Comparing BMW’s version of the Mini Cooper to the original British version would be like comparing the Wright Brothers “Flyer” to the aircraft of today. Sure, they look similar, but there is no comparison when it comes to performance and technological advances. On the other hand, if it were not for the forbearer we wouldn’t be testing the Mini Cooper by BMW. Before the Germans took the line over from Rover, the Original Mini sold 5.3 million units over the course of 41 years…. UNCHANGED! Now that’s consumer devotion.
Ok, picture this. It’s a beautiful day, sunny, roads are dry, and you’re on your way to pick up the 2003 Mini Cooper. You’ve been driving about 45 minutes as you pull up to BMW Canada’s showroom window, and see the reflection of the car that you are returning. You think to yourself, “How am I going to be fair to the Mini after spending the last couple of days with BMW’s flagship…the $100k plus, 745iA” (See “The Undisputed Champ of Controversy” by our Editor-in-Chief, Robert Dysiewicz). Before this, I never really paid the Mini much attention.
Something happened as I walked up to the Cooper because suddenly it had my attention, I couldn’t help but smile at its cheeky looks. As I grew closer and finally got next to it I began chuckling with anticipation. I walked around it and I was impressed at its similarities to the original. All of the classic styling cues from 1959 were obvious, the big round headlamps with the chrome accents surrounding them, the not so sloped windshield, the shiny chrome grill, and how the wheels are pushed out to the extreme ends as if the body was stretching over the tires. Our tester was decked out in traditional “British Racing Green” with a white roof, matching mirrors, and wheels, classic Mini colours. This urge to drive this car began to come over me. I could already imagine my self behind the wheel cruising around town. My mom did always say that I fall in love too fast.
Evolved Interior, but still Mini
The first thing that I noticed upon opening the driver’s door was that the doors open almost 90 degrees to the body. This made it very easy to enter the vehicle and was a welcoming sign for a car that is just a hair over 3.5 meters (slightly over 11 feet). As a matter of fact, when the driver and passenger doors are open fully, the Mini is wider than it is long!
Having sat in the original Mini I was expecting to be in cramped quarters with the steering column coming out near the center of the floor on an angle, and having to sit sort of sideways to operate the throttle, brake, and clutch that were also near the center of the floor. I remember saying jokingly to a mate of mine as I sat in the passenger seat of an old Mini that he was going to buy and restore, “You could drive this car from the left or the right side.”
Well, I was astounded upon sitting in the Mini’s driver’s seat at the cavernous feeling, and yes, the steering wheel and pedals were in front of the driver where they should be. It felt big on the inside, about the same as a midsize car would feel with plenty of leg and headroom. The full-size seats with integrated side airbags were comfortable and supportive enough for my 6’1” 212lb frame, and I could see someone 6’4” and heavier fitting inside this car with the same comfort. The seats in our tester were a two-tone, tan in the center and deep green on the sides. They also had two levels of heating, which to me is a must in Canadian climate if you opt for leather. (Ever sit on cold leather?) And I do like the ratchet-type height adjusting for the driver and the passenger’s seat. After driving the car I would have preferred more side bolstering for the more enthusiastic driving. I understand that I will be more satisfied with the seats in the Cooper S.
The car features the classic center dash mounted speedometer that makes the parallel to the vintage style of the original. We noticed the Speedo is bigger than the original Cooper, but it still took some time to get used to taking quick speed-readings. I would make the suggestion here to angle the Speedo slightly toward the pilot. It would make for easier readings and not interfere with the classic look. If your not to worried about looking original and prefer to see the speedometer in front of you, you could opt for the center-mounted navigation system that moves speedometer to a column-mounted unit right alongside the rev counter. All the instruments are trimmed in silver and to minimize reflection, have concave, anti-reflecting glass.
The steering column is height adjustable. The standard two spoke leather look steering wheel sports a big Mini logo in the center and very neatly houses the airbag. The steering wheel also has optional multi-functional controls, which allows you to control the stereo and cruise.
The dashboard and the doors are trimmed in a flat anodized aluminum-look plastic, this would be the only complaint I have with the interior design. I understand that plastic is the choice of interior materials, but in this case, I’m surprised BMW and its designers didn’t put more into making the plastic look more faux metal than faux plastic. My suggestion would be to add a brushed aluminum effect. The plastic is so smooth and soft looking that you could probably scratch it by just trying to clean it. Don’t get me wrong here, I could live with the look if I were to own the car but just have higher expectations when it comes to a product from BMW.
Over to the center console framed and supported by vertical struts. The console is stacked with the audio system (standard hi-fi CD with Harmon Kardon speaker system), climate controls, and a row of spring-loaded toggle switches that evoke the Mini’s rally heritage. They raise and lower the windows, disable the optional traction control, and lock and unlock the doors. There is no real practical reasoning for the use of toggle switches other than being a classic styling cue… they are just cool. I give them a nod for the cool look and they are a pleasure to operate. I liked the fact that all of the controls were either on the steering wheel or on the center console. In most makes of cars, the controls for things like the windows and power locks are usually scattered throughout the cockpit. Not the case with the Mini. Again, I would make the suggestion to angle the console toward the driver.
It’s obvious that the Mini’s striking interior has definitely evolved from the minimalist original version. As far as the Mini being able to fit four adults… it’s possible if all of the occupants are five foot tall. I attempted to sit in the back seat. Getting in the back was relatively easy, and there was lots of headroom, but there was no way I could put the driver’s seat back. I had left the driver’s seat adjusted for me, and there is about an inch between the back of the driver’s seat and the front of the rear seat. Ample room if you have legs like a Flamingo! This is one area where the original Mini has one up on the new one; it could actually fit adults in the back seat. However, I’m sure that the people who are buying a BMW Mini aren’t making their purchasing decision on whether or not the car could fit four adults. Who really wants to sit in the back seat of a car anyway? There is some use for the back seats… when folded down they help to provide a decent amount of cargo space. The cargo area can hold approximately 150 Liters (5.3 cubic feet) with the seats up, and a whopping 671 liters (23.7 cubic feet) with the seats down. This means no problem throwing in your hockey bag, and your buddy’s too… you might have to hang your sticks on the dashboard.
Safety – Mini sets the standard for the Small-Cars
I have to tell you that I was a little apprehensive about taking one of the world’s smallest production cars on Canada’s biggest and busiest highways. I did say that from the inside the car it felt big, and it does, but the first time I took the car on to a three-lane highway it really placed the Mini into perspective. When you drive up next to an eighteen-wheeler you feel as though you could make a lane change right underneath it without touching it at all. Another thing I noticed on the highway was how remarkably rigid the Mini is. BMW says the structure of the Mini is some two to three times greater than the norm for a car of this size and fifty percent stiffer than it’s own line of 3-series cars. The 3800 welds on a car of this size would help in that regard. That’s many more than its competition, and only 800 welds less than the 3-series.
The rigidity makes the Mini safer than any car in this class and some cars that are bigger than it as well. BMW has incorporated into the small structure; front and rear crumple zones, side impact door beams, and six standard airbags. (Including front and side.) There are so many things BMW did to make this car safe: standard anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Xenon headlights as options, 11” ventilated front disc brakes, 10” discs at the rear, Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), and Cornering Brake Control (CBC) are standard. Cornering Braking Control tempers the natural tendency for a car to become unstable at the rear if the brakes are applied hard while cornering. So the system will know when the car is cornering and feeds more braking force to the outside front wheel and counteracts potential oversteer. Subsequently, this also means that more brake force will be fed to the rear brakes in straight line braking. In Layman’s terms, this car is safe, rigid, and stops incredibly well.
There is one more thing that I thought was interesting and I thought you might find intriguing. BMW has included in the Mini’s long list of standard safety features their flat tire monitor. Now let me make it interesting for you by explaining how it works. The driver is alerted to a loss of pressure before the tire or the rim is damaged, not to mention keeping you out of a potentially dangerous situation. It works on the following principal: If there is a loss of air pressure, the rolling radius of the tire is reduced. As a result, the speed at which the wheel rotates increases. Using the sensors that are in the 4-sensor-ABS, the system measures the rpm of the wheel and compares it with the diagonally opposite wheel. If a mismatch is sensed, a warning light comes on… Try to tell me this not cool!
Handles Like A Go-Cart
Ah, the handling. I racked my brain trying to come up with a brilliant way of describing the handling you will experience from the Mini Cooper. I know what everyone else is going to say, “The BMW Mini Cooper handles like a go-cart.” Well, the fact is, the Mini really does handle like a go-kart! It’s nothing short of amazing the way the car’s center of gravity feels like it’s a foot below the asphalt. These go-kart like qualities come from a combination of things like: the torsional stiffness of its shell which again is two to three times stiffer than its competitors, BMW’S patented multi-link Z-axle rear suspension, McPherson Strut front suspension, and unlike most cars, the Mini’s front drive shafts have been engineered to be equal length. Torque steer is non-existent because of the equal length drive shafts, which provide harmonious feedback to the driver during braking and acceleration.
The 1.6L four-cylinder engine in the Mini, which is a product of a joint venture between BMW and Chrysler, is perky enough to justify its sporty icon. At 115 ponies and 110 ft lbs of torque with the smooth shifting manual transmission, the car can grunt out a respectable 9-second 0-100 km/h and a 16.5-second standing quarter mile @ 133 km/h. The only time the engine really felt a little taxed is where high-speed passing was necessary.
I learned that the engine is one of the cleanest on the market, and also one of the few that requires no secondary air injection or exhaust re-circulation to achieve this.
High gas prices wouldn’t bother me much with the Mini Cooper, nor would putting the cheapest gas in the tank. As long as the gas is unleaded the Mini’s engine will burn it, and burn it efficiently. The car has Active Knock Control, so it pretty well doesn’t matter where or what grade you buy. From full to empty in our tester we were able to let the Mini sip its entire tank in an average of 8.3 km/L in the City and 5.9 km/L on the Highway.
Mini Cooper is “all about fun”
Nearing the end of our test week with the Mini Cooper, we were able to take the car out to a location and get our Media Arts Director to shoot some video footage for a fun short movie. On the way there I began to feel like I was being watched. It seemed everywhere I went with the Mini there were people young and old, upper class, middle class, employees working the local Horton’s drive-through, everyone was checking it out. People love the Mini.
The best one was a father and his son that looked to be 6 years old standing at a bus stop. The boy notices the Mini from far away as it was traveling toward them and proceeded to point and jump up and down, but the father didn’t notice. So just as I was about to pass them, the boy, still jumping up and down, gives dad a little tug on his trousers to get his attention. Well doesn’t the kid fall still holding on to dad’s pants and takes the pants with him right to the ground. You had to be there.
Our tester’s price tag is $32,750.00. In my opinion, it’s worth it. Its small, its quick, it’s nimble, its comfortable, good on fuel, its pleasing to the eyes, and most important… you’d be buying an automotive icon that was recreated by BMW, but still branded with the MINI badge! It’s definitely up there on the list of my favourite cars.
I’m sure if I were around in 1959, the time of the release of the original Mini, I would have said the same thing that I will say today, the Mini is probably the only car to be built and sold with one purpose in mind… HAVING FUN!