Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mini Cooper: Jack of All Trades, Master of Fun

You might be interested in this article if...
-         You’re a sports car enthusiast that isn’t allowed a sports car because it isn’t practical
-         You have had one of the original Austin Mini’s in your driveway
-         You want to buy something unique that will get you a lot of attention

There aren’t many sports cars on the market that a man with a family can justify buying. Unless you’ve got the cash for a second car, most are out of luck and can only dream of a thrilling or flashy ride while driving a utilitarian minivan. However, there are a few exceptions, the MINI Cooper is one of them.

Initially created under the Austin MINI nameplate in anticipation of an oil shortage resulting from the Suez Crisis in 1956, the MINI was the efficient and practical alternative to a BMW Isetta. BMC would enlist the skill of the pragmatic Alec Issigonis to make the idea a reality. Issigonis was experienced with small car design and would actually be one of the last to design an entire car himself. The engine was mounted sideways (Transversely) and drove the front wheels, which left 80% of the car’s interior open for passengers and cargo. This design would influence auto manufacturing for decades and the MINI takes its place as the 20th century’s second most influential car – second only to the model T. The small A-series engine had a mere 848cc displacement with a top speed just over 115km/h was the fuel sipper Britain needed, and the car flourished as a cheap family runabout.

Despite its bleak purpose, it didn’t take long for enthusiasts to discover that the MINI’s design provided ideal handling and an exciting ride. Soon the cars were being driven spiritedly on the roads and raced in rallies across Britain. Catering to these trends BMC would release a sport model co-designed by John Cooper after whom later models were named MINI Cooper. These MINIs made rallying no contest for their drivers, and officials soon disqualified MINIs from most normal rallies for taking all three podium places regularly. Since these early days, the MINI has become one of Britain’s most iconic autos and is likely the one North Americans most often associate with England (The Union Jack patterns on their roves encourage this further).

The Austin MINI would stay relatively unchanged in production until 2000 when BMW bought the company and the MINI disappeared from the market. BMW was looking for a small entry level car to add to its luxurious line up and the MINI was their solution. After over a year of R&D, and media hype in North America the 2002 model year would introduce us to the new and improved MINI Cooper, and a subsequent redesigned second generation in 2007.

The Cooper didn’t look radically different from the MINI and even the second generation Cooper maintained a striking resemblance to the MINI despite every panel being completely new for 2007. The idea behind this was “evolution, not revolution”, and BMW embraced all of the Cooper’s unchanged strengths while addressing the MINI’s old weaknesses. The new Cooper was more comfortable, refined, stylish, safe, and sporty. However, it was also – and we know it’s an oxymoron – bigger. The Cooper stretches 3626mm (over 500mm longer), is 1688mm wide (288mm wider), 1416mm tall (50mm taller), and weighs 1145kg (459kg more), but until very recently was still the smallest car on the market. Many still find the Cooper’s versatile size incredibly easy to park. Unfortunately, the price tag is also larger, and started at around $25k in the 2002 model year (though there was a cheap MINI Cooper One model in Britain) being reduced to a base price of $21,950 presently in North America. On the bright side the Cooper boasts the highest resale value in its class.

Still, the Cooper is in a class of its own as a “premium” compact, and is full of standard features and comforts that fit nicely into the Cooper’s petit, boxy dimensions. AC, external temperature display, tire pressure monitor, a six speaker AM/FM/CD sound system, leatherette seats with drivers height adjustment and lumbar support, power windows, power heated mirrors, Leather wrapped steering wheel, leather and chrome trimmed shift knob, and headlight washers all come standard on the first generation. The second generation adds automatic climate control, front and rear fog lights, a trip computer, push button start, and a tilt and telescopic steering wheel. All this makes the Cooper much more comfortable to drive over the original MINI.

Still, none these fluffy luxuries take anything away from the Cooper’s performance. The current Cooper boasts an impressive Peugeot/Citroen designed 1.6L DOHC in line 4 with BMW’s Valvetronic technology that pumps out 121hp and 118lb ft, which gets the Cooper to 100km/h in 9 seconds and revs freely right up to the 6500rpm redline. An optional sports package adds a sport button that increases throttle response and tightens steering.

The Cooper S is better yet. While the first generation’s 163hp supercharged engine was better sounding and wild, the new Turbo charged 1.6 is more powerful and offers a lower and longer torque plateau from 1600-5500rpm. It also pushes out 175hp and 177-192lb ft overboost which gets the S to 100km/h in just 7.1 seconds. With performance gains like that the extra 7k up from the Cooper Classic’s price isn’t too bad, but many feel it is overpriced.

For those that really enjoy what the Cooper S has to offer, a John Cooper Work upgrade became available in 2005 and provides a substantial boost in power. The kit pushes hp to 200 and torque to 177lb ft with a first generation supercharger. When equipped on a second generation turbo engine an even greater 208hp and 192-207 overboost lb-ft of torque are found, and the JCW gets to 100km/h in just 6.5 s, moving on to a top speed of 236km/h. The only huge drawback is the price, a JCW will set the driver back $36,900.

But speed isn’t everything, especially when it comes to a Cooper. Equally important are the suspension and steering systems. The first generation of Cooper had fully independent suspension with Macpherson struts in the front and a multi link z-axel in the rear. A speed sensitive variable electronic/hydraulic assist steering system made the Cooper about as twitchy as a caffeinated squirrel on the highway where a sneeze could put you in the next lane. In contrast, at speeds below 30km/h the steering is heavy, but still pulls a 10.7m turning circle. Next, the “wheel at each corner” layout eliminates any excess overhangs, and remedies the Cooper of any pitch or dive under hard acceleration or braking. The only changes in the second generation are a new multi link rear suspension that adds 10L of cargo space, and better steering at lower speeds. Overall, the Cooper has retained and improved the original MINI’s handling and agility. In fact, there may not be another car in the Cooper’s price range that handles the twisties better!

The transmission is also fairly well put together in the Cooper. Each gear is fully utilized by the close ratio set up and shifting up to speed is really exhilarating because of how happy the engine is all the way up to the redline. The shifts are short satisfying throws that fall into their gates with ease. Still, the Cooper is stronger in acceleration at a rolling start than standing. If one wants to jack rabbit away from a stop light they will need to rev the engine to over 2000rpm to get any decent torque off the line, but this problem is non-existent with the new turbo charged S model’s low end torque. On a sombre note, Coopers before 2005 used a Midlands 5SMT that destroyed itself often. It’s best to buy the post 2004 models with the Getrag 5SMT instead, or the S models that had always used a 6SMT from Getrag, or better yet an ’07 or later Cooper model with a standard 6SMT.

Another remarkable quality of the Cooper is braking power which just adds more to its agile nature. There are discs all around and ABS along with EBD, and Cornering Brake Control, all add to the experience while also providing excellent active safety features. And ’07 or later models have Brake assist to further increase braking power in emergencies.

Similar to BMC’s original MINI, the Cooper is still quite fuel efficient burning only 8.1L/6.4L city/highway with BMW’s valvetronic technology, and is second only to fuel sippers or hybrids like the Hyundai Veloster and Honda CR-Z. However, it does run on premium unleaded in both its new generations and the cost for gas will be slightly heavier as a result. A CVT transmission was available on the first generation Cooper but was replaced by a paddle shifting conventional 6SAT on the new second generation because it slowed the Cooper’s 0-100 time to 10.4 seconds and wasn’t actually more efficient than the manual.

The Cooper gets a lot of attention from its handling, but more public attention from its quirky looks; if a Cooper’s out an about it will always have an audience. Appearing in such films as: The Italian Job, Austin Powers, and Goodbye Pork Pie, the Cooper’s looks have a sort of presence, and charisma that draws an intent audience. From the outside the Cooper is noticeably more charming than the MINI. The features have been rounded, and smoothed into a sort of harmony that was missing on the original. Still many of the original’s styling cue remain such as the rounded headlights which now incorporate turn signals on the Cooper, contrasting racing stripes, mirrors and roof, and the frowning front grill which has now been split between the bumper and decked out in chrome. In fact the Cooper incorporates chrome into much of the exterior and interior styling. But one thing you will notice different on the Cooper is that unlike the original’s twist turn door handles the Cooper’s new handles are released by pressing down a trigger on the inside on the handle and effectively need to be squeezed open. Tugging on the handle gets you nowhere. This is actually a safety feature that allows the doors to be pulled off easily by emergency crews.

The Cooper’s cute looks continue into the interior and you’ll instantly notice how often circles (the cutest shape of them all) are used in the design. From the half moon door latches and circular air vents, to the dinner plate sized speedometer in the center dash, chrome trimmed circles are everywhere. There are also retro toggle switches that control accessories like power windows and fog lights located on the lower center stack. The Cooper’s style can either be described as chic and trendy, or fisher-price gone terribly wrong. 

Another thing you’ll notice right away – or at least when parking – is that visibility is excellent. With all the windows being aligned nearly vertical and at the ends of the Cooper’s boxy layout you can see exactly where all the Cooper's corners are. And because the rear window is flat with the hatch, backing into a space is super easy. The only thing wrong with the visibility is that one needs to duck forwards under the roof to see traffic lights when stopped at the front of your lane.

When it comes to customizability the Cooper is really a pack leader. From a plethora of exterior colors and contrasting accents, to a myriad of interior colours materials and options, the Cooper is one of the most, if not, the most customizable car in the world. MINI takes great pride in offering a car that can be tailored precisely to its driver and even has a smart phone app that interfaces with the Cooper’s sound system to play music according to your driving style. The purchase of a MINI Cooper is as much of a lifestyle car choice as it gets, and MINI also offers extensive paraphernalia to encourage a "MINI culture".

Despite the Cooper’s more harmonized and richer looking interior in the 2007 model from the 2002 model, a few problems remain. Although the Cooper seats four, the rear seats don’t offer enough leg room for regular use and are uncomfortable if the front seats aren’t moved forward. The NHTSA couldn’t even fit a crash dummy in the back seats, which also doesn’t reflect well on crash protection. There is also only a limited 160L cargo area in the back, and in order to transport anything substantial you’ll need to fold the seats to stretch that space to 670L. Possibly even worse is the fact that there is no spare tire hiding on the car, if you don’t have optional run-flats you’ll need a can of sealer. Further, the tachometer is obscured by the steering wheel and the centrally aligned speedometer isn’t ergonomic. Some option packages can move the speedometer next to the tachometer but this just compounds the problem. And despite the high class feel of the shifter, it can turn into a cattle brand in summer and a snow cone in the winter. Finally, if you happen to buy a convertible version of the Cooper beware that the rear field of view is blocked by the folded top and even with the top up the massive c-pillars are hard to see around.

The Cooper’s ride is relatively bearable but still quite stiff and bumpy on bad roads. This improves with the ’07 model year and opting for smaller Standard 15” rims also take some of the bounce out of the ride. Interior noise is minimal and the engine turns at a quiet 2500rpm in sixth gear on the highway. Most of the noise comes from wind passing over the windscreen because it’s more vertically set than most others.

Earlier, when the new Cooper was released it was among the safest compacts on the market. With 6 standard airbags - Front, Side and Curtain- 4 adjustable head restraints, 4 three point pretensioned seat belts, and a very rigid structure with additional support beams in the doors, the Cooper scored near the top of its class in frontal collisions and had acceptable protection in side impacts. Although this only got better as it moved into the second generation, it now lags behind alternative compacts for passive safety equipment. In fact rear and side crash scores look bad by comparison.

Still, the Cooper does posses excellent active safety equipment like its standard ABS, CBC, EBD, Standard Stability Control, Optional Dynamic Stability Control, responsive steering and throttle, large brake callipers, and great visibility. In addition to all this, in the event of a crash the ’07 and later models will cut off fuel from the engine, disconnect the battery, unlock the doors, and turn on interior and four-way lights.

If you’re reading this from Canada, it might surprise you to hear that the Cooper actually makes a great winter car. With standard Traction and stability controls - even with FWD - the Cooper can really cope well with snow and rain. The Cooper also comes standard with heated mirrors, heated windshield and headlight washer jets, and its optional heated front seats feel great on sub zero mornings.

Overall, the Cooper is a fairly practical yet 100% proper sports car. Its high revving engine and precise transmission are complemented by excellent handling, braking, and steering. While at the same time, the Cooper is fuel efficient, can easily transport 2 children in the back seats, and when those seats aren't in use, can fold down to carry a generous amount of cargo. Unlike many other sports cars, drivers don’t hesitate to drive the Cooper all year round. And lastly, the Cooper’s good looks can only help convince the Mrs. that the Cooper is worth it. 

Additional reading:

Safety Information found on:

Enthusiasts’ Forums:

Video links:
*Original BMC Mini Cooper restored*

Official Website:


  1. It's good picture posting of different quality cars as it has different features and quality.
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  2. This is really a great post. All the pics of cars is beautiful.
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