2004 MINI Cooper S Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The Mini Cooper captured the imagination of car enthusiasts when BMW redesigned it as a 2002 model. Measured by dollars to the pound this diminutive car seems a bit expensive, but measured by dollars to the grin it is a bargain. The Mini Cooper is ball, a hoot, a blast on wheels. The Mini Cooper S is even more fun with its higher levels of performance, but you're hardly settling if you buy the base model.
That's because regardless of model, the Mini Cooper delivers sports car handling and acceleration. It offers the cargo convenience of a hatchback and decent passenger seating for four, all stuffed into the shortest footprint on the road. It's a high-quality piece with BMW engineering, as solid as any German sedan. Its retro styling is chic, cute as a bulldog and cheeky as a mod London nightclub. And it's safe, with a multitude of passive and active safety systems working to protect you if the unforeseen should happen. All this starts at just $16,449. That's if you can find one.
Little has changed in the Mini since its introduction. For 2004, both the Cooper and Cooper S offer an optional three-spoke leather steering wheel, as well as Cordoba Beige leather sport seats. They also add digital speedometer readout under the tachometer and a real-time fuel-consumption meter to the on-board computer. A standard rear power point has been reintroduced, and Pepper White paint is now available on the Mini Cooper S.
A new limited-edition model has been introduced to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Paddy Hopkirk's legendary win of the famed Monte Carlo Rally in 1964 in a Mini Cooper S.
The Mini Cooper comes in two model designations: the 115-horsepower Mini Cooper and 163-horsepower Mini Cooper S. Both are four-seat hatchbacks, with front wheels driven by a transversely mounted 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. For 2004, prices for each increase by only $24.
The Mini Cooper ($16,449) comes with a high level of equipment, including air conditioning, CD stereo with six speakers, power windows with auto-down, power locks, remote keyless entry, and a rear wiper all standard. A five-speed gearbox and 15-inch alloy wheels are standard. A Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT ($1,300), is available for drivers who must have an automatic.
The Mini Cooper S ($19,449) adds a supercharged version of the four-cylinder engine, a six-speed manual gearbox, stiffer front and rear anti-roll bars for flatter handling and 16-inch wheels. The Cooper S has exterior trim that distinguishes it from the base model. Inside, the S adds sport seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
From there, buyers can have a blast, or be confused, by choosing from a list of more than 30 factory options and 10 exterior and interior colors. You can choose a roof that's either body-colored, black, or white, and you can add a roof decal, a checkered flag, a Union Jack, an Star Spangled Banner. You can finish your Mini with white or silver wheels.
Stand-alone options include automatic air conditioning ($300), a Harman Kardon stereo with eight speakers ($550), leather seats ($1300), xenon headlamps ($550), and a navigation system ($1700). Other options are grouped into packages: The Sport Package ($1300) includes Dynamic Stability Control, a rear spoiler, fog lamps, sports seats, and larger alloy wheels. The Premium Package ($1300) includes sunroof, automatic air conditioning, on-board computer and cruise control. The Cold Weather Package ($570) includes heated seats, mirrors and windshield-washer jets, along with rain-sensing wipers and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
There's also a dealer installed works kit that significantly improves performance and increases the price as much as $10,000 depending on specifics. Mini customers can build their car online (at miniusa.com) with colors, options, and accessories.
Both Minis come with a luxury-class list of safety features, including anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, front and front side-impact airbags, curtain-style head-protection airbags for all passengers, a crash sensor that automatically unlocks the doors, seatbelt pretensioners and side-impact door beams. The Cooper S adds traction control. Both cars offer DSC electronic stability control ($500) as an option.
The Mini Cooper S MC40 ($26,500) limited-edition model is mechanically identical to the Mini Cooper, but features special paint and interior trim, racing decals, driving lights, and other features all designed to approximate the No. 37 rally car as closely as possible. Only 1,000 will be sold.
The bulldog stance of the Mini Cooper is distinctive and appealing. 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 on bumpy straights. The wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) measures 97.1 inches, longer than some small cars, yet the Mini is shorter overall than any other car sold in the U.S., at 142.8 inches (less than 12 feet). The current Mini Cooper shares some of its basic design tenets with the original, but with one-third more width, length and height.
The hood is wide, but short in depth, the product of unique design and manufacturing techniques. That, along with the big round doe-eyed headlights (which go up with the hood), are largely responsible for the common 'Oh-h-h, isn't it CUTE!' reaction. 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. Its horizontal roof, giving it that toaster shape, is functional: It provides adult headroom to anyone riding in either the back or front seats, something that arch-shaped body designs (such as the Beetle) cannot do.
The rear is trimmed with an elegant fascia, while the front fascia has body-colored bumpers. The Mini Cooper has one exhaust tip exiting below the sleek rear bumper on the right side. BMW now owns and build the Mini, and BMW's attention to detail is everywhere. A small reflector on door jam alerts other drivers when you open the door at the side of a busy street. Big oval mirrors afford a good view behind, where all those slower cars are located.
The Cooper S is distinguished by its hood scoop, sport bumpers, lower intake grille, aggressive side sills, wider wheel arches, and twin exhaust tips that 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 that everyone who's anyone knows you sprung for the hot version.
The Mini Cooper S MC40 comes with 17-inch multi-spoke two-piece alloy wheels finished in anthracite gray with a polished aluminum lip. It features driving lights with chrome bezels, a chrome grille, mirror caps and rear boot handle. A tasteful GB insignia adorns the rear boot lid, paying tribute to the car's place-of-origin in Oxford, England. It's finished in red paint with a white roof, '33-EJB' on the bonnet and a special 40th anniversary rally graphic on both the bonnet and rear quarters. The car proudly wears special magnetic door plaques with the unmistakable white and black No. 37.
The Mini Cooper is roomy, luxurious, and convenient. Even tall drivers find it comfortable. The standard seats are firm and supportive. The sport seats are 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 available at no extra cost. Leather ($1300) 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 then they return to the original position. That makes loading rear passengers 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 to provide good support. They split and fold down for cargo versatility.
Mini's interior is stylish and modern, and exudes quality. Prominent circles set the interior design statement. That large circle in the center of the dash, visible to anyone in the car, is the speedometer. A racy round tachometer is perched like an aftermarket muscle car unit immediately before the driver's eyes and tilts with the adjustable steering column. Toggle switches with little guards are arranged in a row near the bottom of the center stack. They 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 a pair of grande cappuccinos 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 (heater) controls are attractive and work well, though the mode selector knob lacks the nice feel of the fan knob. Radio buttons are small, but 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 more like smudged plastic, like a young girl 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 ($850). 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. Besides, the metal roof makes a better background for the Union Jack.
Regardless of model, the Mini Cooper delivers a sporty driving experience. Spring for the Cooper S if you are a serious driving enthusiast. Otherwise, you may find the standard Mini Cooper more comfortable. It's smooth and very stable, like a BMW. Around town, the Mini is well-mannered, smooth to shift and 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.
The 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. It's a much easier car to drive than the old one, even when the old one has the steering wheel is on the left.
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 or weathered pavement. The Mini's ride is not velvety, but it is secure. 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, 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 stops quickly. 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. Stand on 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. 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-horsepower Mini Cooper's torque curve. That's easy.
The same size 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 the explosive thrust associated with turbocharged engines, but it ac.
The Mini Cooper is a well-executed piece by every measure. It's the total package that makes it an excellent value: 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 original Mini Coopers were sold in the United States from 1960-67. The current Mini posted 15,000 sales in the first seven months and 36,010 during calendar year 2003. It's easy to understand why. We'd certainly be delighted to own one.
Mini Cooper ($16,449); Cooper S ($19,449).
Options As Tested
Sport package ($1300) includes Dynamic Stability Control, 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).
Mini Cooper S ($19,449).
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