Mini Cooper S

Mini Hatch (R50/R52/R53)

BUYER’S GUIDE

Mini Hatch (R50/R52/R53) review

The first of the ‘modern Minis’ has matured into an appealing contemporary classic in its own right…

What Is It?

Replacing an icon is never easy, as the Mini Metro’s valiant attempt to reinvent the Mini proved. While the latter soldiered on through the late ‘90s it was clear something had to be done and, amid the tumultuous, end-of-days calamity that was Rover’s dissolution, BMW took its vision for the brand and ran with it. Trading heavily on past glories in terms of the look and overall character, the new Mini was not back-to-basics transport like its predecessor, BMW instead trusting its instincts to create a trendy, sporty and expensively engineered hatchback for upwardly mobile buyers.

Quietly revolutionary in its own way, the first of the modern Minis brought this premium mindset to the small car sector in fine style. And under the retro styling was a thoroughly modern car, the investment in things like sophisticated multi-link rear suspension meaning it handled with real sophistication. Against the fussiness of the current one, this first-generation modern Mini looks better than ever, too.  

Corrosive Areas

Lower door edges

Rear subframes

Number plate recess on rear hatch

Checklist

  • All petrol models use versions of the same 1.6-litre ‘Tritec’ engine developed with Chrysler, the One D using a diesel engine supplied by Toyota
  • Oil leaks on the petrol engine aren’t unusual and may be down to seals for the crank position sensor, oil pump or even oil pan; given replacing any of these is a big job due to limited engine access many owners accept regular top-ups as a price worth paying
  • Plastic dipsticks on earlier cars can snap off inside the engine; metal replacements are a sensible precautionary solution if not already fitted
  • Some engine work requires major front-end disassembly and can cost a lot in labour; clutch changes are one example so consider it a win if there’s evidence of this being done recently
  • The 100,000-mile ‘supercharger service’ on the Cooper S is another expensive milestone, but the extent of the work means it’s also a chance to replace the auxiliary belt, water pump and other inaccessible parts as a precautionary measure – check the history to see if this has been done
  • The distinctive whine from the power steering pump is a characteristic but they can fail and it’s an expensive fix so check for excessive noise or inconsistent feel
  • The standard gearbox was a five-speed manual or a sluggish CVT for the automatic, while the Cooper S had a six-speed manual or more conventional six-speed automatic option
  • The facelift for the 2005 model year (introduced in 2004) didn’t change the looks dramatically but saw significant improvements under the skin, the less reliable Rover-supplied five-speed manual replaced with a sturdier Getrag one while changes to the Cooper S increased power
  • The switch from a two-spoke steering wheel to a three-spoke one is an easy ‘tell’ if you’re browsing adverts for 2004 cars and uncertain as to whether it’s an updated one or not
  • Updated cars also address some of the common issues with central locking solenoids and sluggish electric window regulators some earlier cars can suffer from, though at the age they’re now reaching these should be checked anyway
  • Stiff suspension and bumpy roads can chew through suspension components or, in some cases, even result in distortion to the strut towers and top mounts in the body – check for pulling to one side or misaligned bolts
  • Rust isn’t unknown, with lower door edges, rear subframes and bodywork around the petrol tank vulnerable

How does it drive?

While the styling paid respectful homage to the original Mini it also drove like one, too. Looks and the fundamental mechanical layout were about the only things it really had in common, mind, the R50 Mini (convertible versions are known as R52s, the Cooper S the R53) using a much more modern chassis with an expensive multi-link rear axle for more sophisticated handling than most hot-hatch rivals with their simple twist-beams.

Stiff suspension, weighty but precise steering and well-balanced controls encourage you to push the Mini hard, just as the original did all those years ago. And it responds in kind, with a modern interpretation of the go-kart handling mantra the brand lives by to this day. This character is there across the board, too, meaning even the entry-level One is fun to drive while the Cooper and Cooper S deliver increasingly meaningful performance.  

 What’s good?

The modern Mini wasn’t just good to drive – it also felt genuinely premium, and a very different proposition from other hatchbacks in the market. This wasn’t a basic model dressed up with a few nice bits, after all, but a properly posh car. Just smaller. Those looks have aged really well, too, the clean design and exaggerated Mini stance arguably the most convincing of all three modern Mini generations. It carries over to the interior as well, with the classic central speedo reinvented for the modern age and a row of properly tactile rocker switches beneath it.

Original buyers had to dig deeper into their pockets than perhaps they might have first expected but, equipped with the necessary upgrade packs, the Mini felt properly luxurious as well. This meant it was just as good for long, motorway drives as it was around town or being razzed along the lanes – something you’d never have claimed of the original.

What’s bad?

Style, and that handling, came at the price of practicality, and the modern Mini is pretty tight inside for any more than two occupants. If you need a bit more space and usability there are better hot hatch options available, for sure. And while the sporty suspension set-up was a hit, and suited the character of the car, its combination with stiff-walled run-flat tyres meant ride quality could be pretty brutal on rougher roads and put quite a bit of stress through the suspension components and shell.

As the car has aged reliability quirks and some expensive servicing intervals (especially on the Cooper S) mean running a modern Mini can get quite expensive as well, the car’s sophistication inevitably making it a pricier car to run than its simpler rivals.

Which model to choose?

Given they all drive well it’s a question of what kind of journeys you’ll be doing and the kind of character you’re after. Diesel may not be fashionable these days but the One D has comparable performance to the regular One but also excellent long-distance refinement and economy. Pared back to its fundamentals the One with its 90PS (66kW) engine demonstrates just how good the basic car is and, given it’s not actually that much slower than the regular Cooper, has an understated appeal. Just make sure the original buyer paid for the desirable Salt and Pepper packs to equip it with the creature comforts you’d expect.

With its supercharger whine, 170PS (125kW) output and more up-for-it character we can’t help but be seduced by the Cooper S, though. This is a proper hot-hatch and a potent little thing, the more so if you get a post-2004 Chilli Pack one with the optional limited-slip differential or can find one with the John Cooper Works package and significantly upgraded performance.

Specifications – Mini Cooper S (R53, 2005 model year)

Engine

1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol, supercharged

Power

170PS (125kW) @ 6,000rpm

Torque

220Nm (162lb ft) @ 4,000rpm

Transmission

Six-speed manual/six-speed auto, front-wheel drive

Kerb weight

1,215kg

0-62mph

7.2 seconds

Top speed

138mph

Production dates

2001-2006 (entire production)

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