Sometimes small, efficient cars are built for basic transportation.
Other times, they’re built for a very special niche market that focuses specifically on style. Sharing retro popularity with automotive icons such as the original Volkswagen Beetle and even the Fiat 500 (or Cinquecento), the MINI name is virtually unforgettable. From the wild car chases in The Italian Job to the classic yellow Cooper driven by Mr. Bean, it’s hard to think of automotive cult classics without the MINI Cooper. This year, the MINI brand is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the little car, so BMW Canada pulled out all the stops.
We were tossed the keys to a 2002 MINI Cooper Launch Edition, the first version of the “modern” MINI. Only 500 examples of the Launch Edition were built to celebrate the BMW sub-brand’s debut, and this Indi Blue example has been preserved in the Canadian head office for the past 17 years. With just 1,000km on the clock, I dove headfirst into this car, which also happens to be a twin to the very car I drove all through university many years ago. This particular road test is not only a throwback for those who grew up around the modern MINI, but a very emotional experience for this writer.
With just 115 horsepower and 110 lb-ft. of torque under the hood, the 1.6L inline four-cylinder isn’t a powerhouse by any means. In fact, this engine was a co-development between Chrysler and BMW, and was actually similar to the motor in the wretched Neon. It has much more character in the MINI application, and while not quick by any means, the standard Cooper is potent and eager when darting around the city. Those who wanted more power in 2002 could opt for the supercharged Cooper S, which offered about 50 horsepower more and the personality of forced induction.
Back in 2002, BMW claimed a sprint to 100km/h in nearly nine seconds, but in reality the MINI doesn’t feel nearly that slow. A CVT was optional, but time has not been kind to that transmission. The gearbox to have in your first-generation MINI (codenamed “R50”) is the five-speed manual equipped in our test vehicle. It’s a slick-shifting box, and while the shifter has relatively long throws, it’s fairly precise and the clutch has a high engagement point. At highway speeds the Cooper aches for a sixth gear, but it has no issues delivering 5.8-5.9L/100km consistently at highway speeds.
Those who know the MINI know that it’s not a straight-line car by any means. Where the Cooper’s true personality comes out is when you get to your favourite twisty road. The handling is an absolute dream, and quite frankly, the first-generation (2006-2006) MINI in any configuration is one of the best-handling modern front-wheel-drive cars. The steering doesn’t have quite as much feel as some other vehicles of the era, namely the Acura Integra Type R, but the MINI corners like it’s on rails. Naturally there is some understeer if pushed very hard, but there’s excellent overall balance.
When I purchased my first-generation MINI, it already had 80,000km on the odometer and the interior had quite a few squeaks and rattles. This 1,000km example had the exact same imperfections, rattling and squeaking on every bump. The rattles are likely the single biggest fault of the 2002-2006 Cooper, and this was rectified for the second-generation vehicle in 2007. Despite the noisiness, build quality is still quite good and materials inside the MINI feel more premium than other subcompacts. At the end of the day, it still feels like a BMW of the era.
The MINI’s premium bits don’t stop at overall quality – the level of equipment for the price is significant. Our Launch Edition test vehicle came in at $27,000, which would have bought you a well-equipped midsize sedan in 2002, but with the MINI you’re clearly paying for the style factor. It starts with the quirky styling and two-tone paint, which was available with plenty of customizations. A few wheel designs were offered, along with personalization through MINI’s catalogue including a Union Jack on the roof and mirror caps, and other fun offerings.
One of the bigger quirks of the MINI has always been its interior. With a speedometer and odometer dead center on the dashboard, and toggle switches on the lower dash for everything from the emergency flashers to the power window controls, it was an out-of-the-box design that has aged extremely well. Where you’d expect the instrument cluster to be is a small tachometer with emergency warning lights around it. A blank digital display lies where an outside temperature readout was added for the 2005 model year. The interior is surprisingly roomy, and my six-foot frame fits without issue with an excellent driving position. The rear seats are usable for small trips or, well, shorter folks, but most will opt to keep them folded flat to increase cargo capacity.
For the price, the Cooper would still include features like front fog lights, a CD player, remote keyless entry, heated front seats, and leatherette seating. Other noteworthy options offered on this model included a large panoramic sunroof, park distance control, navigation, xenon headlights and rear fog lights. Our Launch Edition was strangely lacking cruise control, though those using the MINI as a fun city runabout may not even notice this omission.
Over the past 17 years that this model has been available to Canadians, the original Cooper and Cooper S have spawned an entire sub-brand of models. We have seen models like the race-oriented MINI GP as well as limited editions like the Goodwood and everything in between. MINI now even offers a plug-in hybrid crossover, and a five-door version of the standard three-cylinder Cooper. While the brand has expanded to open its doors to a variety of new clients, stepping back into the nostalgic interior of this 2002 Cooper is a refreshing reminder to never forget your roots.