2003 MINI Cooper
MSRP
$16,425
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2003 MINI Cooper Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

Adorable and affordable, quick and comfortable.

Introduction

The new Mini Cooper is more fun than a carnival ride. Both models handle like sports cars and the Mini Cooper S can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than seven seconds. It's adorable and affordable, starting at just $16,425. Engineered by BMW, it is executed superbly and looks and feels like a quality piece inside and out. 

The new Mini Cooper lives up to the promise of its bulldog stance, legendary performance, and enthusiastic press reports. BMW has successfully melded the German and British car cultures, reaching back to the 1960s for the automotive icon of mod London. The new Mini has as much in common with the British car Americans loved in the '60s as the New Beetle has in common with the old Bug. The Mini Cooper has been reinvented for the 21st century and has returned to the U.S. much bigger and much better than the original. 

Mini Cooper is the shortest car sold in America, but it's larger on the inside than on the outside. It totes four adults in surprisingly good comfort, even leaving room for stuff. Like all BMWs, it comes with advanced safety features and innovative engineering. Like the original, its uses front-wheel drive and a transverse-mounted (sideways) engine. But BMW employed a sophisticated suspension inspired by its rear-wheel-drive cars for superior handling, particularly on bumpy, curving roads. 

BMW priced the Mini with an appreciation for real-world pocketbooks yet endowed it with a visual and physical opulence that ratchets up its value quotient. For 2003, there are no major changes. 

Mini Cooper was named 2003 North American Car of the Year by a jury of 49 independent automotive journalists. 

Lineup

Two models are available: the 115-horsepower Mini Cooper and 163-horsepower Mini Cooper S. Both are four-seat hatchbacks. The engine is mounted transversely and drives the front wheels. 

Mini Cooper ($16,425) comes standard with a high level of equipment, including a sophisticated anti-lock brake system and six airbags with head protection for front and rear passengers. Also standard: air conditioning, CD stereo with six speakers, power windows with auto-down, power locks, remote keyless entry, and a rear wiper. It comes standard with a five-speed gearbox and 15-inch alloy wheels. 

Cooper S ($19,425) adds a supercharged version of the same engine, a six-speed gearbox, stiffer front and rear anti-roll bars for flatter handling, 16-inch wheels, and a lot of special exterior trim. Inside, the S adds sport seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. 

Mini allows buyers great leeway in making the car their own. Color options outnumber those in a bag of jelly beans and can be topped with a roof that's either body-colored, black or white. (White is traditional.) Checkered flags and flags of different nations are available as giant roof decals, including the classic Union Jack and the Star-Spangled Banner. Wheels can be white or silver. Order our Mini in classic Red with the traditional white roof or the equally traditional Union Jack. Silver gives the Mini a classy Aston Martin look. 

Major options include a Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT ($1250), automatic air conditioning ($300), and a Harmon Kardon Sound system ($550) with eight speakers. Other options are grouped into packages: The Sport Package ($1250) includes Dynamic Stability Control, rear spoiler, fog lamps, sport seats, and larger alloy wheels. The Premium Package ($1250) includes sunroof, automatic air conditioning, on-board computer and cruise control. The Cold Weather Package ($500) provides heat to the seats, mirrors, and windshield-washer jets, along with rain-sensing wipers and an auto-dimming mirror. Other options include leather seats ($1250), Xenon headlamps ($500), and a navigation system ($1600). Many of the features on the Cooper S can be added to the regular Cooper. Mini customers can build their car online (at miniusa.com) with colors, options, and accessories. 

Walkaround

The Mini Cooper's broad brow and challenging demeanor is tempered by an appealing wonder-eyed look. The distinctive body shape is recognizable even in black paper silhouette. In the old days we dubbed the Mini 'The Flying Toastmaster.' That description would apply to today's Mini as well if that toaster had a bulldog attitude and could cling to the counter as if suctioned in place. Tenacity is built into today’s Mini visually by its a slightly splayed stance. 

The Mini is low, wide, and short, with short overhangs. The wheels are set as far out to the four corners as possible, enhancing stability in turns and reducing hobby-horsing on bumpy straights. Measuring 97.1 inches, the wheelbase is longer than some small cars. But the Mini is shorter overall, at 142.8 inches (less than 12 feet). 

The hood is wide, but short in depth, the product of unique design and manufacturing techniques. The big round doe-eyed headlights (which go up with the hood) are partly responsible for the common reaction of 'Oh-h-h, isn't it CUTE!' Actually, this response was by intent, not chance. Mini designers also threw in what they consider to be some voluptuous feminine curves and some masculine muscular bulges to cover all the visceral reactions. Thus the Mini is neither Guy Wheels nor a Chick Car. It is an engaging automotive device with an appeal that stretches across gender, age and economic status. That toaster-body shape of the Mini is functional: it gives anyone riding in either back or front seats adult headroom, something that arch-shaped body designs (such as the Beetle) cannot do. 

The rear is trimmed with an elegant fascia with one exhaust tip exiting below the sleek rear bumper on the right side. BMW's attention to detail is everywhere in between. Small reflector on door jam alerts other drivers when you open the door when pulled to the side of a busy street. Big oval mirrors afford a good view behind, where all those other cars are located. 

Cooper S comes with body-colored bumpers, aggressive side sills, wider wheel arches, a hood scoop, and a lower intake grille. Twin exhaust tips exit from the middle. A rear spoiler trails off the roof, chrome brightens the fuel-filler flap, and an S logo shaped like a curvy road spices up the rear badge. Numerous other styling cues, including big eight-spoke wheels reminiscent of the classic Minilights, ensure everyone whose anyone knows you sprung for the hot one. 

Interior

The 2003 Mini Cooper shares some of its basic design tenets with the original, but it's roomier, more luxurious, and more convenient. Legend has it that Alec Issigonis, designer of the original Mini, sat four adults in straight chairs, drew a line around them and thus determined the size of his passenger compartment. The box tacked on at the front housed an engine set in sideways to take less room. (Most cars now use this front-drive, transverse-engine layout.) The current Mini is one-third bigger, wider, taller, longer, than the original, so a car full of adults need not be tight. Even tall drivers find it comfortable. 

The standard seats are firm and supportive. The sport seats are more receptive, however, longer in seat bottom with higher bolsters. If you prefer seats that you sit in rather than on, opt for the sport seats. Leatherette is standard and it is superb. Cloth is optional at no extra cost. Leather ($1250) is optional for both models. 

The front seats slide and lift out of the way to allow rear passengers into the back of this two-door hatchback, and they return to the original position. That makes loading to capacity quick and easy. The seats have recliner levers on both sides for convenience. The rear seats are surprisingly roomy. Legroom is tight, but with a little cooperation from those in front two adults can travel short distances in comfort. There's plenty of headroom and the rear seats are scooped out and provide good support. Rear seats are split and fold down for cargo versatility. 

Mini's interior is stylish, modern, and exudes quality. Materials and shapes are as cheery as sunshine and balloons and as now as a new magazine. Prominent circles set the design statement. That large circle in the center of the dash, equally visible to anyone in the car, is the speedometer. The positioning was borrowed from the Mini of old and might seem a tad precious to those who don't smile in recollection. A racy round tachometer is perched like an add-on immediately before the driver's eyes and tilts with the adjustable steering column. Toggle switches with little guards reflect the older Mini while looking very today, and operate power windows, power locks, front and rear fog lamps and the anti-skid system. A pair of cup holders immediately in front of the shifter will hold grande cappuccinos from Starbucks if you squeeze them gently past the bottom edge of the dash. 

The Mini interior is full of clever details. The optional automatic climate controls are shaped like the Mini logo, for example. The standard HVAC controls are attractive and work well, though the mode selector knob lacks the nice feel of the fan knob. Radio buttons are small, but are easy to understand and operate. 

The dash is neat and firm and has a high-quality leather feel to it. We like the trim on the front of the dash of the standard Cooper, but we're not sure we like the finish on the plastic trim that adorns the dash and doors of the S model. It's designed to look like brushed aluminum, but it looks like your little sister put her sneakers all over it. 

The low roofline means you have to stoop to see traffic lights overhead. (Traffic signals are mounted on poles in jolly old England.) Sunroof lovers should love the dual-pane panoramic sunroof ($800). Maybe we're not sunroof lovers. Only mesh covers the glass panels on the inside, letting the sun come streaming in even when you don't want it. Those of us who don't like the sun shining in overhead prefer the solid roof. Plus the metal roof makes a better background for the Union Jack. 

Driving Impression

Regardless of model, the Mini Cooper delivers a sporty driving experience. Spring for the S if you are a serious driving enthusiast. Otherwise, you may find the standard Mini Cooper more comfortable. It's smooth, very stable, like a BMW. Around town, the Mini is well-mannered, smooth to shift, easy to park. The S is firm and bounces enough that drinking hot java on the way to work may result in a stained shirt or blouse. 

Mini corners like a go-kart and it's hard to exceed its cornering limits. The harder and deeper you go into corners, the more it says 'more.' The Mini goes where it's pointed without protest. Even when rain was sheeting down and the pavement shimmered in rivulets, the Mini felt bonded to the surface. The old Mini was as much fun as a carnival ride to drive, but much of the fun came from constant flirting with catastrophe (one wheel always lifted off the surface in hard turns). The fun in this Mini, with a body that feels as rigid as a block of maple, is in exploring its astonishing capabilities. 

As one might expect from a car associated with BMW, the Mini Cooper's steering is precise and immediate, though not as light as you might expect in a small car. Sharp and accurate, it's easy to place this little car exactly where you want it. The suspension (McPherson struts in front and multi-link rear) is designed to keep the car snug to the road. This means passengers feel broken surfaces, expansion joints, weathered pavement. The Mini's ride is not a velvety one, but it is a secure one. Somehow even on the roughest road, one that sets passengers popping like corn in a hot skillet, the Mini holds its direction like a gyroscope. Drivers like that. And make no mistake: the Mini is a driver's car. 

The brakes (vented front discs front, solid rear discs) are equally impressive, proportionally balanced as they are. Hit them hard at speed and the car feels sucked to the earth and slowed immediately by an invisible hand. None of that tiptoe-light feeling you sometimes get under serious braking. Mini comes standard with four-channel anti-lock brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), and Corner Brake Control (CBC). EBD distributes front-to-rear brake forces for improved stability and shorter stopping distances. CBC evens braking forces side to side, important when braking in the middle of a corner (a driving faux pas). Optional Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) applies the brakes at individual wheels and reduces engine torque when it senses you're skidding or not traveling on your intended path. 

The standard 115-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder overhead-cam engine never feels deficient. It delivers plenty of power for most of us, but does not put your head against the backrest at launch. Hit the loud pedal, and it can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, according to Mini. It has plenty of juice for charging around on-ramps and can rocket out onto the freeway. It gets an EPA-estimated 28/37 mpg City/Highway. 

Shifting feels good and smooth. The gearing favors a quick take off (the way Americans like it). However, the Mini Cooper’s five-speed gearbox leaves a longer stretch between second and third gear than expected. I found it a tad annoying, rather like a flight of stairs with one riser a little higher than all the others. Drivers should make appropriate use of the gearbox to keep themselves well positioned on the 115-hp Mini Cooper’s torque curve. That's easy. 

The 1.6-liter engine in the Mini Cooper S produces 163 horsepower and 155 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. It’s capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds, considerably quicker than the standard Cooper. (Top speed is electronically limited to 135 mph.) The S doesn't feel like a rocket off the line, but really comes into its own once it's rolling. The supercharger doesn't deliver that explosive thrust associated with turbocharged engines, but it accelerates hard, with thrilling performance when you n. 

Summary

The Mini Cooper is a well-executed piece by every measure. It's the total package that makes it the excellent value it is: appealing appearance inside and out, excellent performance, notable engineering, numerous safety devices and the simple delight of being in and around it. It gets excellent gas mileage and it will make your garage seem enormous. 

About 10,000 Mini Coopers were sold in the United States from 1960-67. Still a sensation, the current Mini was introduced in late March 2002 and posted 15,000 sales in the first seven months. New owners were delighted by the Mini's design, features, and performance, according to a J.D. Power and Associates survey. We'd certainly be delighted to own one. 

Model Lineup

Cooper ($16,425); Cooper S ($19,425). 

Assembled In

Oxford, England. 

Options As Tested

Sport package ($1250) includes Dynamic Stability Control, sport seats, 17-inch alloy wheels with 205/45R17 performance run-flat tires, front fog lamps, rear spoiler, bonnet stripes (if ordered), xenon headlights with headlamp washers; multi-function steering wheel with audio and cruise controls ($350); Electric Blue Metallic paint ($400); roof and mirror caps in white (no charge). 

Model Tested

Cooper S ($19,425). 

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