Where did all those years go? The first generation of Mini Cooper (R50/R53) debuted in the United States in 2002. Yet it still seems like a newcomer. Perhaps because it has kept its freshness. For that, we have to thank designer Frank Stephenson, an American who has since gone on to work for Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and McLaren (interesting dude, Google him for more info). Subsequent generations and face-lifts have made no radical difference to the original styling, even if every panel has been changed.
Just like the classic (and much smaller) Mini, this one was made in Britain, although BMW took ownership of the brand, bringing the old marque into the 21st century, furthering the concept of the small premium car along with retro styling that was also popular at the time.
The Mini is a hatchback and came with a wide array of customization options. The center-mounted speedometer and that row of aircraft-style toggle switches below it are just two of the cool things about the interior. Contrasting roof colors and door mirrors, stripes, and some handsome alloy wheel choices help to liven the exterior even more.
At its North American debut, the Mini came as a Cooper (R50) with 115 hp and 110 lb-ft of torque, and a Cooper S (R53) making 163 hp with 155 lb-ft. Both used a 1.6L four-cylinder engine. The Cooper S uses a supercharger for that extra output; this is the model with the airscoop in its hood.
Squeezing forced induction hardware into a constricted engine bay, however, meant relocating the battery to the trunk and evicting the spare wheel completely. So this model uses run-flat tires and keeps an aerosol can of gloop in the trunk that's probably out of date by now.
The Cooper name comes from John Cooper, a Brit who was renowned for preparing tuned versions of the old Mini. Which also goes to explain the John Cooper Works packages available for the S models from 2003, starting with 203 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque.
Levels of standard equipment in the Cooper and S are not that generous, so chances are the first buyer spent quite a bit on the many options available. The trouble with that scenario is that they might not be the choices of subsequent owners. Standard electronic driver aids include traction control, stability control, and BMW's Cornering Brake Control. The Cooper comes with a five-speed manual transmission, the S with a six-speeder. A CVT was optional.
These cars are not considered too expensive to run or tricky to maintain as long as everyone stays away from the Steptronic CVT auto versions. This transmission has been dogged by failures and was the subject of a successful class action, leading to compensation payouts and an extension of the warranty. But anyway, a Mini with a manual trans is so much more fun.
The company says: "Most U.S.-spec Minis have dedicated tuning based on model and body style. This is because American roads vary greatly compared to other nations." Coopers have the kindest suspension tunes. Earlier models with wheels larger than 16 inches will probably provide a ride that's too uncomfortable for most people.
The range was face-lifted for the '05 model year. The Cooper S received a new ECU, exhaust, and shorter gearing, while a limited-slip differential joined the options list. A conventional (planetary geared) Aisin six-speed automatic transmission was also offered. Interiors were upgraded with better-quality materials and the dash was simplified. However, tech changes meant saying goodbye to the popular two-spoke steering wheel and getting on board with the three-spoke version. That same year saw the introduction of the Mini Convertible in both Cooper and Cooper S trims, but let's keep it serious.
The '05 Cooper had its five-speed manual trans supplied by Getrag. The Cooper S was boosted to 168 hp and 162 lb-ft, while the JCW package now came with 210 hp and 177 lb-ft. There's also one more model to mention.
Only 415 examples of the '06 John Cooper Works GP were allocated for the United States. This has 215 hp, 184 lb-ft, bigger brakes, new exhaust system, revised engine management, and an even stiffer (and lower) suspension. It also ditched the rear seats. These are rare and, should you find one for sale, pricey. Great if you have $20,000 or so. If not, read on.
Early models had their teething problems. Many 2002 examples didn't have the plastic protection pieces that stopped the engine from rubbing against the inside of the hood, leaving it vulnerable to rust. Then there are drying oil seals and gaskets, leaking coolant expansion tanks, ECU glitches, overheating of the electric power steering system, rattling dashboards, dodgy fuel gauges, iffy central locking, and noisy cabins. The whole generation has an issue with water building up in the rocker panels, but most cars have had that fixed under warranty.
There will probably be front tire wear, unless the seller has recently sprung for new rubber. Check them out, and perhaps they can help bring down the price. On the test drive, if the car is pulling to one side, the front strut towers may have been pushed out of alignment. And listen for noises from the rear suspension. Watch out, too, for failed engine mounts in early '05 models, plus clutch and flywheel troubles.
Recalls came in 2002 for a problem with the shift cable in the manual transmissions. In 2003, there could have been incorrect tire pressure information. And in 2004, there was the possibility of incorrect programming of the tire pressure monitoring system.
Ultimately, the Mini is worth the bother. Coming from BMW, there's some of that special enthusiast DNA, despite being a front-driver. The front suspension is McPherson struts and the rear includes a multi-link Z-axle arrangement, as found in the BMW Z3 and E36 3 Series. The Mini is one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars ever.
Buy as new as finances allow. Build quality improved in 2004 when the factory really got into its stride. The sweet spot would be an '05 or '06 Cooper S manual with the LSD. Minis have enjoyed exceptional resale values. Good for the seller, not so much for the buyer. An '02 Cooper in good condition bought from a private sale is valued at $3,198. Looking through the classifieds unearthed a decent '05 S with leather and sunroof going for $6,300. A budget of $7,000 should snag a great car.