In 1959, a groundbreaking new, boxy subcompact coupe called the Mini emerged in England, using a transverse-mounted engine and a space-efficient front-wheel-drive layout. Within its tiny footprint it provided a surprising amount of usable space for people and packages. Because it was affordable, stylish, fun to drive and easy to park anywhere, the Mini and sportier Mini Cooper quickly achieved icon status around the world — including the U.S., where it became a counterculture favorite during the 1960s.
After a lengthy break, the Mini Cooper returned to the U.S. in 2002 under BMW's direction to resurrect the legend. Through the course of three generations, new Minis have provided a uniquely sporting blend of classic British heritage and charm with precise German engineering and construction. During its production run, the new Mini lineup has included two-door and four-door hatchbacks as well as a convertible model. Shopping for a used Mini, you will find that many previous owners have customized their cars with a variety of factory and aftermarket accessories, but no matter how it's equipped, a Mini Cooper is one of the most satisfying and fun subcompacts for the price.
Note that because of a recent name change, the latest information about the Mini Cooper can be found on Edmunds' Mini Hardtop, Mini Hardtop 4 Door and Mini Convertible pages. This review covers the Cooper prior to 2017.
Used Mini Cooper Models
The third-generation, fully redesigned, Mini Cooper hatchback debuted for the 2014 model year, with the convertible following for 2016. These models were slightly larger and roomier than their predecessors and also featured new engines. Stylish and fun to drive, this BMW-built runabout may carry a slightly higher price tag than many of its rivals, but the Mini adds a lot of value with its energizing driving experience and premium character. The Mini of this generation was produced as a two- or four-door hatchback and a convertible. All body styles were available in base Cooper and the sportier Cooper S versions, while the high-performance John Cooper Works (JCW) trim was reserved for the two-door hatch.
Both two- and four-door Cooper models of this generation came standard with such items as alloy wheels, automatic headlights, heated mirrors, full power accessories, automatic climate control, and a host of technology features. Standard equipment for the Cooper S included a more powerful engine and a number of sport-oriented trim and performance enhancements, while the John Cooper Works variant added upgrades such as Brembo front brakes, a sport-tuned suspension, LED headlights, special seats and an even more potent engine. Standard features for the convertible were generally the same as the hatchback.
The base engine was a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder that develops 134 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. The Cooper S had a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produced 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, and the John Cooper Works model upped the output of the turbocharged 2.0-liter to 228 hp and 236 lb-ft. All models were available with either a standard six-speed manual transmission or an optional six-speed automatic gearbox.
In reviews, we found this Mini Cooper generation to have excellent handling characteristics. Its light weight, low center of gravity and favorable power-to-weight ratio make it fun to drive, even with the base engine. But, as might be expected, the trade-off for exhilarating driving dynamics is a ride that might be too firm for some prospective owners. The JCW model, with its sport-tuned suspension, can be particularly harsh on bumpy road surfaces, so buyers might want to look for one with the optional adaptive dampers, which smooth out the ride considerably.
The Mini Cooper hatchback's second generation spanned the 2007-'13 model years, with the convertible joining the lineup in 2009. This generation's hatchback and convertible were available as a base Cooper, turbocharged Cooper S and, starting for 2009, the high-output turbocharged John Cooper Works version. Though scarcely looking different from the first-generation model, the Mini Cooper's mechanicals were updated, and many shortcomings were addressed. Notably, the ride was improved, build quality strengthened, cabin noise quelled, the steering effort at low speeds was lightened, and all-new engines boasted more refinement and much better fuel economy. Originally, the Cooper came with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that produced 118 hp. The Cooper S featured a turbocharged version of the same engine that put out 172 hp. JCW versions were rated at 208 hp. For 2011, the base Cooper's output rose to 121 hp and the turbocharged S to 181 hp. A six-speed manual transmission was standard and a six-speed automatic was available (except on the JCW until 2013).
In reviews, we praised this Mini's spirited handling, thrifty fuel economy and excellent all-around performance, especially in the Cooper S and JCW versions. Even the base Cooper, though, was still fun to drive. Downsides included a stiff and noisy ride, the car's very small backseat and illogical control layouts. The optional navigation system in particular wasn't especially user-friendly and hampered audio control.
There were other changes throughout this generation that shoppers of used Minis should be aware of. For example, Bluetooth connectivity wasn't made standard across the line until 2013 but was optional from 2008 on. Before 2010, cruise control and a multifunction steering wheel were optional. And for 2007 and '08, stability control was an option. You might see the names Mini Camden or Mini Mayfair in a used ad. These were a pair of special editions for 2010 that packaged some popular options with unique trim pieces, colors and a kitschy "Mission Control" system that featured a cast of in-car voices that responded to certain vehicle functions.
The first generation of modern Mini Cooper hatchbacks were produced from 2002 to 2006. If you're looking for a Cooper Convertible from this era, they were sold from 2005 to '08, while a 207-hp John Cooper Works edition arrived for 2005. The standard Cooper of this generation produced just 115 hp and wasn't very refined, so we wouldn't recommend it for most buyers. The Cooper S models were then supercharged (compared to today's turbocharged cars) and we'd recommend these since they weighed in with a more forceful 163 ponies (or 168 for '05 on). The Cooper came standard with a five-speed manual transmission, but an optional continuously variable automatic did the car no favors. The Cooper S came standard with a six-speed manual, and starting in '05, a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters was optional.
In reviews, we experienced lively handling from both models, but the suspension setup of the Cooper S was definitely tailored for enthusiasts. It's even stiffer than that of the newer models and may be too harsh for some buyers. For that reason, we would avoid those cars with wheels bigger than 16 inches. This Cooper also had much stiffer steering at slower speeds, but many have found it far more communicative and indicative of a go-kart than the more recent electric power steering.
Inside, this Cooper's various controls were much simpler and easier to use, but the cabin wasn't screwed together well — almost every car suffers from frequent squeaks and rattles. While taller drivers will find plenty of legroom, there was no telescoping steering wheel available. The seats were also less comfortable.
Detail improvements and color changes carried the Mini Cooper through its first few years, so even early examples look up-to-date and can make particularly fine used-car values. To keep things fresh and perky in 2005, Mini updated the Cooper's front and rear fascias, though it wasn't so significant that many should notice or care. More important to note are the features that were added for '04, including a more comfortable three-spoke steering wheel (versus the more classic two-spoke) and a digital speedometer mounted in the tachometer.