Review and road test of the MINI Cooper 'R50' (2001 - 2006)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Few cars in recent times have provoked such a frenzied buying rush as the original 'R50'-series MINI Cooper. First unveiled in 2001, the car's waiting lists grew ridiculously long and models were changing hands at a premium well above the retail price. As production was ramped up to cope the waiting times fell and the Cooper and Cooper S variants remained hot tickets. Used buyers can now get hold of a Cooper model at sensible prices but how well does it stack up second time round?
Models Covered: (3dr hatch 1.6 [Cooper, Cooper S, Cooper S Works, Cooper Park Lane, Cooper S Checkmate])
Launched in April 2001, the MINI Cooper dumbfounded all the sceptics. Most fully expected that BMW's pastiche of a British classic would fall flat on its face but nothing could have been further from the truth. Although the Cooper package wasn't that far removed from the markedly cheaper MINI One, it was still the car to have for summer 2001 and even now it still cuts a dash.
In October 2001 a four speed CVT gearbox option was introduced but this blunted the Cooper's rather modest performance still further and should best be avoided unless you use your Coop for a lot of city schlepping. The answer to the Cooper's relative lack of straight line poke came in 2002 with the introduction of the 170bhp Cooper S, a supercharged model with mouth and trousers. Shortly afterwards, the 200bhp John Cooper Works models were offered as an aftermarket conversion. March 2004 saw the unveiling of Convertible derivatives of both the Cooper and Cooper S while a rocketship 'factory' 210bhp Cooper S Works model arrived in November 2004. A Steptronic gearbox was released for the Cooper S models at the start of 2005. Special edition Cooper Park Lane and Cooper S Checkmate cars were also available in 2005/2006.
The all new MINI was unveiled late in 2006 to replace this model, but it looked almost identical so dismay amongst the car's enthusiast following was kept to a minimum.
What You Get
Despite its unashamedly retro appeal, the MINI has some reassuringly modern foundations. Clamber underneath and you'll spot BMW's Z-axle multi-link rear suspension. There's a wrap-around glasshouse with glazed-in side pillars featuring fully flush panes. This creates a 'floating-roof' effect which is emphasised by the Cooper's options of having the roof painted in black or white. There's a lot of chrome around the front end, but if you want a more subtle effect, it's possible to have the MINI de-chromed, swapping the brightwork around the grille and headlamps for sporty black trim. There's even the option of having bonnet stripes painted on! The Steptronic CVT gearbox, as seen on the MG TF, is now available with steering wheel mounted paddles. The Park Lane special edition came in one colour - Royal Grey metallic. Along with this came Park Lane leather and interior trim as well as Park Lane decals, a silver roof, two-tone sports leather steering wheel, 16-inch Bridge spoke alloy wheels and silver bonnet stripes. In addition, this special edition also featured as standard the Automatic Stability Control and Traction system, a rear spoiler, a 'chrome line'-trimmed interior and exterior, floor mats, passenger seat height adjustment, a storage compartment pack, front fog lights, automatic air-conditioning, an on-board computer, an interior lights pack, chrome mirror caps, front sports seats and white indicator lights.
The Cooper S gets a rear roof-mounted spoiler, plus body-coloured re-modelled front and rear 'sport' bumpers, styled to contribute both to engine cooling and air flow. More air is channelled under the bonnet through an integrated black honeycomb grille in the bumper and there's a similar grille at the rear with two chrome-plated tailpipes sitting in the middle of it. Final touches include a couple of chrome-plated side grilles incorporating white indicator lenses and stamped with the Cooper 'S' and a chrome-plated fuel filler cap. The Cooper S Checkmate edition featured exclusive Space Blue metallic paint with Checkmate chequered decals on each wing just behind the front wheelarches. 17" Flame alloy wheels also served to spice-up the exterior and there were silver mirror caps that tied in nicely with a roof which was decked out in the same colour. The Checkmate also did away with the MINI Cooper's traditional bonnet stripes in favour of a giant 'U'-shaped decal which highlighted the Cooper S trademark letterbox bonnet scoop. Lighting was well catered for with xenon headlamps and a set of fog lights at the front.
Inside, there were further additions to the standard trim. The Checkmate benefited from special 'Checkmate' cloth and leather interior trim, a three-spoke sports leather steering wheel, floor mats, passenger seat height adjustment, the storage compartment pack, manual air-conditioning, an on-board computer and the interior lights pack. The Checkmate package was largely cosmetic but one feature that will appeal to people also interested in the car's performance was the limited slip differential.
What to Look For
Practically all MINI owners paid the extra £100 for the five-year 'TLC' servicing option, and as such your prospective purchase will probably have had some main dealer attention. The unfortunate fact that is beginning to emerge is that it may well have needed it. Apart from a recall to modify some car's fuel filler necks, many owners have seen somewhat more of their local BMW service bay than they would have expected.
Many owners reported that the ball races at the top pivot points of their front suspension struts were lacking caps and exposed to the elements. This seemed to be the cause of left hand pull on some models, rectified by fitting new struts. Rattling dashboards and badly fitting roof guttering were also repetitive complaints amongst owners. Likewise a faulty sensor in the tailgate latch often flashes a warning to the driver that the hatch is open, requiring a few slams to disengage it. Check for tyre wear and accident damage and ensure that the hood mechanism functions properly on the Convertible models.
(approx prices excl VAT for a 2004 Cooper.) A clutch assembly is around £130. Front brake pads are around £55, a full exhaust about £360, an alternator around £100 and a front tyre around £65. A starter motor is about £120. A headlamp is about £165.
On the Road
It probably won't have escaped your attention that parent company BMW don't have a great deal of experience in producing front-wheel drive cars. In fact, their advertising seems to pour scorn on the benefits of directing power forwards. Other manufacturers have shown that producing a sweet-handling yet powerful front-wheel drive car can be something of a task. Ask any of BMW's engineers whether this was the case with the MINI and they'll chuckle, recalling its impressive achievements during testing at the Nurburgring: BMW aren't renowned for creating dynamic duffers.
Although the Cooper handles well, keen drivers will always seek out the supercharged but rather thirsty Cooper S models. What's important here is rest to sixty in 7.2s on the way to 138mph. All of which would be useless were the basic car to be incapable of capitalising on all that power. But of course it isn't. If you've driven a standard MINI, then you'll already know about the excellence of the standard chassis: so good in fact that it would have been a waste not to further exploit the whole set-up. The Cooper S package does that brilliantly. The Convertibles are not quite so stellar, exhibiting a degree of body flex and some poor all-round visibility. For really demented performance try the Cooper S Works. With 210bhp up front it's enough to keep some junior supercars on their mettle.
In case of the MINI Cooper, the market has rewarded an excellent product with stellar sales. The hatchback versions with manual gearboxes remain the pick of the crop with our choices being an entry-level Cooper or a range-topping Cooper S Works. It's hard to go too badly wrong but there is a lot of choice out there so take your time and don't get tucked up by a seller looking to command top book for an average car. Those days have long since passed.
MINI Cooper 'R50' (2001 - 2006) review by ANDY ENRIGHT