2003 MINI Cooper Review
Adorable and affordable, quick and comfortable.
The Mini Cooper's broad brow and challenging demeanor is tempered by an appealing wonder-eyed look. The distinctive body shape is recognizable even in black paper silhouette. In the old days we dubbed the Mini The Flying Toastmaster." That description would apply to today's Mini as well if that toaster had a bulldog attitude and could cling to the counter as if suctioned in place. Tenacity is built into today’s Mini visually by its a slightly splayed stance.
The Mini is low, wide, and short, with short overhangs. The wheels are set as far out to the four corners as possible, enhancing stability in turns and reducing hobby-horsing on bumpy straights. Measuring 97.1 inches, the wheelbase is longer than some small cars. But the Mini is shorter overall, at 142.8 inches (less than 12 feet).
The hood is wide, but short in depth, the product of unique design and manufacturing techniques. The big round doe-eyed headlights (which go up with the hood) are partly responsible for the common reaction of "Oh-h-h, isn't it CUTE!" Actually, this response was by intent, not chance. Mini designers also threw in what they consider to be some voluptuous feminine curves and some masculine muscular bulges to cover all the visceral reactions. Thus the Mini is neither Guy Wheels nor a Chick Car. It is an engaging automotive device with an appeal that stretches across gender, age and economic status. That toaster-body shape of the Mini is functional: it gives anyone riding in either back or front seats adult headroom, something that arch-shaped body designs (such as the Beetle) cannot do.
The rear is trimmed with an elegant fascia with one exhaust tip exiting below the sleek rear bumper on the right side. BMW's attention to detail is everywhere in between. Small reflector on door jam alerts other drivers when you open the door when pulled to the side of a busy street. Big oval mirrors afford a good view behind, where all those other cars are located.
Cooper S comes with body-colored bumpers, aggressive side sills, wider wheel arches, a hood scoop, and a lower intake grille. Twin exhaust tips exit from the middle. A rear spoiler trails off the roof, chrome brightens the fuel-filler flap, and an S logo shaped like a curvy road spices up the rear badge. Numerous other styling cues, including big eight-spoke wheels reminiscent of the classic Minilights, ensure everyone whose anyone knows you sprung for the hot one.
The 2003 Mini Cooper shares some of its basic design tenets with the original, but it's roomier, more luxurious, and more convenient. Legend has it that Alec Issigonis, designer of the original Mini, sat four adults in straight chairs, drew a line around them and thus determined the size of his passenger compartment. The box tacked on at the front housed an engine set in sideways to take less room. (Most cars now use this front-drive, transverse-engine layout.) The current Mini is one-third bigger, wider, taller, longer, than the original, so a car full of adults need not be tight. Even tall drivers find it comfortable.
The standard seats are firm and supportive. The sport seats are more receptive, however, longer in seat bottom with higher bolsters. If you prefer seats that you sit in rather than on, opt for the sport seats. Leatherette is standard and it is superb. Cloth is optional at no extra cost. Leather ($1250) is optional for both models.
The front seats slide and lift out of the way to allow rear passengers into the back of this two-door hatchback, and they return to the original position. That makes loading to capacity quick and easy. The seats have recliner levers on both sides for convenience. The rear seats are surprisingly roomy. Legroom is tight, but with a little cooperation from those in front two adults can travel short distances in comfort. There's plenty of headroom and the rear seats are scooped out and provide good support. Rear seats are split and fold down for cargo versatility.
Mini's interior is stylish, modern, and exudes quality. Materials and shapes are as cheery as sunshine and balloons and as now as a new magazine. Prominent circles set the design statement. That large circle in the center of the dash, equally visible to anyone in the car, is the speedometer. The positioning was borrowed from the Mini of old and might seem a tad precious to those who don't smile in recollection. A racy round tachometer is perched like an add-on immediately before the driver's eyes and tilts with the adjustable steering column. Toggle switches with little guards reflect the older Mini while looking very today, and operate power windows, power locks, front and rear fog lamps and the anti-skid system. A pair of cup holders immediately in front of the shifter will hold grande cappuccinos from Starbucks if you squeeze them gently past the bottom edge of the dash.
The Mini interior is full of clever details. The optional automatic climate controls are shaped like the Mini logo, for example. The standard HVAC controls are attractive and work well, though the mode selector knob lacks the nice feel of the fan knob. Radio buttons are small, but are easy to understand and operate.
The dash is neat and firm and has a high-quality leather feel to it. We like the trim on the front of the dash of the standard Cooper, but we're not sure we like the finish on the plastic trim that adorns the dash and doors of the S model. It's designed to look like brushed aluminum, but it looks like your little sister put her sneakers all over it.
The low roofline means you have to stoop to see traffic lights overhead. (Traffic signals are mounted on poles in jolly old England.) Sunroof lovers should love the dual-pane panoramic sunroof ($800). Maybe we're not sunroof lovers. Only mesh covers the glass panels on the inside, letting the sun come streaming in even when you don't want it. Those of us who don't like the sun shining in overhead prefer the solid roof. Plus the metal roof makes a better background for the Union Jack.
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