2003 MINI Cooper S


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2003 MINI Cooper S Review
Adorable and affordable, quick and comfortable.

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Driving Impressions

2003 MINI Cooper S Review Driving Impressions

Regardless of model, the Mini Cooper delivers a sporty driving experience. Spring for the S if you are a serious driving enthusiast. Otherwise, you may find the standard Mini Cooper more comfortable. It's smooth, very stable, like a BMW. Around town, the Mini is well-mannered, smooth to shift, easy to park. The S is firm and bounces enough that drinking hot java on the way to work may result in a stained shirt or blouse.

Mini corners like a go-kart and it's hard to exceed its cornering limits. The harder and deeper you go into corners, the more it says more." The Mini goes where it's pointed without protest. Even when rain was sheeting down and the pavement shimmered in rivulets, the Mini felt bonded to the surface. The old Mini was as much fun as a carnival ride to drive, but much of the fun came from constant flirting with catastrophe (one wheel always lifted off the surface in hard turns). The fun in this Mini, with a body that feels as rigid as a block of maple, is in exploring its astonishing capabilities.

As one might expect from a car associated with BMW, the Mini Cooper's steering is precise and immediate, though not as light as you might expect in a small car. Sharp and accurate, it's easy to place this little car exactly where you want it. The suspension (McPherson struts in front and multi-link rear) is designed to keep the car snug to the road. This means passengers feel broken surfaces, expansion joints, weathered pavement. The Mini's ride is not a velvety one, but it is a secure one. Somehow even on the roughest road, one that sets passengers popping like corn in a hot skillet, the Mini holds its direction like a gyroscope. Drivers like that. And make no mistake: the Mini is a driver's car.

The brakes (vented front discs front, solid rear discs) are equally impressive, proportionally balanced as they are. Hit them hard at speed and the car feels sucked to the earth and slowed immediately by an invisible hand. None of that tiptoe-light feeling you sometimes get under serious braking. Mini comes standard with four-channel anti-lock brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), and Corner Brake Control (CBC). EBD distributes front-to-rear brake forces for improved stability and shorter stopping distances. CBC evens braking forces side to side, important when braking in the middle of a corner (a driving faux pas). Optional Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) applies the brakes at individual wheels and reduces engine torque when it senses you're skidding or not traveling on your intended path.

The standard 115-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder overhead-cam engine never feels deficient. It delivers plenty of power for most of us, but does not put your head against the backrest at launch. Hit the loud pedal, and it can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, according to Mini. It has plenty of juice for charging around on-ramps and can rocket out onto the freeway. It gets an EPA-estimated 28/37 mpg City/Highway.

Shifting feels good and smooth. The gearing favors a quick take off (the way Americans like it). However, the Mini Coopers five-speed gearbox leaves a longer stretch between second and third gear than expected. I found it a tad annoying, rather like a flight of stairs with one riser a little higher than all the others. Drivers should make appropriate use of the gearbox to keep themselves well positioned on the 115-hp Mini Coopers torque curve. That's easy.

The 1.6-liter engine in the Mini Cooper S produces 163 horsepower and 155 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Its capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds, considerably quicker than the standard Cooper. (Top speed is electronically limited to 135 mph.) The S doesn't feel like a rocket off the line, but really comes into its own once it's rolling. The supercharger doesn't deliver that explosive thrust associated with turbocharged engines, but it accelerates hard, with thrilling performance when you nail it in the 30-60 mph range. It's significantly quicker than the standard Cooper, but the performance doesn't feel dramatically quicker from the seat of the pants. The supercharged engine uses the same block, but features more cooling measures (an engine oil cooler and piston-cooling jets), lower-compression pistons (to reduce detonation), special crank, special valves, and, of course, the roots-type blower. All this adds up to 40-percent more horsepower and torque and an EPA-estimated 24/33 mpg.

Equipped with a six-speed manual, it did not have the tall second gear feel of the Mini Cooper. The pull from the supercharged engine means it doesn't shift as elegantly as the standard Cooper, but it's quite tractable and easy to shift around town at low speeds. Sixth is a tall gear, turning about 2600 rpm at 65 mph, good for fuel economy. The six-speed is a high-performance Getrag gearbox with double-cone synchros.

S rides firmer than the standard Cooper. It's fine for a driving enthusiast, but some may find it on the firm side. You hear and feel tar strips. Some of that could be attributable to the run-flat tires. On a tight autocross circuit, the S feels quicker, more like a go-kart, though the standard Cooper is still a hoot.

The available CVT, or Continuously Variable Transmission, drains the fun out of the Mini Cooper, in our opinion. The Mini's CVT works like other CVTs. You may get used to it, but you may never love it. It's not as responsive as a proper manual gearbox. It bogs when coming out of corners unless you give it a lot of gas. Stand on it and it holds 5500 rpm until you lift. If you can't shift a manual gearbox, we recommend looking elsewhere.

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