Driving Impressions and Tech Talk

The new MINI Cooper
A Shot of Adrenaline From the BMW Corporation
David Cipolloni and Charles Leonard
July 9, 2002

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MINi Cooper

POW…..the new MINI Cooper hits the photoreceptors linked to the right side of the human brain like a locomotive. Can this tiny car be for real? Who would want to drive around in such a small car, being dwarfed by the behemoths found on the road today? This car makes the VW Beetle look big by comparison.

When we had our first glimpse of the new MINI Cooper we thought it was another stab at the retro market, like the VW New Beetle and Chrysler PT Cruiser. The new MINI Cooper, while retro, does not rank with some of the other retro styling exercises coming from just about every major car manufacturer. Take the new Ford Thunderbird for example, this car shares its platform with the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S Type. The New Beetle is pretty much a VW Golf and Audi TT underneath. The PT Cruiser's underpinnings are very much like the Dodge Neon. The new MINI Cooper from BMW is what you can refer to as a purebred, its gene pool is not diluted by transfusions from the BMW line of automobiles.


Engine bay is packed solid

We might expect to find some major drivetrain, suspension, steering or other systems to be transplanted from vehicles within the family of BMW automobiles. This is not the case, and with the exception of some rear suspension geometry shared with the 3 Series, the new MINI is a new strain of automotive DNA. This, of course, can sometimes be a bad thing as new models tend to have some teething pains, and the new MINI Cooper is not without them. Problems in the early production cars are things such as cracking windshields, shift cable problems, pulling to the left, and temperamental seat mechanisms. The good news is that BMW has already corrected these problems and folks buying the cars now should not experience these inconveniences. We have driven nine of the new MINI's and experienced the left pull problem in only the two early production cars. After logging thousands of miles in the MINI's we feel confident this is a well-engineered automobile, even considering the fact it's a completely new car.



With the help of new computer aided design (CAD) software and computer aided manufacturing (CAM) capabilities, car companies can work through many of the design flaws that once made their way to the assembly line and dealer showrooms. Assemblies can be animated, parts can be stress tested and the engineering teams can be confident their contribution to the automobile will not come back to haunt them. Remember the days when folks painted lemons on their cars, or would hang them from a crane and threaten to drop them? Fortunately that level of frustration has been engineered out of the ownership experience for most new cars and trucks.



Let's Take a Look
There are two trim levels in the MINI line, the Cooper and Cooper S. The Cooper is available with the constantly variable transmission (CVT) or the 5 speed manual. The Cooper S is available only with the Getrag 6 speed manual gearbox. Both the Cooper and Cooper S utilize a 1.6 liter overhead camshaft, inline four cylinder engine incorporating a cast iron block and aluminum cylinder head. The Cooper S utilizes a supercharger to boost horsepower from 115 (Cooper) to 163 bhp (Cooper S).


Front lights

Most folks agree the exterior styling appears retro and modern, taking nothing away from the original design, yet representing all the advances of modern technology. We did not encounter anyone that felt the car was not pleasing to the eye, and we would have to agree. Even Juan Montoya has ordered the Cooper S, and will be sending it back to the UK for a little fine-tuning by the folks at John Cooper Works www.johncooperworks.com to the tune of a rumored 240 horsepower.

The styling cues on the outside carry over to the inside. The centrally located speedometer appears comically large and consumes a large area in the center of the dashboard. The tachometer is mounted on a pod atop the steering column. The overall fit and finish are excellent both inside and outside the car. Maybe not the quality of a new BMW or Audi, but darn good for a car with a starting price under $17,000. The doors close with the solid thump found in the more expensive German automobiles. The base seats are leatherette and have a peculiar texture to them.

The quality material feels almost rubbery and holds onto you like a wet inner tube used at the local swimming hole. This prevents your clothing from slipping about when cornering. The lack of good bolstering on the base seats will allow you to move around a little more than you might like. Imagine your clothing stuck in place while you slide around in the seat, now that's a weird sensation for you. The seats do offer excellent lower lumbar support and posses enough manual adjustment to satisfy most drivers. We highly recommend the sport seats, as they provide the same level of comfort with the added bolstering necessary to hold you in place during hard cornering, something the Cooper excels at.

The HVAC controls are located under the standard radio/CD player with a row of toggle switches mounted below them. The toggles work the power windows, door locks, fog lights, stability control, etc. They look nice and have a good quality feel, but we prefer to have the window and door lock controls mounted on the door. The interior of a base Mini is very good, the premium package and sport seats make it even better. Now to the cup holders, a minor thing I know, but one that can make you scratch your head on a car otherwise well thought out. Lets not call them cup holders, in this way we can find other uses for them and not become obsessed with their inability to hold a cup. Actually you will do fine by sticking with a 12 ounce coffee cup, but only with a flat lid. VW had the same problem with the New Beetle during the first few years of production.

The rear seats in the MINI look like they could be comfortable, if you could work your way into them. With minimal legroom for rear seat passengers we would not recommend this car to take the place of the family sedan. There is ample room upfront for most drivers, and many would consider the accommodations spacious, a reflection back to the original Mini. Visibility from the cockpit is excellent with the exception of a glance over your left shoulder. The B pillar can momentarily block the view of a vehicle on your left quarter, but this is a very minor thing most folks would probably never notice.

Let's go "Motoring"………

Rear view

I know how Pavlov's dog felt when the bell sounded. If you buy a MINI you will need to tape a reminder to your dashboard that reads: the street is not a go-kart track. Go ahead, try to drive through traffic and not perceive the other cars as go-karts that need to be overtaken. This could develop into a sickness, a new medical condition requiring the most advanced forms of treatment. The little naturally aspirated 1.6 liter engine doesn't make much power until the tachometer needle swings past the 3500 mark, but then a little kick will send you scooting along up to 6000 at a good rate.

The supercharged version is another story and is definitely the choice for anyone interested in spirited driving or track use. You scoot along in the Cooper, snatching gears and working the steering. The shifts come easily thanks to the dual cone synchronizers in the transmission that allow for easy shifting at all engine speeds. The steering is tight, direct and responsive. Don't worry about how fast you are going at this point, it's well beyond anything that could be considered legal. The car is smooth and stable, you can easily run into triple digits before the sirens of the patrol car in the distance splash a little cold reality in your face. There should be an exemption for the little Cooper, the officer should say, "Oh, it's a Cooper, well, carry on then".

Every now and then a car will come along that seems at harmony with itself and the road, the little Cooper may be one of those cars. It's a combination of steering, power, gearing, handling and good ergonomics, get it right and the world can be a wonderful place. Normally we would look closely at the torque/horsepower figures and compare them to other cars within the class, doing that here the Cooper does not shine. The old saying that a great car is more than the sum of its parts certainly goes a long way here. If we wanted horsepower and raw acceleration we would all be driving Camaro's.

The Cooper S is by far the choice for anyone interested in a Cooper for its performance characteristics. The Cooper is a fun little car to drive, but the naturally aspirated engine may leave horsepower addicts with a case of withdrawal. The added supercharger and sport suspension of the S turn the little Cooper S into a serious high performance machine. Not many of the elite supercars can match the slalom speed of the MINI Cooper. Straight-line performance is not the only indicator of a great high performance road machine, cars must be stable and comfortable at speed, they must be predictable, and they must feel like an extension of the human body and mind.

Does the new MINI Cooper S provide these experiences? Yes, and at $20,000 we expect folks will be tripping over each other to get a crack at ownership. We have kept our Chili Red S for long-term ownership experience and will report back on how the car fares once we put a few more hard earned miles on it. The downside to the MINI is a fairly firm ride, the lack of rear seat and trunk space, and keeping the enthusiasts fingerprints off of the doors and windows.

Who would want to drive around in such a small car, being dwarfed by the oversize behemoths roaming our roadways? We can't speak for everyone, but you can count us in. BMW refers to the Cooper S as the bulldog, drive it awhile, you will too.

Some Spec's
The MINI Cooper is 142.8 inches long, 66.5 inches wide, 55.4 inches tall on a 97.1-inch wheelbase, weighing 2,524 pounds. Turning-circle diameter is 35 feet. Cargo space is listed as 5.3 cubic feet behind rear seats, 25 cubic feet when rear seats are folded. Rated to carry 948 pounds of people and cargo, and to tow a 1,102-pound trailer without brakes, 1,430-pound trailer with brakes.

Cooper S Specifications


Weight, Pounds


Weight Distribution, front/rear



1.6 Liter, Inline 4 Cylinder

Bore/Stroke, Inches


Horsepower / RPM

163 / 6000

Torque, lb-ft / RPM

155 / 4000

Power to Weight Ratio

1 HP:16.4 lbs.

Compression Ratio


Fuel Mileage City/Hwy

24 / 33


6 Speed Getrag

Final Drive Ratio


Drag Coefficient


Top Speed

136 MPH

0 - 60 MPH

6.9 Seconds

Suspension Front

Macpherson Strut

Suspension Rear

Multi-Link Independent

Tire Size

195/55 R-16 (standard)


205/45 R-17 (optional)

Wheel Size

15" X 5.5" (standard)


16" X 6.5" (optional)

Brake Dimensions, Front


Brake Dimensions, Rear


Braking System

ABS / CBC / EBD (standard)

Comments can be sent to the author at feedback@autoracing1.com.



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