2003 Mini CVT
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson
Photos by Grant Yoxon

New continuously variable transmission elicits mixed impressions

It’s been just over a year since the Mini Cooper and the supercharged Cooper S were introduced in Canada, and in that short period of time, Minis have won at least a half dozen awards from automotive critics. These include traditional awards from magazines and journalist’s associations such as the “2003 North American Car of the Year” award, and “Most Significant Vehicle of the Year, 2002” by the editorial staff at Edmunds.com. They also include commendations from safety organizations that conduct crash tests, including the “Best Pick” designation by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) for its 40 mph frontal offset crash test; and a four star rating by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for its 35 mph frontal crash test.

The Mini Cooper also picked up an award for best fuel economy: the “Most Fuel Efficient Vehicle” in its class from Natural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency. As well, the Mini was named the “Most Appealing Compact Car” in the J.D. Power and Associates 2002 APEAL study, and the “Best Total Value” by Strategic Vision.

All of these awards are likely to influence future purchasers, particularly the crash test results. One of the most common criticisms of the Mini is that the car looks too small to be safe in a crash. The IIHS and NHTSA crash test results prove that the Mini is certainly safer than it looks.

New, optional continuously variable transmission

2003 Mini CVT
Click image to enlarge

The most significant change to the Mini for 2003 is the addition of a new continously variable transmission as an option on the Cooper model (not the Cooper S). The CVT is a type of automatic transmission that doesn’t have any discernible shift points. In simple terms, the transmission uses a steel drive belt which connects two bevelled pulleys. By enlarging or reducing the radius, the CVT can offer stepless transmission ratios – to the driver, it seems as though there is just one gear.

In this case however, Mini has included a 6-speed Steptronic manual shift mode which gives the driver the option of shifting manually by pushing forwards on the gear lever to shift down, and pulling backwards to shift up gears. As a CVT transmission has no shift points, Mini had to insert artificial gear ratios to make it seem like a real manumatic transmission.

The Mini CVT’s floor-mounted shift lever has P, R, N, and D positions, just like a regular automatic transmission. It also has an ‘S’ (Sport) mode which provides sportier, more dynamic performance in the automatic mode. To engage the S (Sport) position, the shift lever is moved to the right from ‘D’ to ‘S’ into a separate gate. Then, if the driver wants to shift manually using the Steptronic function, he/she can then tap the lever forward and back to change down and up in a sequential fashion.

As most people are unfamiliar with a CVT transmission, the question most likely to be asked is, “Is a CVT transmission as good, or better than a regular 4-speed or 5-speed automatic transmission.” The answer to that is, “In some ways, yes.. and some ways, no..”

On the road with the CVT

2003 Mini CVT
Click image to enlarge

After starting the engine and putting the gear lever into ‘D’ position, pressing on the accelerator produces a slight jerk as the CVT engages. There’s also a slight jerk as you roll to a stop. Regular automatic transmissions aren’t as jerky as this. I also noticed that the car ‘creeps’ while waiting at a traffic light – you have to keep you foot on the brake to stop the car from moving forwards, even on a slight uphill grade.

Pulling away gently in the CVT-equipped Cooper, acceleration is acceptable, but it’s not until about 2000 rpm that the engine suddenly picks up speed, and the car starts to accelerate quicker. In normal driving around town, this is OK, but if you floor the throttle from a standing start, initial acceleration is weak, and about 2000 rpm the engine picks up speed and revs quickly to the redline where it seems to wait while the car ‘catches up’ with it – a weird sensation for most people.

My sense is that the Cooper CVT is quite a bit slower off the mark than the Cooper 5-speed, and would add one or two seconds to the standard Coopers 9.2 second 0 to 100 km/h time. Highway cruising is relaxed with the 1.6 litre four cylinder engine revving at just 2500 rpm at a steady 100 km/h, and 3000 rpm at 120 km/h.

2003 Mini CVT
Click image to enlarge

In the CVT’s ‘Sport’ mode, acceleration and performance are enhanced, and I would recommend leaving it in this mode if you want sportier performance without shifting gears.

The Steptronic feature provides fairly quick manual shifts with a tap of the gear lever, but the engine doesn’t feel as responsive when you downshift because the transmission feels like it’s ‘sliding’ when you accelerate. As I said, the engine revs up quickly, but the car seems to take a while to catch up with it. Still, performance when shifting manually is superior to the D or S modes.

In 6th gear in Steptronic mode, the engine revs about 500 rpm higher at highway cruising speeds, which not as good for fuel economy, but makes for more responsive acceleration. A rev limiter prevents the engine from over-revving if you forget to change ‘gears’.

From March, 2003 onwards, Coopers will be available with shifting paddles on the steering wheel – a feature that allows you to keep both hands on the steering wheel while shifting.

The CVT is a $1290 option, a price comparable with regular automatic transmissions.

Dynamic handling

2003 Mini CVT
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In previous Autos test-drives, we’ve reported on the Cooper’s dynamic handling. With ‘a wheel at each corner’, short wheelbase, independent suspension, and standard 15 inch performance tires, the Cooper feels very nimble and maneouverable at speed. In particular, it’s amazingly stable in the corners, and has minimal dive under braking and little pitch when accelerating. I would recommend going with the optional 16 inch tires for maximum performance.

Outward visibility is also excellent, with the exception of forward vision at a traffic light – the roof extends further forward than most cars, and items above the car are harder to see in some instances.

The Cooper’s electrohydraulic power steering (the hydraulic pump is driven by a small electric motor instead of the engine) is quick and precise – but during my city test-drive, I found steering effort to be on the heavy side – I’d like to see more boost at lower speeds. Apparently, electrohydraulic steering helps reduce fuel consumption by up to 0.1 litres per 100 kilometers, but I’m guessing Mini introduced it to save weight and cost.

2003 Mini CVT
Click image to enlarge

The Mini’s standard four wheel disc brakes are fantastic (as you might expect in a car made by BMW), and they include four-sensor ABS, Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) which evens out front/rear braking forces, and Cornering Brake Control (CBC) which assists tracking stability. As well, the Cooper comes standard with ASC+T traction control which prevents the front wheels from spinning in slippery conditions.

Optional Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) helps prevent fishtailing and understeer by automatically applying selective brakes and moderating engine throttle to regain the proper direction. It can be shut off by the driver. In my test-drive, I found the Cooper so stable and glued to the road, that the DSC almost never intervened. You’d have to be seriously out of shape for it to activate.

The Cooper’s 115 horsepower 1.6 litre four cylinder powerplant loves to rev high, is very smooth, and gets great fuel consumption – but it’s not overly powerful, particularly with the CVT transmission. The Cooper may be a match for any other small hatchbacks in the corners, but many of its competitors have more powerful engines and offer better acceleration. Still, the Cooper’s great looks and nimble handling almost outweigh horsepower considerations.

Fuel consumption with the CVT suffers by about 8% when compared with the 5 speed manual transmission. The Cooper CVT gets 9.0 litres per 100 km (31 mpg) around town and 6.3 litres per 100 km (45 mpg) on the highway.

Interior impressions

The Mini’s dynamic four-passenger interior is highlighted by a large speedometer in the centre of the dash which includes an inset fuel and coolant gauges, as well as a digitial odometer. A prominent tachometer is mounted on the top of the steering column, but the top of it is obscured by the steering wheel – it moves with the tilt/telescopic steering wheel, so adjusting it won’t help. Extensive metal-look plastic covers the dash and doors, and though it’s attractive, I would prefer something a little more subtle for longevity. I mean, what happens when metal-look dash trim goes out of style?

2003 Mini CVT
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

The small, grippy steering wheel has buttons on the back of the steering wheel for adjusting the radio volume and Seek functions. It also includes cruise control functions and two buttons for the horn – the big centre button with the Mini logo is NOT a horn button.

The centre dash includes a stereo with CD player and visible orange LCD display, but I thought the volume button was way too small. The heater controls are easy to use, and lower down are toggle switches for the power windows, door locks and ASC off button. The power mirror controls are between the seats, a bit unusual, and there’s two useful cupholders in front and one at the rear.

2003 Mini CVT
Click image to enlarge

Interior room is OK for four average adults. Rear passengers have a surprising amount of headroom and adequate legroom, and both front seats will slide forwards with the push of a lever. Trunk space behind the rear seat is very limited – it will hold two airline carry-on bags and a bag of Doritos – but that’s it. Fortunately, the rear seats are split 50/50, and folding down one or both sides greatly increases luggage space. The rear hatch lifts up easily.

There’s no spare tire, but there is a can of sealant and a compressor which the driver can use to seal the tire and pump it up again. A spare tire is available as an option, and run-flat tires are also available.

The Cooper has an unusually generous amount of safety features, including front airbags, front side airbags, and curtain airbags. And according to the company, the Mini’s body stiffness is two to three times greater than that of comparable models. As mentioned, the Cooper did very well in crash tests.

For a base price of $25,200, the Cooper offers above-average handling, braking and safety for a small car, and standard features are generous. Still, it seats only four passengers, not five, and trunk space is limited.

Competitor overview

Competitors for the Mini Cooper CVT include the Acura RSX 2.0 ($24,300), Ford Focus ZX3 ($17,550), Honda SiR ($25,500), VW Golf GTi 1.8T ($26,330), Hyundai Tiburon SE ($22,395), Pontiac Vibe ($20,220), Subaru Impreza 2.5RS ($26,995), and Toyota Matrix XR FWD ($20,925).

It’s obvious from a quick scan of the Cooper’s competitors that most offer more horsepower, more interior room and more trunk space for less money or comparable value. The Cooper is probably the best-looking and the best-handling car of the bunch, and has the most standard safety features, but it is certainly not the best value. Cooper buyers will most likely be making an emotional choice – but then again, what sporty car buyer doesn’t?


Great looks, great handling and super brakes make the Cooper CVT fun to drive, but the continuously variable transmission takes some of the fun out of its performance, and is not as smooth as it’s supposed to be.

Technical Data:

Base price $25,200
Options $5,100 (Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) with Steptronic ($1,200); Sport Package includes rear spoiler, 16″ 5-Star alloy wheels, performance run-flat tires, sport seats, foglights ($1,700); multi-function steering wheel with cruise control ($450.00); panorama glass sunroof ($1,300); heated seats ($450)
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $30,400
Type 2-door, 4 passenger hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 1.6 litre 4 cylinder, SOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 115 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 110 @ 4500 rpm
Transmission continuously variable
Curb weight 1145 kg (2524 lb.)
Wheelbase 2467 mm (97.1 in.)
Length 3626 mm (142.8 in.)
Width 1688 mm (67.0 in.)
Height 1416 mm (55.7 in.)
Cargo area 150 litres (5.3 cu. ft.) seats up
  670 litres (23.7 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City: 9.0 l/100 km (31 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.3 l/100 km (45 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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