Sure, big cars are getting cheaper. That always happens when gas prices go up. The MINI, on the other hand, ranks as one of the most depreciation-resistant, recession-proof sets of wheels on the planet. So mint examples hold their value, but here's the good news for prospective buyers: a MINI can still be a bargain. Not just because it's less thirsty than, oh, almost everything the same weight or bigger. But also the fun-per-fin factor is nearly off the scale.
Mini Cooper S
For right-foot action without the carbon footprint, there isn't much that can hold a candle to the Cooper S. It's one of the finest front-drivers known to man. The 2002-on first generation model, code-named R53, sports a spanking little supercharger bolted to a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine for a zesty 163 hp (168 hp for 2005 and '06 models). The ideal model would be a six-speed manual transmission version in hatchback form. Convertibles are all well and good, but not the driver's choice.
What Makes It Great
Before addressing the many MINI qualities, it would be wise for interested parties to seriously consider how big their next automotive purchase really needs to be. And don't argue against the MINI in terms of safety. The car gets four stars in National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) crash tests. If it's primarily going to take one or two people who don't need to lug furniture wherever they go, the MINI will probably work. And how many other compacts have this kind of style to go with this kind of chassis? Good luck finding something similar from Japan. Like the Mini of old, this new version also has the ability to transcend class and/or social standing. It can easily be the conveyance of choice for the latest hip-and-happening starlet or the couple who just sent their youngest to college.
What To Look For
"Made in Britain" doesn't have quite the same reassuring ring as some other countries and early models suffered from patchy build quality. Most of those issues, however, have probably been addressed by previous owners and BMW service technicians. But just to be on the safe side, inspect door sills for rust and be extra vigilant when checking for leaking coolant tanks. The 2005 model year not only saw more power but also shorter gearing and the option of a limited-slip differential: great for track day freaks. As a general rule, the younger the car, the better it should be. And keep the usual things like service history in mind.
What We Found
Craigslist had a suh-weet light metallic blue (with a white roof) 2002 Cooper S in Santa Barbara, Calif., with 74,000 miles and a sticker price of $14,900. Plus a red '05 model for $14,295 and 87,000 miles on the clock. Auto Trader came up with a 2005 version, 17k miles for $18,995, along with about four pages of similar search results. So the cars are out there and ready to be snapped up.
A supercharger upgrade is the most obvious first step, then an ECU re-flash and exhilaration is just a mountain road away. The chassis can cope with extra power quite easily. MINI-Madness is a company that offers performance packages going from 195 to 265 hp, with prices starting at $1,699. Or those with more cash to flash might like to check out Dinan or AC Schnitzer. One thing to bear in mind if/when a suspension tweak is desired: Having a supercharger under the hood means that the battery was re-located to the trunk, where lesser MINIs keep their spare wheels. The S deploys run-flat tires, a product not known for smooth ride quality. Making the car stiffer could exacerbate this aspect.
For The Money
Twenty grand could easily snag a great MINI plus some minor mods for an extra helping of fun. Or the same amount could buy a turn-of-the-millennium Corvette, a 2008 BMW 328i sedan, or (and this is tempting) a 1998 Z3 M Roadster. Hey, even a 911 of some description could be had for $20k. But the thing about MINI is its charm and easy accessibility to driving thrills. And maintenance costs would be a darn sight cheaper than a 911.