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Published: 05/14/2002 - by Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
A special thanks goes out to the folks at the Beverly Hills Car Collection for allowing us seat time in this 2002 Mini Cooper. If you would like to test drive this car, go to their Web site or give them a call at 800/795-3551.
You have to have a certain personality to drive a Mini Cooper. Either that or you're forced into one. One simply cannot maintain a dour disposition when there's a bunch of people smiling and waving at you, as if you've stumbled onto some Stepford world. "It's adorable!" "Do you like it?" Here I am, an introverted, sour-faced spinster, and suddenly I've turned into one of those people who describes attire as "fun," as in "Check out these new khaki capris I bought from Banana Republic! Aren't they fun?" During the five days that we had the vehicle, we were veritable celebrities in the normally car-jaded Los Angeles, fielding questions and comments. At one point, we were stalked by paparazzi in the form of a cameraman who tailed us down Sunset Boulevard for a closer shot of the Mini on a fine Sunday afternoon.
Its appeal was democratic; its cuteness transcends class boundaries. Our Cooper, with its unorthodox shape and size, fiery Chili Red wrapping and a huge Union Jack plastered on the white roof did not escape anyone's notice. Snooty-looking execs in large Benzes were just as interested as the kitchen staff of a humble restaurant I frequent, each of whom filed outside one by one to gawk at the car. Our rapt audience had either never seen such a vehicle or it had elicited fond memories of Minis past.
In 1959, Sir Alec Issigonis designed a vehicle that combined minimal exterior dimensions with a surprising amount of interior space, thanks to a transverse-mounted engine and a boxy shape. Mini's 43-year history may be biblical, but it boils down to a car that was affordable, compact, stylish and fun to drive. Sales in the United States may have been limited to the years between 1960 and 1967, but those who have some connection to Europe always seem to harbor some tender recollection of the British icon. Then, as now, Mini had a wide appeal and reached a diverse audience, its style lending itself to artistic interpretations by pop stars, while its price allowed it access to the less illustrious masses.
In 1994, BMW acquired the Rover Group, which included the Land Rover, Rover, MG and Mini brands. BMW wanted entry into the lucrative high-end sport-utility market and sought Land Rover as a foothold, but the acquisition proved to be ill-fated. The company unloaded Land Rover to Ford in 2000, but kept Mini around so it could extend its reach into all segments of the marketplace, including that of the economy subcompact hatchback. BMW's goal was to retain the Mini's basic philosophies while raising the engineering bar to Bavarian standards.
Enter the 2002 Mini Cooper. It merges British heritage and façade with German innards (much like the Windsor royals) in the form of technology and construction. Touted as the Next Big Thing, Mini's clever marketing campaign seems to have reached ubiquity.
Powering the Mini is a 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine making 115 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque. No, this isn't some fire breather; rather, it's a quiet, refined powerplant providing smooth, efficient delivery with no obvious deficiencies in the rev band. Its spritely actuation belies its meager numbers, as it was able to move the Cooper from a standstill to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds, while crossing the quarter-mile line in 16.8 seconds at 81.3 mph. These numbers are comparable to cars with four-cylinder engines that make 20 more horses. Curiously, this engine requires premium fuel; however, its EPA-estimated mileage is an impressive 28/37 for city/highway driving. The short, precise throws of the five-speed manual gearbox were universally praised, but on our test model, what we surmised to be a busted second-gear synchro caused a graunching noise in all but the slowest of shifts. Quite disconcerting, given the fact that the car had 62 miles on the odometer when we received it.
While power isn't lacking when zooming around town, it can be while traversing an incline or with another full-size adult on board. Since the Cooper weighs in at a welterweight 2,315 pounds, increasing its load by 200 pounds greatly affects its weight-to-power ratio and alters its driving characteristics. During the ascent of one of our favorite canyon roads, our editors noted its belabored power delivery and a tendency for the structure to plough through turns, a distinction not noted with just the driver onboard.
Go on a solitary excursion and you'll be rewarded with a ride provided by BMW engineers, those wizards and warlocks who have fine-tuned the compromise between ride and handling to the greatest advantage. Get it out onto a tangled road (a downhill one, if you can manage), and you can feel the Mini cracking its knuckles for a workout. With its quick, linear, communicative steering, a stiff chassis and a MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension that all but eliminates body roll, the Mini left a satisfied grin on our faces that's usually reserved for fast sports cars and a bucket of hot wings.
Excellent stability provided by a compact, stout structure, short 97.1-inch wheelbase and a cube-like construction with wheels pushed as far out to the corners as they can go allowed the Mini to thread through the 600-foot slalom at 67.4 mph, a number comparable to performance-oriented vehicles like the Lexus IS 300. While nose-heavy front-wheel-drive cars usually don't encourage cretinous behavior on a serpentine road, the Mini (with its 63/37 front/rear weight distribution) allowed us to touch base with our inner simian selves. Besides, the excellent brakes and limited thrust kept us in check.
Steering was very close to what a 3 Series would provide; the speed-sensitive system dialed in the correct amount of feel, hefting up to a nice weight at freeway speeds and lightening during low-speed maneuvers. The tiny turning circle of 34.9 feet, coupled with the Mini's Lilliputian exterior dimensions, allowed us to chortle as we pirouetted into miniscule parking spots. We wonder why anyone would opt for the Park Distance Control option.
A word about the brakes: Pedal feel was first-rate and stopping power outstanding. It doesn't take much to stop such a light vehicle, but the front-vented four-wheel discs allowed the Mini to come to a halt from 60 mph in a mere 112.1 feet. The brakes are augmented with ABS, corner brake control and electronic brake force distribution that evens out brake pressure when turning or when the car is loaded with cargo. A stability control system is optional, and the Mini comes standard with a flat tire monitor that alerts you in case of uneven tire pressure via a signal on the speedometer. Should an impact be unavoidable, the seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags will hopefully keep injuries to a minimum, and a crash sensor will automatically turn on the hazard lights, interior lights and unlock the doors. We found the inclusion of these numerous safety features to be most impressive, as some luxury vehicle manufacturers are still scrambling to add them on to their cars.
Our tester was equipped with the optional 16-inch wheels shod with performance tires (Dunlop SP Sport 3000 195/55R16 87H). These run-flats will allow you to drive for 80 miles at speeds of up to 50 mph even after a puncture, affording peace of mind. Run-flats with their stiff sidewalls will usually diminish ride quality, but we didn't find this to be the case with our test vehicle; the Cooper passed gamely over small bumps in the road without being unduly punishing, and the rubbers maintained their composure and grip during sharp cornering.
Further heightening the enjoyment of the ride is the endearing appearance of the Mini. Indeed, it tickles the cockles of your heart, with its short snout and disproportionately large eyes, much like a newborn puppy, kitten or John Stamos. There's more of an edge to it than the treacly sweet Volkswagen New Beetle, with the chrome accents adding a sarcastic emphasis. The stylistic themes continue in the interior, the quality of which has very little competition in this price range. While opinions were divided about the silvery plastic trim on the dash and door panels, there was little dissention that overall the cockpit looked cool, with tube-like structures providing an armrest on the door. A circular leitmotif extends throughout the cabin, most notably in the Frisbee-sized speedometer placed on the center of the dash and the tachometer on top of the steering column; it only took a little while to get used to their unusual locations.
The stereo could use spiffing up in the ergonomics department; the buttons are tiny and difficult to decipher. At least they were familiar; they're straight out of the 3 Series parts bin. Our stereo guy gave the sound quality, even without the Harman-Kardon upgrade, excellent marks. Below the stereo is an easy-to-use three-dial ventilation system, and underneath that are one-touch toggle switches for the frameless windows, foglamps and door locks, all protected by aircraft-style hoops so that there's no danger of one impaling you. Thoughtful touches such as an air conditioned glovebox and a service interval indicator come standard, while goodies like navigation system, automatic climate control and xenon headlamps will cost you more.
Much like the leatherette found in BMWs, the material covering the seats felt pleasant and supple. In fact, some of us prefer it to real cowhide. The headliner feels secure and upscale, and most of the controls had the confident, expensive feel of those found in BMWs. We weren't crazy about some of the hard plastics on the A-pillar and around the backseat, however.
Our editors were split on front seat comfort. While some were able to find a decent driving position, others were adamant that this was one of the more uncomfortable seats their backsides had ever graced. There is no standard lumbar adjustment knob to fix the prominent bulge intruding on your lower back (one is available as an option). The bottom cushion, which is height-adjustable but doesn't tilt, is too flat and needs more lateral support, and the footwell was a bit too snug. We liked the optional seat-heating feature, though. Storage space is laughable, with no center console and a cold but tiny glovebox. The door bins are good-sized, and there's a small bin underneath the center stack. There are two small cupholders up front and a rather large one behind the emergency brake.
Accessing the rear seat is a bit of a hassle with a fussy two-step recliner lever and front seats that neither flip forward nor go back to their original position. At least the doors are large and open to a wide 80 degrees. Once inside, we found that the rear seat for two isn't the torture chamber that it would seem to be; there's plenty of headroom, your head doesn't touch the rear hatch glass even if you lean back, and both headrests are height adjustable. Toe room is plentiful and knee space, while predictably tight at 31.3 inches, is somewhat helped by scooped-out front seatbacks. It should be noted, however, that if the driver is tall and likes the seat pushed rearward all the way, you can forget about putting anyone older than 10 back there. Small but useful bins flank the sides. Of course, it's no suite at the Hyatt either; all the surfaces are hard, with a minimum of cushioning for the seat, and the seat is mounted low so that your knees splay out. If rear seat comfort is important to you, you should look at other hatchbacks such as the Volkswagen Golf that have much more commodious backseats.
Cargo capacity with the rear seats up is a rather paltry 5.6 cubic feet, while folding the 50/50 split rear seat will access 23.5 cubic feet. This is not the car to get if you want a hatchback for its utility; for instance, the Ford Focus will provide 18.6 cubic feet of space with the rear seats up, 42.5 cubic feet with them down. The load floor isn't exactly flat but there's a 12-volt outlet. The pretty Mini badge doubles as a release handle and even tallish people can walk under the hatch door once opened for easier cargo loading.
In the Mini, BMW has infused new life into an iconic vehicle, much like Volkswagen did five years ago with the New Beetle. The Cooper provides a refined, groovy ride that reminds you more of upscale vehicles than a subcompact economy hatchback, as its price would suggest. It comes with a 3-year/36,000-mile full maintenance program (regularly scheduled checkups are performed gratis) and many standard features and options that usually come with premium brand cars.
The Mini's no great performance vehicle; the similarly priced Ford Focus SVT was most often cited as a contender, and certainly, given the choice between the two, driving enthusiasts like most of our editors will prefer the 170-horsepower wildcat for pure driving satisfaction. Nor is the Cooper very useful in terms of passenger and cargo space.
What the Mini does provide is what made it so popular in the first place: an accessible price, miniature dimensions that are most convenient in a densely packed metropolis and fun in both style and handling. Furthermore, the Mini Cooper is enhanced not only by its heritage but also with 21st century technology to back up its looks. The Mini is one of the few cars that has the ability to evoke a passionate response from everyone who lays eyes on it. Debate rages on as to whether its appeal will be enduring or fleeting, but like many things in life, only time will tell. For now we'll just scratch it underneath its chin and let it purr contentedly on our laps.
System Score: 9.0
Components: The first of these tiny cars to roll off dealer lots won't have the optional Harman-Kardon audio system, but like our test car, they will all be packing plenty of sound. (The upgrade will become available in Fall 2002 for $550. It includes eight speakers and the ability to perform sonic acrobatics through digital processing, but enough about the as-yet-unobtainable.) The standard stereo system comes with a single-CD player (or a tape deck for no charge), a tweeter mounted in the top of each door, a woofer down below and large speakers near the rear armrests. The head unit has a simple and familiar layout. Six radio preset buttons are under the orange display, equalization adjustment is simple, and there are two unmarked buttons that correspond to prompts on a separate segment of the screen. Unfortunately, the volume control is a tiny stalk that makes it seem like the knob was never installed, but don't let that fool you.
Performance: A quick twist of the so-called volume knob fills the tiny cabin with loads of clean sound spread across a spacious soundstage. It's amazing that so much bass can be produced with almost no distortion and no interior rattles. The tweets in the front doors do a wonderful job of keeping up with the precise low tones. Electronic bugs in The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin crawl throughout the cockpit with no interference from the crunching bass guitar. Studio albums from the 1960s have a warm, cozy feel and no details are lost from live recordings. In recognition of the historical and financial roots of the test vehicle, The Beatles and Kraftwerk were put through the speakers at high volumes. The latter highlighted the precision of the imaging, and the driving bass that emerged from Rubber Soul is evidence that Paul is more than a pretty face. The ability to bring out the best in any album proves the stock Mini-Bimmer stereo is a segment leader.
Best Feature: Bass!
Worst Feature: Did the volume knob already fall off?
Conclusion: Big sound for every Mini, but the optional upgrade will be late to the party. Trevor Reed
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
By the time we got our Mini for this road test, I was tired of the endless hoopla surrounding this car. C'mon, I thought, it's a little box with 115 horsepower; what's the big deal other than the retro styling (which I was never crazy about in the first place)?
Ahh, but after a 50-mile blast up Pacific Coast Highway and through my favorite section of twisty canyon roads, I found myself an eager passenger on the Mini bandwagon. With only 2,315 pounds to pull around, those (seemingly stronger than normal) 115 horses are enough to make for peppy performance once the tach swings past 3,000 rpm. Our car, with only a few hundred miles on it, did have a glitch in its manual gearbox. If one made the 3-2 downshift even slightly aggressively it resulted in a graunching of gears.
But with the Mini, it's all about the handling. Don't let the blocky body fool you; this thing is a sports car under that unassuming form. The steering feel is fantastic; nothing is lost in the translation from the road surface to the driver's hands. The Mini is so much fun that it will have you grinning like an idiot without having to risk the loss of your license. Easily one of the most entertaining cars I've driven with a price tag under $20,000.
If there were no such thing as a Ford SVT Focus, I'd probably buy the Mini if I were in this market. But there is an SVT Focus a car that boasts equally athletic handling and 48 percent more horsepower than this Cooper. Although the base Mini stickers for about $1,000 less than the SVT, I'd gladly pay the extra grand for the seriously tweaked Focus. And with Minis actually going for considerably more than their sticker and the SVT being sold for slightly under its list, it would be a no-brainer.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
This is one of the most entertaining front-wheel-drive cars I've ever driven. The chassis is incredibly lively, and at the same time, very controlled. I knew exactly what the car was doing at all times (and reveled in that awareness), and whenever I hurled it into a turn, the body settled down almost immediately, making it easy to power out. The grip was amazing it seemed that I could do no wrong with this car. And this is as it should be, given the Cooper's widespread appeal; regardless of their skill level, owners are going to be able to have fun with this car. The highway ride wasn't ultra smooth, but still good enough to please the eager Mini driver. Overall, I thought the balance of ride and handling was ideal; I'm not sure that I'd need an S to satisfy my performance appetite. Of course, the steering is also a fine example of BMW engineering it has great weighting, quick response times and a small turning radius.
Although I loved the way the car drove, I disliked the driving position. The seats are the main problem; there is no lumbar adjustment nothing to diminish the size of the giant bolster pushing against the middle of my back. As a result, I wasn't able to position the seatback in an erect position for driving. The other issue for me was the tight footwell initially, I had trouble getting my foot off the clutch because it kept getting hung up the lower part of the dash. And the well just wasn't wide enough to allow me to rest my left foot comfortably on the dead pedal. Otherwise, I liked the interior most of the materials looked and felt high-quality, and for once, a manufacturer has pushed the circle motif far enough so that none of the elements have a tacked-on feel. The integrated tweeter and release handle on each door is particularly ingenious. As in BMWs, the Mini's stereo controls are tiny and hard to reach, and some of the climate control markings were difficult for me to interpret while driving.
As expected, the hatch is tiny with the rear seats in use given this limitation, the uncomfortable driving position and the attention the Cooper attracts, I would be inclined to buy an SVT Focus instead. But I wouldn't discourage anyone else from buying a Cooper in fact, I'd be happy to borrow it on weekends.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Much ado about nothing? Could be, as I came away from my test drive in the new Mini Cooper longing for what could have been and generally unimpressed with what is. When you look beyond the history and the styling and novelty of driving a pseudo-British icon that nobody else possesses around a painfully self-aware city, what you're talking about here is a three-door hatchback with a four-cylinder engine. A modern-day Chevy Chevette, if you will.
My malaise stems from the fact that the Mini's exceptionally stout coachwork is suited to support a far more competent suspension than the one provided on our test car. This is a tight vehicle, never mind the way the doors clatter shut when you slam them. And it's a small vehicle, one that looks as though it begs to be flung from corner to corner. And yet it cannot be flung, what with its awful tendency to plow through turns and its meager 115-horsepower engine barely able to increase velocity on uphill grades with two people aboard.
Couple the weak motor and floppy underpinnings with somewhat lifeless steering and a brake pedal that offers displeasing feel and actuation, and you've got a recipe for few miles of smiles. I'd love to give the Cooper S a try before deciding that if I never drive another Mini I can still die without regrets.
The interior, now that's another story. In many respects, BMW has been more successful at creating the proper retro-ambience in the Mini than Volkswagen was in the New Beetle. Our test vehicle had the standard leatherette upholstery, which doesn't breathe well, but the front seats were quite comfortable. Loved the center-mounted speedometer, which is large enough that its location there in the middle of the dashboard isn't much of an ergonomic problem. I thought the chromed rocker switches were a nice touch. And aside from the blatantly cheap plastic panels on the dash, the materials were on par with the 3 Series lineup of entry-luxury Bimmers.
Yes, the Mini is cute and generally competent. But ultimately it's more of a fashion statement than anything else. I demand more utility and purpose in a car like this, and fun to boot. Give me a Ford SVT Focus, please.
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