2002-'06 MINI | Buyer's Guide

Robert
By Robert Bowen
Jul 6, 2022 | Mini, Buyer's Guide, GRM+ | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Dec. 2011 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Grassroots Mototsports.]

The original Mini helped bring efficient, front-wheel-drive design to the masses. It officially left our shores at the end of the 1967 model year, but it soldiered on in the U.K. until 2000. Shortly thereafter, a completely new version roared back into our lives and became one of the most important compacts of the new millennium. Like the first Mini, the new model nearly perfected the balance between performance, economy and utility. 

Both the original and revamped Minis owe their performance credentials to one man, John Cooper. He turned Alec Issigonis’s fuel-efficient commuter into something of a small hotrod—a boxy little car that could run with the big dogs. The original Cooper went from car to cultural icon—celebrities loved it, racers loved it, and nearly anyone could afford it—but in its twilight years the future of the marque was in question. 

Then BMW began pulling the strings. The Bavarians bought out Mini’s parent company, the Rover Group, in 1994. Mini was part of the package. 

Quickly cutting their losses, BMW sold off most of the other Rover brands. They held on to Mini, however, and actually invested money into making the old design meet evolving safety requirements. BMW appeared to be sinking cash into the antiquated brand in order to position it for a comeback.

The updated “original” Mini was on life support, however, and a replacement was desperately needed. Despite adding airbags and door bars, the decades-old design had absolutely no hope of passing upcoming European crash regulations.

BMW had been toying with the idea of a premium front-wheel-drive compact for a while. The company felt that the market was lacking a premium compact that cost less than the BMW 3 Series, but they didn’t want to dilute their own brand with such an offering. 

The Mini marque was perfect for such a car. It had some built-in brand equity, even in places where its products hadn’t been sold in decades—like the U.S. Plus, the name evoked the fun-loving ’60s. Could it work?

Retro Rebirth

BMW challenged its various design studios to pen a Mini shape for the new millennium. A winner was chosen from the entries submitted by BMW Designworks in the United States. Frank Stephenson’s design was modern and instantly recognizable as a Mini.

[Video: How the Design of the New Mini Cooper Came to Be]

The production MINI—released for the 2002 model year—was nearly identical to the design study. Those bulging headlights, cartoonish yet aggressive lines, and distinctive personality all carried through. The new car also had a rather useful hatchback instead of the original’s nearly useless trunk. And while it was much larger than the original, it was still diminutive by the day’s standards. The MINI had simply grown to catch up with the modern automotive market.

While the MINI is small, the original is considerably smaller still. Photography Credit: Courtesy BMW

BMW had also made the new car faster, more efficient and, most importantly, safer than its forebear. The MINI’s engine was developed through a joint venture with Chrysler and built in Brazil. While the new car shared little more than a name and a styling motif with the old Mini, there was one significant physical similarity: The body stampings and final assembly both took place in the U.K.

To emphasize the differences between the original Mini and the 21st-century version, BMW capitalized the letters in the name of the new car: They officially dubbed it the MINI. To maintain the historical continuity, however, they named the upper trim models Cooper and Cooper S.

A large nose inlet feeds air to the intercooler on supercharged S models. Photohraphy Credit: David S. Wallens

The base gasoline-powered MINI One featured a 1.4-liter engine that made a meager 74 horsepower; it was never officially imported to the States. Our base car was the 1.6-liter, 115-horsepower MINI Cooper. The sporty Cooper S added a supercharger and intercooler; output was boosted to 163 horsepower. 

The Cooper got a five-speed manual box, while the S had a standard six-speed transmission. The Cooper could also be ordered with a CVT automatic, an unusual choice in the early 2000s—and one that generally proved to be a mistake years later. 

The front suspension featured ordinary MacPherson struts and lateral arms, a pretty standard BMW design, and the multilink rear suspension was based on the contemporary 3 Series. Spring and shock rates on both cars were on the sporty end of the spectrum, but the combination of a simple independent suspension, short wheelbase, minimal overhangs and light weight meant the new MINI was nearly as tossable and just as grippy as its ancestor. 

Many Options, Not So Many MINIs

Few small cars have ever been so customizable straight from the factory. The MINI lineup featured nearly 20 exterior hues and multiple equipment packages, plus a huge list of factory and dealer options. The MINI could become a national-level autocrosser or a nostalgic commuter, complete with a Union Jack on the roof and a full complement of chrome accents and doodads.

Then there was the full-court press advertising campaign. Cars were placed in the stands at sporting events, while print ads could be found everywhere—even on a Playboy centerfold. 

The launch was inconveniently successful for many buyers, especially those in urban areas where cars were flying off the lots. Instead of the 20,000 units planned for the U.S. in that first model year, dealers managed to sell nearly 30,000 MINIs.

Thanks to BMW’s involvement, the interior quality is above average, though the big, center-mounted speedometer is polarizing. Photography Credit: Courtesy BMW

Production at the Oxford plant couldn’t keep up with worldwide demand, leaving dealers and their customers waiting months for delivery. Popular dealers used the tight supply to pad their bottom lines, routinely tacking thousands of dollars onto the MSRP of outgoing cars.

There were few deals to be had on new MINIs during 2002, a situation that persisted for the next couple years. Meanwhile, depreciation on used MINIs was nearly nil, allowing many owners to break even on trade-in even after two years had passed. 

The new Cooper and S weren’t just popular on the street: They immediately invaded motorsports, particularly autocross. Within weeks of its launch, the base Cooper began to dominate the H Stock autocross class, where it’s still the top car choice. At the recent Tire Rack SCCA Solo Nationals, for example, 18 of the top 20 drivers were in Coopers. James Feinberg took the H Stock national title in a 2004 model, showing that new hasn’t quite displaced old.

When New Becomes Used

Where the original Mini seemed to enjoy a nearly unlimited production run, this “new” MINI wasn’t so lucky. For 2007, it was replaced by a “new new” MINI. The look was very similar, but the car received a completely different engine as well as a heavily updated suspension and chassis.

The more recent MINI hasn’t totally eclipsed the previous one, however. While there have been some definite improvements, the 2002-’06 MINI still works well. The car has possesses an enduring charm, and its interior is a little less cartoonish. Best of all, it finally enjoys a nice discount on the used market. 

Things to Know

The 2002-’06 MINI Cooper and Cooper S models can be very practical daily drivers and fun weekend autocrossers, but they can also be frustrating money pits. In general, each model year received both minor and significant updates, so buy the newest example you can afford. 

Photography Credit: Courtesy BMW

Body and Interior

Know your 2002-’06 MINI chassis codes: R50 for the Cooper, R52 for the convertible, and R53 for the supercharged Cooper S.

Chris Sneed of Sneed’s Speed Shop in Pfafftown, North Carolina, cautions, “The window motors go out—they just quit working. It’s not an extremely costly repair, but it’s a few hundred bucks. The door lock actuators are the same way.”

Don Racine of Mini Mania in Nevada City, California, notes that the power steering pump can also fail over time, and the only warning may be an occasional assist cut. Sneed adds that remanufactured units are now available, and they seem to last longer than the originals. “You have to use the specific MINI fluid for them or you can really screw stuff up,” he notes.

Waylen Hunsucker of Way Motor Works in Atlanta, Georgia, recommends checking the inside door handles for a taut response. “The door cables tend to stretch, and you’ve got to pull them extra far to get ’em to open. It’s an $11 cable, but it takes an hour or more to replace them.”

If the xenon headlights don’t pop on immediately, the integrated ignitor in the assembly could be the problem. Replacement of the whole unit can be expensive. Speaking of lights, if the air bag light is on, get it inspected before buying. “You might have to replace an entire seat,” explains Hunsucker. “It’s $1200 for the part.”

Check the rear hatchback hinges for smooth operation, suggests Racine, as they also fail as they age. 

Looking to improve the power-to-weight ratio? Sneed notes that the rear seats and seat belt gear are worth about 40 pounds.

“On Northern cars, the exhaust will rot out really badly from the cat back,” says Hunsucker.

Live somewhere bright and sunny? Racine says that many folks upgrade the factory sunshade on glass-roof cars, as the stock shade doesn’t block enough rays.

Engine and Drivetrain

“If you’re the kind of person who needs a car with more power, wait for an S because you won’t be happy with a base Cooper—even if it is in good condition or has low mileage or the right color,” explains John Jaeger, owner of MiniWorx of Redondo Beach and Laguna Beach, California. “We often get people who say, ‘I love my Cooper, but I wish it had more power. Is there anything I can do?’ The answer is no, there isn’t much that can be done.”

Looking for some extra punch from the supercharger system? Jaeger recommends the 15-percent pulley for the Cooper S. The 17- and 19-percent pulleys can create too much heat, he warns.

“While there are some really excellent aftermarket parts out there—well-engineered stuff—if you have to pass smog like we do here in California, they aren’t always the best choice,” Jaeger adds. “The John Cooper Works parts are factory-based, and they are smog-legal. They work right and have no downsides.”

The 2002 cars tend to have some mechanical issues. Watch for disconnected shifter cables, for example. 

Have performance on the brain? Sneed recommends the 2005-’06 models because of their slightly shorter gearing. He warns that upgrading an earlier car to the later transmission renders the cruise control inoperable in most gears.

Some MINIs came equipped with a factory limited-slip differential. If the car you’re looking at has an open diff, you can always upgrade to an aftermarket unit. We loved the OS Giken clutch-type diff on our project Cooper S.

Hunsucker recommends examining the engine mounts on any used MINI. “The passenger-side mounts on all years go bad. The later ones, anything mid-’04 and on, has basically a metal can, and the fluid will leak out—that’s how you tell if it’s bad. The earlier ones are rubber but still fluid-filled. They get short as they age and that tears the other mounts.” Polyurethane replacements are available.

The thermostat is a common coolant leak point on these MINIs. “There’s actually an updated gasket for the housing that came out about two years ago,” says Hunsucker.

Suspension and Brakes

Sneed recommends checking the front control arm bushings first: “Just like BMWs, at this point they need to be replaced on pretty much every car. The steering gets slow.” The easy way to check is by using a torque wrench on the wheel lugs and applying force. If the wheel angles inward like it’s turning, the bushings are shot. Aftermarket polyurethane bushings are a good upgrade for the street, and Alta Performance makes a solid mount for track use.

The main culprits behind bad brake feel on a street car, according to Hunsucker, are cheap aftermarket pads and rotors from the discount chains. “Look at the rotors. If the hat is rusty on the rotor, it’s a cheap aftermarket part. The OEM ones don’t rust,” he says.

The original-equipment struts are fairly robust, and Hunsucker says they last a long time. However, the rubber bushing at the top of the strut tower is a known weak point. Most experts recommend upgrading to an adjustable camber plate if the car will see any performance use.

If heavy track use is on the menu, you may want to consider a brake upgrade. “The R53 front brakes are undersized big-time for track use,” warns Sneed. “We made them work with our brake coolers and a Carbotech XP12 pad, but after a while we still needed to change the caliper out. We were over 2000 degrees, and that’s where metal starts to get soft.”

“You definitely want to change the rear lateral links to an aftermarket part,” says Sneed. “Anything is better than a stock part. You want to do all four—upper and lower—if you’re going to track the car. It’ll fold the upper one, and that will stick the tire into the wheel well and cause you to turn in that direction in a very abrupt manner.”

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Comments
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DrBoost
DrBoost MegaDork
3/8/22 4:43 p.m.

I could have used this article a month or two ago. I added this to my stable. 

ddavidv
ddavidv UltimaDork
3/8/22 6:35 p.m.

Everything you need to know:  AVOID. laugh

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/8/22 9:05 p.m.
ddavidv said:

Everything you need to know:  AVOID. laugh

I like R50s a lot.  They remind me of an 80s Golf so much that when I drive one and go to park it, I find myself instinctively trying to push the shifter down and trying to shift to the left of 1st gear to get to Reverse.

Given that I lived with one (Golf, that is) for about 75k and still consider it one of the best front drive cars ever, one can consider this to be high praise.

 

OTOH, they seem to be all SORTS of expensive to repair, since OEM parts seem to be the only ones that work.  And the power steering system is borderline asinine, as there is a cooling fan to keep the electric pump from overheating as it is right next to the exhaust manifold, but fluid drool from the reservoir hose coats it with fluid, which collects grime, which kills the fan motor, which slowly kills the pump...

mikeonabikesmith
mikeonabikesmith New Reader
3/8/22 10:50 p.m.

I also could have used this a handful of months back. I can't tell yet if these truly are problematic or if the owners are particularly winey. It's no miata but so far the maintenance has been easy enough... outside this parasitic drain that might drive me absolutely insaine.

Chris_V
Chris_V UberDork
3/9/22 6:46 a.m.

Love the MINIs, with my favorite being the late 2nd gen cars. One thing that I always recommend is to get the latest of whatever generation you are looking for. For the first gen cars, that's the '05-06 (up to '08 for convertibles) and the '11-13 (up to '15 for the convertibles and roadsters) for 2nd gen cars. Most of the problematic areas were usually taken care of by then in each generation. Easy to work on with a huge following making DIY repairs as easy as getting OEM or better parts and following along with one of the myriad of videos out there. As was mentioned, maintenance is really easy for most of them (the early 2nd gen cars with the N14 engine are kind of an exception as those engines need special care it seems).

Lots of aftermarket companies for them, too, so you can build anything from a real track rat to a full on show car with ease.

I love my '13 JCW Roadster and after all the cars I've owned over the years, I've realized that even if I won the lottery, this would be the preferred car to have fun in.

 

 

350z247
350z247 Reader
7/6/22 2:50 p.m.

They're good cars, but I would never have one as an only car, especially for a commute longer than 30 minutes. Mine has tried to stand me way too many times from a burnt exhaust valve turning it into a 3 cylinder to a cannibalistic alternator. I'm swapping the garbage Tritec for a K20 which will solve 95% of the problem areas. A slick top R50 would be a great starting point.

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