2002 MINI Cooper
This 2002 review is representative of model years 2002 to 2006.
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Pound for pound, inch for inch, there's more fun and charm packed into the diminutive 2002 MINI Cooper than any car on the market.
Okay, I'm biased. I love the '60s look of this re-engineered MINI car. I have a soft spot in my heart for a car with a measly four cylinder that can zip around big, view-blocking vehicles with glee. I enjoy the thrill of blasting around corners as if I'm on rails, which is sort of what it feels like in the small, low-to-the-ground MINI Cooper.
And I absolutely love it when the starting manufacturer's suggested retail price for all this charm and fun is under $17,000.
Smaller than you might expect
It also rides low enough to the ground that the owner's manual advises against driving the MINI through standing water more than a foot deep.
But as one auto critic put it, the new MINI Cooper is the closest thing to a street-legal go-kart a consumer can get.
A return after 30-plus years
But where the first generation front-drive MINI was austere inside, the new one is comparatively sporting. The newly engineered MINI also is larger than the original, if you can believe, more powerful and loaded with safety features.
"There's one airbag for every 2 feet of car," said Jack Pitney, general manager of MINI in the United States.
Earlier MINIs were built by a British company, Rover. But the modern MINI Cooper—uppercase MINI now—comes from an English factory under the auspices of Germany-based BMW.
Don't underestimate front-seat room
Windows on the two doors are surprisingly large, and neither I nor my 6-foot husband felt hemmed in by front-seat headroom of 38.8 inches. Note this is more headroom than in the front seats of the Acura RSX hatchback and the VW GTI.
Legroom was adaptable for both of us—I'm 5 feet 4—as there's plenty of track to move front seats fore and aft. But the MINI Cooper's dead pedal should be repositioned. It was not comfortable for either a short person like myself or a 6-footer.
There's also a surprising location for the speedometer, at least for those who aren't familiar with the old MINI. Instead of being in an instrument cluster in front of the driver, the speedometer in the MINI is a large round dial set smack in the center of the dashboard, giving even back-seat riders a good view of every speeding-ticket infraction.
The driver's attention, however, is directed to the MINI tachometer which is another round dial set atop the steering column. There, the 6750-rpm redline is illuminated bright red, even when headlights aren't on.
Engine, lightweight car combo
In fact, it felt like it moved the car along better than its numbers would suggest. It's rated at only 115 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm and compares with 115 horses in the base New Beetle with 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and 130 horsepower for a base Focus ZX3 hatchback with 2.0-liter four.
Of course, it helps that the MINI is lightweight, with a curb weight of just about 2,500 pounds. The New Beetle weighs in at more than 2,800 pounds, while the Focus ZX3 is 2,551 at a minimum.
I'd approach corners and mountain twisties with glee, because the MINI stuck so well to the road. Steering was quickly responsive, more than I expected in this old-styled car.
The ride in the tester, which had sport suspension and run-flat tires with stiff sidewalls, felt quite firm, overall. But road bumps were sometimes transmitted to riders in an instant, abrupt way.
MINI officials noted the structure of the car is 50 percent stiffer than even that of the BMW 3-Series cars.
It's the ease with which this little car can be driven softly or aggressively, depending on the driver.
Of course, drivers and passengers do need to get used to riding low and being surrounded on today's roads by larger vehicles. I had a great view, for example, of a pickup truck license plate in front of me.
But at least the MINI comes with a big-car horn, not some little beep-beep thing.
Safety on buyers' minds
For their part, company officials highlight the safety features on the new MINI, which include standard four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock braking system, electronic brakeforce distribution and cornering brake control, six airbags, including side-curtain bags, and advanced crumple zones in the front and rear.
Benefits of a small car
The MINI can claim many an urban parking spot that big sport utilities have to pass up. The MINI's fuel economy rating includes 43 mpg on the highway for a model with manual transmission. And the MINI leaves extra space in your garage at home.
MINI also offers a unique, customizable paint scheme where the roof can be a contrasting color or design—a flag design, for example—than the car body.
But rear-seat riders won't find much legroom if the front seats are back on their tracks, and cargo space behind the folding rear seats is a meager 5.3 cubic feet.
In addition, according to the owner's manual, pricey, premium fuel is not only recommended, it's required in the MINI Cooper.
Make sure you know where the lever is that opens the hood. It's a real pain to reach from the driver's seat because it's positioned way over by the front passenger footwell area. Great for right-hand drive drivers but not for us in the States.
And I found the test MINI had an on-again/off-again problem with the tailgate latching correctly. Half the time, the warning light would be illuminated on the speedometer, telling me the tailgate wasn't fully closed, and the interior dome light would stay on.
Don't expect to wheel and deal for a MINI Cooper. MINI officials can only get some 20,000 cars this year to America, so supplies are tight and demand is high.
Here's hoping this doesn't lead to price gouging.