce the Mini.

The new Mini stayed true to its heritage but was thoroughly modern — presumably just like the car would have been had it been continuously developed over the years. It was nothing akin to a retro car — a fad that seems to have passed.

Originally, BMW was concerned there might not be sufficient demand to warrant selling the new Mini in the US. After all, only a miniscule 12,000 original Minis were sold in the US in the 1960s. BMW's doubts were quickly erased, as the Mini has sold far better than expected in the US and worldwide since 2002.

The basic Mini is not sold in the US; instead we get the sportier Cooper and Cooper S models. The Mini Cooper sold from 2002 until 2006 was powered by a Brazilian-made 1.6-liter engine. The Cooper S has a supercharger, which boosts power output from 115 bhp to 163 bhp. The S also has a stiffer, more sporty, suspension and some bodywork changes. A convertible version hit the market in 2005, and a higher performance version of the S, called the John Cooper Works model, upped horsepower to 200.

A second generation Mini Cooper was introduced in 2007. Although it looks almost identical to the first gen model, it is actually slightly bigger and is powered by a new 1.6-liter engine made in Europe.

Test Drives
1.  Mini Cooper S 2002
    30,485 miles
    Estimated value $17,400
    Owner: David, male, age: mid-40s.

Dave is just the sort of person the Mini would appeal to. He is a car enthusiast, and, as a graphic artist, he also appreciates good design and style. Although he wanted a new Mini, he was not willing to pay the premium over sticker that Minis attracted when they first went on sale. Instead he found this '02 Mini Cooper S with just 4,000 miles on the odometer.

Almost immediately he shopped on eBay and found a set of painted wheels and tires, which makes the car look even sportier than the standard silver alloy wheels.

Since owning the car, Dave has put on another 26,000 miles, and, apart from an accelerator cable that broke and was replaced under warranty, he has had no problems.

Overall, he loves the car for its great handling. He enjoys driving it around town, thanks to its zippy performance and easy parking. His main complaint is the stiff ride on freeways and the tendency for it to be affected by the grooves in concrete surfaces. It's more of a problem caused by the run flat tries than the car overall design.

His wife loves driving the car as well, although Dave says she doesn't like being a passenger as much.

In a brief drive, we found it felt just as solid as a brand new Mini, and, apart from a very slight squeak in the driver's seat, we could not fault the car. Naturally, as an enthusiast, Dave has kept all the records so a car like this would be an ideal buy for someone looking for a used Mini Cooper S. Dave's teenage son doesn't want him to sell it though, as he's got his eyes on it as his first car.

2.  Mini Cooper S 2003
    35,237 miles
    Estimated value $19,400
    Owner: Joan, female, age: late 30s.

Joan is the exact opposite type of Mini owner from Dave. Joan is not a car nut; indeed she had been driving a Honda Civic for 15 years. It was her graduation present, and she had been happy using it for commuting.

She liked the look of the Mini and felt it was time to buy a car that would be fun to drive. Even though she planned to use it primarily for commuting she opted to buy a 2003 Mini Cooper S with a manual transmission. "I wanted it for fun," she says.

"The handling is fantastic, and it's got plenty of pickup for passing." Joan also likes the image factor. "When I first got it, people really stared at me driving by, but not in a snobby sort of way." All in all, Joan has really enjoyed the car, but she is looking for a less expensive car after having driven it for four years. Her reason? "The worst thing about the car is having to put premium gas in it." Even though she gets 33 mpg on long road trips and 24-25 mpg around town, the cost of premium still adds up.

Her other cost complaint is the "price charged for replacing the run-flat tires." Joan says that the flat-tire warning light comes on every now again, but it's a false reading. The only other problem she has found is that the gearshift is somewhat stiff after a night when the temperature drops below freezing. Also a slight squeak in the sunroof "was fixed with a piece of Velcro!"

Overall this car is in really good condition — you can tell it's been looked after by someone who values long-term ownership.

3.  Mini Cooper 2004
    57,263 miles
    Estimated value $15,800
    Owner Jeannette, female, age: mid-50s.

Until a couple of years ago, Jeannette, a schoolteacher, drove a Land Rover Discovery in her daily commute on a freeway. But the cost of gas got too high so she decided to buy a one-year old Mini Cooper with automatic transmission.

"It's like a go-kart, even with auto transmission," she says. "The worst thing is I can't see over things on the freeway like I can in the Land Rover." Jeannette says she regularly gets 30 mpg around town, which is about twice as good as the Discovery.

Her husband, who co-incidentally is well over six feet in height, also loves driving the car especially on long trips. He says "it is a lot of fun to drive; everyone wants a ride in it, and they think it is small until they get in." He does wish though that his wife had purchased a Cooper S for the extra performance. However, he did improve the handling by replacing the stock wheels and tires with a set of 17-inch Cooper S rims shod with BFGoodrich 215/40ZR17 tires. They are not run-flat tires so the ride is slightly less harsh, which pleased Jeannette.

Soon after the car was purchased in 2005, with 25,000 miles on the odometer, the automatic transmission was replaced under warranty. It did not fail, but the dealership replaced it anyway, rather than try to repair it. Otherwise, she has had no problems with the car in the two years she has owned it.

Between the two of them, they have no less than seven cars in the family fleet. Jeannette's husband keeps his cars a long time and is loath to sell them. Judging by the way they both enjoy this Mini Cooper, it's unlikely to be put up for sale anytime soon. That probably explains why its interior was not in the greatest of condition when we drove it. There were some stains on the seats and floor — signs of a car that is well used on a daily basis — a real commuter car.

Market Overview
When it first went on sale in 2002, fans of the original Mini were concerned that the new Mini would not have the character of the original car. Their fears were unfounded, and almost immediately it was accepted as a modern version. It's cheeky character and outstanding road manners were just what enthusiasts expected.

About the only area of doubt was the engine, which many considered to be a little coarse for an up-market car. The Cooper S with its supercharger helped make the engine run smoother as well as giving a worthwhile boost in performance.

The increasing concern about fuel economy since the Mini's introduction has also helped its popularity. An EPA rating of 28/37 for the Cooper with a manual transmission makes it one of the more economical cars on the road, at least in the US market.

Many unique marketing campaigns, including viral advertising, has helped keep demand high, even though the car has been around for over five years.

Naturally the Mini Cooper has garnered rave reviews from the car enthusiast media with numerous awards. It has ranked highest among compact cars for five years in a row in the J. D. Power and Associates APEAL study (reporting on things people like and dislike about their cars). In terms of quality, the Mini appears to be in the middle of the pack but at least it has shown improvements year by year.

Mini has purposely kept the sales volume at a level where supply barely keeps up with demand. It's been partly a marketing decision but also one caused by the fact that the factory in the UK cannot make them fast enough to meet worldwide demand.

Partly because of this, the resale value of the Mini is among the best of any car on the road. Automotive Lease Guide (ALG) has awarded Mini a top spot in their annual Residual Value Awards for four years in a row — it has the highest projected resale value in the compact car segment.

Just like the original Mini, the new one appeals to all types of people — anyone who enjoys driving and wants a car with character. It's not a typical econobox by any stretch of the imagination. Strictly speaking, it's a hatchback — but most regard it more as a stylish two-door coupe.

Its small exterior size makes it an ideal commuter car, an ideal city car and, last but not least, an ideal sporty car. Because of its popularity the Mini holds its value well, which means you can expect to pay a premium for it compared to other small cars. Of course, this also means you will likely fetch more when you come to sell it again later. Because of its appeal, most owners are also more likely to care of the car in a way they might not with a low-cost small car. Consequently, it should be easy to find well-cared-for Mini.

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2002 - 2003 Mini Cooper Used Car Review - Autotrader