Toward the end of our Mini Cooper's time with us, I drove it to Indianapolis for the U.S. Grand Prix with the Lad, a.k.a. my son, Cameron. He wanted to go because Michael Schumacher is his hero, and I wanted to go because I love the cars and the noise they make and wanted to see the best drivers in the world in action. (Sorry, NASCAR fans, but they are.) We weren't expecting the Cooper S to attract much attention, because Minis have been on sale here since spring 2002. You would think the novelty would have worn off by now. Yet a short-order chef in a roadside chain restaurant asked a waitress to compliment me on my car. A pickup driver said it looked like a lot of fun. And two other Cooper drivers waved at us on the freeway the way car enthusiasts do when they spot kindred spirits. The Mini Cooper is like that. It brings a smile to the face of everyone who sees it, everyone who owns it, and everyone who drives it.
Funnily enough, the Cooper slipped beneath the radar on our first collective exposure to it, during the 2003 Automobile of the Year/All-Stars evaluation drive. I remember loving it on a twisty hill-climb that could have been a European rally stage, but most of the assembled drivers passed it over in favor of the Nissan 350Z and the Infiniti G35 sport coupe. It didn't even make the cut as Best Small Car.
That's fitting, in a way, because it isn't the best all-around small car. It doesn't ride that brilliantly, especially on the optional seventeen-inch wheels. The rear seats aren't that great for kids, let alone adults. And the trunk is a joke. Going anywhere with more than a couple of soft bags means leaving the kids behind.
What the Cooper is, though, is the most entertaining, most enjoyable small car you can buy. The enjoyment starts with the styling, which is knowingly retro, rather than being a blatant knockoff of the original Mini Cooper. Some say it's cute, but it also evokes fond memories for enthusiasts, especially those of us who have owned older Minis. Inside, it's special in a way that nothing at this price point matches. There is the slightly loopy central speedometer (a nod to the original Mini), a super-cool steering-column-mounted tachometer, interesting fabrics and architecture, and toggle switches to control such things as the power windows and the traction control system. Chromed toggles, no less.
The Mini Cooper S came well equipped at its $19,975 base price, with standard power locks and windows; air-conditioning; sixteen-inch aluminum-alloy wheels; remote entry; front, side, and head air bags; a decent stereo with in-dash CD changer; and the aforementioned traction control system. Many of our testers were impressed by the level of gear on such an affordable car. Contributor Ronald Ahrens observed: "What's really appealing is the quality of high-end features never before seen in a small car-xenon lights, auto drop-down side windows on entry and exit, electronically soft tailgate opening, and abundant buttons on the steering wheel." We did our best to ramp up the price with options, adding metallic paint, a cold-weather package that includes heated front seats and mirrors, front foglights, those xenon headlamps, and a multifunction steering wheel that incorporates cruise and audio controls. Even so, the Cooper S, resplendent in British racing green with a white roof, came in at $21,665.
The Cooper S functions very well as a two-seat coupe, especially if you extend the tiny
5.3-cubic-foot trunk by folding the rear seats down. No one had any complaints about seating comfort up front, even on long runs. For anyone traveling four up, careful packing was needed. From the logbook: "I'm thankful we fit my wife, two kids, overnight bag, food, toys, and myself for a two-hour drive across Michigan for Thanksgiving weekend. I had to move my seat up to give relief to the rear-seat passengers. I don't think I will be signing it out for Christmas. Have you seen the size of kids' toys these days?" Many of us noticed that the rear seat cushions are too long for kids in booster seats, which means they place their feet on the backs of the front seats, rather than having their legs dangle down. This can get, um, annoying. The seatback levers to access the rear compartment were less than impressive, too.
For the person behind the steering wheel, however, all was sweetness and light. The supercharged 1.6-liter four-banger provides plenty of mid-range torque and makes a sweet sound that reminded me of the gear whine in an original '60s Mini Cooper. The standard six-speed manual transmission is slick and a joy to use, and the Cooper's handling is worth the entry price alone. The steering is beautifully weighted, and the car has exquisite front-wheel-drive manners, apart from a tendency to spin its wheels furiously if you choose to disable the traction control system. Creative director Richard Eccleston said: "This is the closest anything has come to the thrills of driving my old Mini Cooper (the real one!). The throttle response is instant, and the steering is very direct." Any gripes were directed against the tires, which online editor Mike Dushane and road test coordinator Jason Bradley didn't think were good enough. The Dunlop SP Sport 5000s weren't as grippy as Dushane likes, but they relinquish grip very progressively. We kept the car on its standard sixteen-inch wheel-tire combo in deference to Snow Belt roads, although one or two drivers still felt the car was very stiff-legged.
About three-quarters of the way through its year with us, we sent the car back to Mini Cooper central in New Jersey for fitment of a John Cooper Works kit. To the uninitiated, this is essentially a power upgrade, taking the Cooper's 163 hp up to 197, thanks to a different cylinder head, a new supercharger with Teflon-coated vanes, and a replacement exhaust system that has sexy chromed exhaust tips. It also costs a handsome $4500 plus installation, a price more than 1600 U.S. Cooper S buyers have forked over willingly since the package went on sale last year. (Our local dealer, Motor City Mini of Shelby Township, Michigan, quoted us $1387 to fit a Works kit.)
The Works kit certainly gives the Cooper S more pep, with notably more mid- and top-end urge. Technical editor Don Sherman discovered that the 0-to-60-mph time improved from 6.7 to 6.4 seconds, and he shaved 2.3 seconds off the 0-to-100-mph time. The quarter-mile improved from 15.3 seconds at 93 mph to 14.9 seconds at 97 mph. Third-gear passing from 30 to 70 mph, which is much more important in the real world, went from 8.5 seconds to 7.9 seconds. If you really enjoy stoplight grands prix or spend time at track days or autocrossing, the Works kit makes sense, but our conclusion was that it was a nice but expensive luxury in normal use.
Over the course of its year, the Cooper S stood up pretty well and didn't cost a fortune to run. It averaged 27 mpg, and BMW includes free scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles. We inflicted $3547 worth of body damage when the Mini's front end attempted to cuddle up to a guardrail in the snow. (Several logbook comments criticized the Dunlop tires for a lack of snow grip, by the way.)
At the final service, we pointed out that there was a grinding noise just after the car was shut off, which turned out to be a collapsed crankcase ventilation hose, while a loose wire was rubbing against the fan blades. This was rectified under warranty. However, an irritating rattle from the rear hatch persisted through the last 10,000 miles with us and was never traced. Several readers also have suffered from this mysterious noise. Mini says there's a simple fix for this problem that dealers know about. The front seat fabric never recovered from an overnight soaking, the result of a staffer failing to realize that when you press and hold "unlock" on the key fob, the windows roll down. After 35,000 miles of hard use, the trim pieces were all still in place, but some of the aluminum-colored plastic had become quite badly scratched.
Overall, the Cooper S was a blast, never failed us, and was universally loved. Web intern Stuart Fowle said: "If I had $20,000, a Cooper S would be in my driveway right now. For this price, I can't think of anything that provides such a great all-around package." The Cooper S proves that you don't have to spend lots of money for access to great enthusiast motoring or BMW quality. It also proves that Americans will buy small cars-they just have to be the right ones.