The MINI Cooper appears to represent everything good about Britain, with a nod to the swinging ’60s in its retro styling and another nod to the more recent Cool Britannia era (when Oasis, Blur, and the Spice Girls were popular). So it may be surprising to learn that the Cooper was designed by an American, Frank Stephenson. And the brand is owned by a German company, BMW.
These are good things, however. Since penning the MINI, Stephenson has worked for Ferrari and McLaren. In the meantime, the MINI has seen some changes, but although every panel is now different, it’s still instantly recognizable as a MINI.
And BMW has a reputation for making cars with enthusiast appeal. The company’s expertise has made the MINI one of the finest-handling front-drive cars available. Even some suspension parts from the BMW 3 Series are used in the MINI, helping to provide perky dynamics to match the perky looks.
First-Generation R50/R53 (2002-2006)
The MINI Cooper is a premium compact car with a hatchback. When the marque launched in North America, it did so with the plain Cooper (factory code R50), with a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine developing 115 horsepower and 110 lb-ft of torque, and the Cooper S (R53), which took that same engine and added a supercharger to make 163 hp and 155 lb-ft. The S is easily recognized by the air scoop in its hood.
The act of squeezing a supercharger into an already cramped engine bay meant having to move the battery to the trunk and ditching the spare wheel, so the Cooper S deployed run-flat tires and kept an aerosol can of puncture-repair compound in the trunk. It’s a good idea to check that aerosol’s expiration date.
This generation’s S also had the option of a John Cooper Works package from 2003, with an even sportier suspension than the regular S, along with 203 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. That’s enough for sprinting from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in 6.4 seconds and a top speed of 140 mph.
Transmission-wise, a 5-speed manual was standard in the first-generation Cooper, with a 6-speed stick shift in the S. The initial automatic option was a Steptronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), whose build quality was variable, to say the least. You’ll want to avoid this CVT; there was even a successful class action suit against it. A conventional 6-speed auto option became available in the S from 2005.
That same year saw a refresh for the range, with better-quality materials in the cabin. The S received a new 6-speed manual and a new exhaust system, plus a boost in output to 168 hp and 162 lb-ft. The JCW went up to 210 hp and 177 lb-ft. The options list for the S now included a limited-slip differential.
A limited-edition of 415 cars, called the 2006 John Cooper Works GP, offered 215 hp, 184 lb-ft of torque, a stiffer suspension, a special aerodynamic package, and no rear seats. When they come up for sale, they’re usually around $20,000.
When purchased new, all Coopers came with a comprehensive array of options for buyers to personalize their cars, such as contrasting roof and side-mirror colors, body stripes, and a variety of alloy wheel designs. Standard equipment wasn’t plentiful, so many MINIs ended up with several options. The downside is that they may not be a subsequent buyer’s choice.
Other downsides are oil seals and gaskets that tend to dry out, coolant expansion tanks that leak, some electrical glitches, noisy cabins, and front-tire wear. If the wheels are larger than 16 inches, that means a lower-profile tire and a compromise in ride quality for a chassis that’s already tuned for more of a sporty feel. Find an R50/R53 for sale
Second-Generation R56 (2007-2013)
The R56 is the Mark 2, the reengineering of the platform. It’s 2.4 inches longer than its predecessor, and all engines continued their inevitable rise in output.
The entry-level Cooper produced 118 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque. The S changed its method of forced induction to a turbocharger to make 172 hp and 191 lb-ft. And by 2009, John Cooper Works became a distinct trim level and not just a package built on the S. To match its 208 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque, the JCW’s brakes were also beefed up. And it was the end of the road for the CVT option. A 6-speed automatic transmission became available in the basic 2009 Cooper.
Muscle went up another level in 2011, when the Cooper grew to 121 hp and 114 lb-ft, while the Cooper S enjoyed 181 hp and 177 lb-ft. And the whole range received a better layout for the once awkwardly placed stereo controls.
Third-Generation F56/F55 (2014-Present)
The third-generation R56 MINI was introduced for the 2014 model year. It was an evolutionary design that kept the same basic MINI DNA as its predecessors but was a bit bigger than the R56. This resulted in a slightly roomier interior, adding a bit to its practicality. The engine options were a standard turbocharged inline-three or a turbo four-cylinder in the higher-performance S and JCW models.
A four-door version of the MINI Cooper (F55) was introduced for the 2015 model year. Previously, if you wanted a four-door MINI, you had to get the bigger MINI Countryman crossover, which is a different animal than the more traditional MINI Hatch. Some purists aren’t happy about the existence of the four-door MINI Cooper, but it’s a practical option if you like the look and character of the MINI, but also like the idea of a more practical four-door body with more space. Find an F56/F55 for sale
Which Used MINI Cooper is Right for Me?
Spend as much as possible, which is not to say that we want you to buy an overpriced car, but do stretch your budget to get the most recent and well-maintained model.
The British factory saw an improvement in build quality from 2004 onward. Resale values have held up well, which is not that useful for a buyer, but this at least shows that the MINI has stood the test of time.
For most shoppers, the most modern F56/F55 generation of the MINI is the right buy. It’s aged enough that it’s not hard to find one under the $20,000 mark in good shape with reasonable mileage. From there, it’s up to you whether you want 2 doors or 4, automatic or manual, and which of the fun paint options is suits your tastes.
MINI has a certified pre-owned program, called MINI Next, for cars that are under 5 years old and have fewer than 60,000 miles on the odometer. Its 2-year/50,000-mile guarantee with roadside assistance brings a little extra reassurance. Find a used MINI Cooper for sale