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.