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2003 New Car Review: Mini Cooper S

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p>SEE ALSO Mini Buyer's Guide



MODEL: Mini Cooper S

ENGINE: 1.6-liter supercharged inline four


TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual

WHEELBASE: 97.1 in.

LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 143.9 x 66.5 x 55.8 in.

STICKER PRICE: $19,975 (base)

My wife wouldn't let me buy a Mini when they first came out in the 1960s. Looking back, she was right.

While the car was revolutionary and packaged a lot of features into a small space, it was simply too small for me and our growing family. I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but a recent trip in a vintage Mini showed me what would have been the errors of my ways.

The new Mini, much like the New Beetle, is another vehicle altogether. It shares the same shape as its predecessor, and it still has a transverse-mounted front-wheel driving four-cylinder engine. But the new Mini is larger, about the same size as a Beetle, and oh so much more practical.

I still don't think my wife would let me buy one, but I think with this edition of the car I'd have a fighting chance of winning the battle.

Our tester was the upscale Mini Cooper S, with a supercharged 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine that delivers 163 horsepower, considerably more than the unturbocharged Mini Cooper. It also came with a British flag applied to the flat roof, one of many flag options you can get with the Mini. American flags are also available.

BMW builds the Mini these days, after having acquired the rights when it bought BMC/Leyland/Rover many years ago. The company even has a new MG on the roads, reviving that car name that was so dear to my heart one time. As an aside, when I was in Italy recently, I almost had whiplash when a modern MG passed me by.

Suffice it to say, the "BMW" Mini is a much better vehicle than the "BMC" Mini was.

Driving the Mini Cooper S around the neighborhood drew interesting glances. For the most part, the comments from other drivers were "thumb's up," which was encouraging. Several drivers stopped me in parking lots to ask about the car. I was impressed that so many knew what it was in the first place, and knew the car's heritage in the second.

Despite its boxy shape, the Mini Cooper S handles well, thanks mostly to the wheel locations at the outermost corners of the chassis. And with a six-speed Getrag transmission to play with, I could "snick-snick" through the gears to my heart's content and extract maximum performance from the car.

But in the long run, this car is a lot like the Mazda Miata. It can deliver a lot of fun, depending on how hard you want to drive it, but it won't get you in trouble through excessive speed. Like the Miata, high speeds are possible, but lower-speed zipping around is just as much fun. Zero-to-60 time is under seven seconds, so you can get up and go if you choose. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS make stopping the Mini an easier job.

The Mini has a lot of interior room, so that four passengers can ride in relative comfort, unless they are over-sized. We put some friends in the back seat for one trip and they remained friends after we arrived, so that's a testament to the car's comfort.

There isn't a lot of luggage capacity, though. Mini lists the trunk volume as 5.3 cubic feet, and it's all behind the rear seat, much like in a minivan. But the rear seats fold and stow to increase carrying capacity to 23.7 cubic feet. This isn't enough to carry 4x8 sheets of plywood, but for two people going away on a trip, there's enough room for all the luggage you'd want.

The new Mini Cooper S is a fun to look at fun to drive car that offers decent performance and good fuel economy (24/33 mpg EPA estimates). It isn't for everyone, which is evidenced by the fact that you don't see that many on the road. It is, however, bigger and safer than the mini cars I saw on the roads of Rome and is therefore better suited to American roads.

I think the Mini will do well in the United States, in its own niche market.

© 2002 The Auto Page Syndicate