Test Drive: 2003 Mini Cooper S car test drives mini
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge


by Haney Louka

Grins all around

If you think that people smile big when they see a Mini Cooper on the road, have a look at the ear to ear grin on the lucky person behind the wheel.

The Mini is one of those rare vehicles that is instantly recognizable by just about everyone who lays eyes on it. But more importantly, it provides a driving experience that few competitors at its price point can challenge. And that’s particularly true in the case of the supercharged Cooper S, the subject of this review.


Grins all around

Owned by BMW but assembled in true-to-heritage Oxford, Great Britain, the Mini is offered in Cooper and Cooper S trim levels. The 115-hp Cooper starts at $25,200 and includes air conditioning, power windows and locks, 15-inch alloy wheels, six-speaker CD, xenon high-intensity headlamps, headlight washers, rear wiper, a leather-wrapped wheel, and more. The Cooper S starts at $29,950 and gets a significant boost in horsepower (read on) along with 16-inch wheels and a few other goodies.

My tester was an electric blue Cooper S equipped with the premium package (multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, heated seats, automatic climate control), white wheels, and fog lights for an as-tested price of $32,120.


The Powertrain

Test Drive: 2003 Mini Cooper S car test drives mini
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

Powering the S is a version of the transversely mounted 1.6-litre motor found in the base Cooper that has been augmented by a mechanically driven supercharger. In blown form this unit produces 163 hp at 6,000 rpm and 155 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Mated to a slick shifting six-speed manual, it delivers power to the front wheels via equal-length driveshafts designed to reduce torque steer – that annoying side-to-side pull that front-drivers are prone to under hard acceleration.

A MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension each enjoy the benefits of reinforced stabilizer bars to reduce body roll under cornering loads. Being a more performance-oriented model, the Cooper S’s suspension is calibrated with firmer spring rates than the base model.

Braking force is provided by discs at each corner, vented in front. An alphabet soup of electronic helpers make the most of the available braking performance: anti-lock braking system (ABS), electronic brake force distribution (EBD), and cornering brake control (CBC) are all utilized to give the driver the best possible shot at avoiding potential trouble. Rounding out the roster of electronic helpers is ASC+T (automatic stability control plus traction).

Runflat tires are standard equipment on the Cooper S and eliminate the need for a space-robbing spare tire.


Safety in Design

Test Drive: 2003 Mini Cooper S car test drives mini
Photo: Laurance Yap

Test Drive: 2003 Mini Cooper S car test drives mini
Photo: Laurance Yap

Test Drive: 2003 Mini Cooper S car test drives mini
Photo: Laurance Yap

Test Drive: 2003 Mini Cooper S car test drives mini
Photo: Haney Louka
Click image to enlarge

One of the most frequent questions I was asked while driving the Mini was, “but is it safe?”

In addition to the active safety features already mentioned, passive safety design is also well represented: crumple zones, crash sensor (shuts off fuel, unlocks doors), side impact protection, dual front airbags with “SMART’ deployment system, and more.


Inside and out

I’d estimate that about 80% of the population recognize a Mini at first sight. The cool thing is that even those who don’t make the association take the time to roll down their window and ask what it is. That happened to me within five minutes of picking up the Mini, and on a couple of occasions in the days that followed.

While the Mini is small by today’s standards – riding on a brief 2,467-mm (97.1-in) wheelbase, it gives up 24 mm in height and a full 555 mm (almost two feet!) in overall length to the Honda Civic Hatchback – it’s a giant compared with its “60s namesake. Credit a more commodious passenger compartment and enhanced safety design for the increase in size.

Defining features of the MINI’s styling include those big round headlights, open-mouth grille, familiar profile, and nearly non-existant front and rear overhangs. It’s an attractive package overall and does justice to the original.

The S differentiates itself from the base Cooper with larger standard wheels, “S” logos on the front fenders and hatch, body-coloured bumpers, roof-mounted spoiler, and wider fender flares. The most important difference, though, is the functional scoop on the hood that serves as an air intake to feed the supercharger.

The view from the driver’s seat is equally appealing, even before the ignition is switched on. Ever-trendy silver is the theme here, but with a few twists to ensure its uniqueness. Most of the dash is dressed in an “alloy patina’ finish that looks like somebody took a grinder to it – kind of an industrial look. Gauges are black on silver in daylight, switching to amber on a dark background at night.

The gauges are interesting, paying homage to the original Austin car of the same name. There’s a small tachometer perched atop the steering column, and the speedo is directly in the centre of the dash. Vehicles equipped with the navigation system have the tach and speedo both mounted on the column, with the screen for the nav system displacing the speedo at the top of the centre stack. I much prefer the latter layout, as having the speedometer in the centre of the stack makes it difficult to reference. It just doesn’t make sense to have to look that far over to find out how fast you’re going. It would be better if there were a small digital speed display nested in the tachometer where the outside temperature gauge presently is, a la the Porsche Boxster/911. That way, the speedometer itself would be more of an aesthetic component of the instrumentation rather than an inconveniently accessed source of vital information.

My Mini tester was equipped with the optional climate control system, which replaces the conventional rotary temp/fan speed/air movement dials with a digital readout and electronic switchgear. The temperature itself is easy to adjust – just rotate the spring-loaded dial in a direction that corresponds with an increase or decrease in temperature. The other buttons for controlling the climate inside the Cooper are somewhat randomly scattered around the temperature dial, and require getting used to. The stereo, in contrast, is quite easy to use and even more so thanks to the wheel mounted buttons that make adjusting the volume or mode literally at your fingertips on the back of the wheel. I first saw this ingenious design detail on the Jeep Liberty and have since seen it on various Chrysler products. I hope this idea spreads like wildfire to other brands as well.

Test Drive: 2003 Mini Cooper S car test drives mini
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

The seats are well suited to spirited driving, as they grab hold of their passengers and don’t let go. The standard leatherette upholstery, while not my favourite (I prefer a nice cloth to imitation leather), is almost rubbery in its texture and keeps passengers from sliding around. Not well suited to anything, though, are the seat heaters in the Mini. They come on too strongly, requiring driver and passenger to shut them off before fully warming their hindquarters. Try cooking a frozen roast under a broiler and you’ll get the idea. A minor thing, to be sure, but how hard is it to design a good seat warmer?

Rear seat room is generous considering the exterior dimensions of the Mini, although it’s not terribly easy to get back there. Legroom is adequate, and width-wise it’s good for two. Long trips back there would be OK, except that there isn’t enough cargo capacity for four people on a long trip. Behind the rear seat is just 150 litres of cargo space, which expands to 670 with the split seats folded.

Another tribute to the original Austin Mini is the toggle switches on the centre stack. These cool looking switches are easy to use and to get used to. Among the functions accessed using these buttons are the power windows, DSC, door locks, and fog lights.

While it’s clear that function follows form in the Mini; it’s a remarkably well packaged vehicle considering its minute dimensions.


The Driving Experience

The Mini isn’t just another cutesy face on the automotive landscape. It was engineered to perform, and does so in such a way that grinning commences the moment the key is turned and doesn’t fade until after the driver has walked away and the Mini is out of sight.

Test Drive: 2003 Mini Cooper S car test drives mini

Test Drive: 2003 Mini Cooper S car test drives mini
Photos: Mini USA. Click image to enlarge

The blower completely alters the character of this car, giving it bags of low-end grunt that doesn’t fade at any point before redline. Under acceleration, the supercharger emits a subtle whine that lends to the unique character of this funky ride. Throttle response is first rate, thanks to its fully electronic drive-by-wire throttle management.

Working the six-speed stir stick through its gears is a pure joy; the clutch engages smoothly and the slick, short-throw shifter seems to find the gears on its own. Braking response is confidence inspiring, utilizing a firm pedal feel and a linear relationship between pedal pressure and braking force.

But the best part of the Mini driving experience is the steering response. Mini claims go-kart like handling and gives the Mini the steering characteristics to back that claim up. Mere twitches of the wheel result in a change in direction, but don’t make the car feel nervous. This kind of balance is hard to come by: it still knows where straight ahead is, and at the same time there’s no on-centre numbness to dilute the experience.

There is one major area that disappointed me, however: refinement. Don’t get me wrong – I think the refinement of the drivetrain is beyond reproach at this price point. But the general build quality of the vehicle – exacerbated by the stiff ride – left me wanting for more. Naturally, ride quality suffers at the expense of razor-sharp handling. But when that same stiff ride results in body creaks and a couple of rattles in a brand new car, it reduces the perception of quality that this otherwise excellent vehicle exhibits.


To Sum It Up

The Mini Cooper S is a point-and-shoot pocket rocket with a reasonable price, even with options, that is stylish, practical, and one of the best handling front-drivers I’ve tried.


Shopping Around

The Cooper S is a niche vehicle that appeals to the emotions – style and fun-to-drive are at the highest priorities. Accordingly, its list of competitors is short but filled with character:

  • Acura RSX Type S ($31,300)
  • Chrysler PT Turbo ($27,700)
  • Honda Civic SiR ($25,500)
  • MazdaSpeed Protege ($26,995)
  • Pontiac Vibe GT ($26,765)
  • Subaru WRX ($34,995)
  • VW GTI 1.8T ($26,330)
  • VW New Beetle GLX ($30,200)


Technical Data: 2003 MINI Cooper S

Base price $29,600
Price as tested $32,120
Type 2-door, 4-passenger hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 1.6 litre 4 cylinder, SOHC, 16 valves, supercharged
Horsepower 163 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 155 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 6 speed manual
Tires Pirelli Euphoria 205/45R-17 inch run-flat
Curb weight 1215 kg (2679 lb.)
Wheelbase 2467 mm (97.1 in.)
Length 3655 mm (143.9 in.)
Width 1688 mm (66.5 in.)
Height 1416 mm (55.7 in.)
Trunk capacity 150 litres (5.3 cu. ft.) seats up; 670 litres (23.7 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City: 9.6 l/100 km (29 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.5 l/100 km (44 mpg)
Fuel Premium unleaded
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/120,000 km