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Fast, nimble, sticky and fun, this British-built German compact is in a class of its own.
2002 Mini Cooper Road Test
Story and photos by Bill Roebuck
June 30, 2002 (with updates on July 18, 2002)
There's a new car on the CarTest Top 12 list -- and it's deservedly positioned right at the top for now. Before I drove the all-new 2002 MINI Cooper, made by BMW GB in Oxford, England, I thought it was going to be just another cute retro knockoff. It turns out I was incorrect. I was surprised by the build quality, superb driving characteristics, practical nature and pure fun that the new MINI offers. To own a new MINI is to have car style; even to have one on order gives you panache. (The waiting list is currently a couple of months or more, and only about 2,000 will be available for the Canadian market this year.)
Many readers probably had never heard of the original MINI. BMW's research indicated only about 10-20% of Canadians were familiar with the marque -- it was only 5% in the U.S. So to many, it's just a brand new car that stands alone on its merits -- and for a short, little car, it stands pretty tall.
For those who don't remember, here's a quick bit of history. The original MINI Cooper, named after racer John Cooper, was launched by the Austin and Morris companies in England starting in 1959. (It was later built by British Leyland and Rover.)
It was distributed in North America for about 20 years. It had a reputation as a fast, highly manoeuvrable car and was very popular with rallyists. There are few original models on the road today, though. (How a German car company came to own such a notorious British marque is another story.)
The original MINI -- you know, Mr. Bean's car -- has been featured in several popular movies, such as 1969's The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. The cult film, which is to be remade this summer (2002), had one of the best car chase scenes ever filmed. The new MINI also will be featured in Austin Powers in Goldmember, also due out during summer, 2002.
Let's get back to the new MINI. It looks very small, cute and pert. Yet it really is larger than it first appears. The front is dominated by big fisheye headlamps. The roof can be white or black as an option and most you'll see are painted that way, although a body-coloured roof is standard. Another distinguishing characteristic is that the wheels are positioned at the extreme corners of the car. There's barely any body overhang, front or rear. The design allows for more room inside the passenger compartment and adds a good dose of stability to the ride.
Driving the Cooper is a great experience. It's a car with a distinctive personality. For two days in May 2002, I had the opportunity to join other automotive journalists to test both the Cooper and supercharged Cooper S in British Columbia on the twisty roads of Vancouver Island, from the ferry docks at Nanaimo, across the island and up the coast to Tofino (that's where many of the hippies from the 70s now live), and back again.
With its low centre of gravity and wide wheelbase, it corners like the tires have been coated with a stick of UHU glue. The performance comes from a 1.6-litre, 115-hp engine that's capable of 200 km/h and accelerates from stop to 100 in just over nine seconds. If you want it faster, you can choose the Cooper S model, with its 163-hp supercharged engine, giving you an extra 18 km/h of top speed and acceleration to 100 that's somewhat quicker at 7.4 seconds. Based on my experiences with both models, unless you're a rally enthusiast or have a really fat wallet, you'll find the base Cooper plenty fast and certainly fun to drive. By the way, in the United Kingdom, BMW also sells a lesser-equipped MINI One model and it recently revealed plans to launch a 1.4-litre diesel engine version next year, probably just for European markets.
Both models provide exceptional fuel economy. City/highway mileage is 8.3/5.9 L/100 km for the Cooper, while the S consumes 9.6/6.5 L/100 km. Premium grade unleaded fuel is recommended for both.
While the wheels hug the road, the seats hug you, holding you in place no matter how hard you take a corner. The Cooper S comes with sport seats with extra side bolsters for even better coddling. Front passengers have plenty of headroom and legroom. Even tall drivers should have no problem fitting into a MINI. Both front seats have a ratchet lever to adjust the seat height.
Cornering never feels tricky, even on challenging and twisty roads, thanks to an electro-hydraulic, engine speed sensitive, variable-assisted, power steering system. The handling is aided by MacPherson front struts and a multi-linked rear suspension.
The Cooper uses lots of technology to keep it glued to the road, including automatic stability control and traction control systems, and an optional dynamic stability control setup. The ABS braking system includes electronic brake force distribution and cornering brake control to reduce the chance of wheel lockup.
The five-speed gearbox shifts easily and quickly. The Cooper S gets a sixth gear, ideal for long highway trips. An automatic transmission will be available in fall 2002, though few are expected to be ordered by customers.
Safety features include six air bags. There's a tire pressure warning system and an optional rain sensor that will match the speed of the wipers to the intensity of the rainfall. Xenon headlights should provide excellent illumination of the roads (we haven't had a chance yet to do a test drive at night).
The dashboard and interior highlights are finished in a glossy silver colour. An alloy patina plastic comes on the Cooper S, providing an industrial, raw metal look that didn't appeal to me. The doors are highlighted by a huge elliptical frame and pipes that look like exposed side-impact beams -- the design is like a work of art. Seat covering choices are black cloth or leatherette, or coloured leather.
The interior is quite busy -- there are lots of knobs and switches. The speedometer is a massive dial located dead centre on the dashboard. It looks out of place at first, but soon seems natural after a few minutes behind the wheel. The smaller tachometer sits above the steering wheel. The fan and temperature knobs are easy to adjust, as are the radio controls. A series of small toggle switches at the bottom centre of the dash look great, but it's difficult to quickly distinguish what each switch controls.
Access to the rear is surprisingly easy for a small car like this. The front seats slide and tilt forward. The rear seat legroom is pretty cramped for adults, though. Each of the two rear seats folds flat to extend the luggage area to 670 litres. But the cargo space is a miserly 150 litres with the rear seats raised -- just enough for two small overnight bags and two soft-sided briefcases. The storage area is so tight that there's no standard spare tire. The MINI instead provides a pressurized can of puncture sealant and an air tire pressure warning system. A spare tire can be ordered as an option, as can run-flat tires.
The rear hatch opens wide and high and the low liftover height makes loading easy. Storage areas in the cabin are minimal -- there are a couple of small map pockets in the doors and a decent glove box, but no centre console storage box.
One of several models I tested featured an impressive power panorama sunroof with two glass sections covering the front and rear passengers, although only the front section slides open. Standard features on both models include AM/FM CD stereo with six speakers, air conditioning, and power windows and door locks. The warranty is for four years and 80,000 km.
Key design features that distinguish the Cooper S from the regular model are an air inlet on the hood, dual centre-mounted exhaust pipes, a roof spoiler and chrome-plated side grilles. Interestingly, the side grills aren't just decorative -- they were needed to provide access the inside of the closed hood for a final adjustment in the production process.
The price of the MINI Cooper starts at $24,950, while the Cooper S is $29,600. Each includes a decent number of standard features, but putting many of the available options (including a navigation system) on a Cooper could bring the price to over $33,000. Adding all options on the S brings it to almost $44,000. These are premium sticker prices for a car this size, however it truly is a premium build. A new network of MINI-exclusive dealers -- 14 across Canada so far -- is taking orders now. (In July and August 2002, ads in Toronto papers offered a base MINI Cooper on a three-year lease for $299 a month with $3,438 down. With freight and dealer prep charges, the total comes to $15,497 plus tax over three years; your actual monthly payment would end up around $400.)
© Copyright Bill Roebuck, CarTest.ca 2002.
Here are images of the MINI Cooper with its hinges opened.
Many interesting design elements on the MINI Cooper become apparent with careful study.