Mini Cooper S (R53): Introduction

Hot hatches: they do it all – they combine the practicality of a standard hatchback with driving enjoyment and affordable costs – except, they don’t. When I was looking around for a car to take over daily driving duties from my old BMW E30, I was considering mainly hot hatches from the early 2000s – they would offer enough driving fun, while being modern enough make longer journeys bearable and not turn into a pile of iron oxide when left outside.

The trouble with Renault Sports, Ford STs and Vauxhall VXRs is that they’re based on Renaults, Fords and Vauxhalls. A blindingly obvious observation, certainly, but it means that most hot hatches of the early 2000s come with the same depressingly drab dashboards, bus driver seating positions and the here nor there styling of their cooking cousins.

Enter the first-generation Mini Cooper S. A ground-up design, Rover and BMW could make it into whatever they wanted, so it got quirky retro styling, a short wheelbase, a low driving position, a high-quality interior and suspension that’s much more sophisticated than what you get even in most modern small cars. ‘Go kart handling’ is a terrible cliché, but it makes a surprising amount of sense when you drive the Cooper S. The heavy and super-quick steering, stiff suspension, flat cornering stance and neutral balance really are reminiscent of a kart.

When it was new, the catch was of course that Minis were quite pricy – new ones still are – but thanks to depreciation, that’s no longer an issue, allowing me to pick up this 2005 model with 92,000 miles, a very nice spec and some service history, for just £2,000. That’s at the lower end for a facelift car, which was introduced in 2004 and got better headlights, more evenly spaced gear ratios, and from 2005 onwards, a limited-slip differential as part of the Chili pack. Really nice examples can cost closer to £4,000, which is still conspicuously good value.

Mini with the E30 (and a few ugly cars) in the background

The other catch is the engine. I love it, because thanks to the wailing supercharger it has bags of character, but it’s quite a strange, unsophisticated engine that likes a drink. It would have made sense for MG Rover to have used their K-Series engine, but it turned out that didn’t fit under the low bonnet line. The solution was a joint-venture with Chrysler to develop a engine and build it in a new factory in Brazil. ‘Adapt from an old Chrysler Neon engine’ would be more accurate than develop, mind.

The resulting Tritec engine is reliable enough, and is adequate in naturally-aspirated form for the mid-range Cooper, but to get enough power out of it for the sporty Cooper S, they had to supercharge it. Today, when most new cars are turbocharged, supercharging seems like a very crude way to make power, and the 30mpg I’m averaging is proof of that. It’s effective though – delivery is linear and with 170hp and short gears, it’s plenty quick. With some minor modifications, it’ll even make a reliable 200hp. Even in standard form, the ‘charger will produce a high-pitched howl under load that’s just so much more interesting than the ordinary four-cylinder drone you get in most hot hatches.

Supercharger goes ‘WHEEEEEE!’

The new Mini was an overwhelming success and sold by the bucketload. It can seem surprising, then, that it took me quite a while to find an example I liked. One other aspect that sets the Mini apart from contemporary hatchbacks is the sheer number of luxury options that were available, including heated seats, cruise control, a Harman Kardon stereo (or Harmon Kardon if you’re writing a used car ad), a panoramic sunroof, power folding mirrors, ergonomic Recaro seats and more.

Most buyers did not go for these options, however, and just got the Chili Pack, which adds xenon lights, 17in wheels, air conditioning and part-leather seats. Finding one that had daily driver essentials like heated seats and cruise control, as well as the LSD, and wasn’t completely shagged took some time.

Another shot of my car in a lay-by. So original!

When I found one that also had the auxiliary gauges, climate control, power folding mirors, some service history, and quality tyres for just £2,000, I knew it was the one. I’ve had it for almost two years and in that time, it has been an excellent weekend fun car and occasional long-distance cruiser. It has cost me some money, with a number of issues still needing attention, but that’s probably a blog for another day.

If you’re willing to put up with a stiff ride and high fuel consumption, the first-gen Mini Cooper S is amazing value for something that really will do it all – cope with the daily boring stuff with ease, yet entertain on twistier roads, without having the interior of a cheap rental car.