How to maximize the R53- and R56-chassis Mini Cooper

By Staff Writer
Dec 5, 2022 | Cooper, Mini, Mini cooper, Cooper S, R53, R56 | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Aug. 2014 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy Mini

Story by Ed Higginbotham

[Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Grassroots Motorsports]

Expert: Jerry Tambayong

NM Engineering/ Neuspeed

As most MINI owners know, these cars come with run-flats, which are essentially the worst things to have if you’re building a fun, trackable car. They have to go first–before anything else is done to the car. 

Headers and downpipes are two of the most popular upgrades, but unfortunately they are not legal in California. Many second-generation MINIs are being sold with high-flow downpipes. The problem is that all of them will produce a fault code/check-engine light. The solutions are O2 sensor spacers or an OBD fault code canceller. NM Engineering is coming out with one that is emission-friendly, won’t throw a fault code, and will still pass smog test. We are the first one in the world with this product.

Water pumps are horrible on the two generations. They go out all the time, so watch out for overheated engines. 

Wheel choices are pretty straightforward: The lighter, the better. Since the active tire sizes are between 205 and 235, optimum wheel width is 7.5 to 8.0 inches. You need to be careful on offsets above 50mm, as the inner barrel will hit the control arm at full lock. The bolt pattern is 4x100, the same as on early Honda Civics, so there are plenty of choices in sizes and designs.

First-generation MINIs have a big issue with their weak strut towers: They mushroom easily. So when buying a used car, pay close attention to the upper plate. Some people just hammer the mushroom back down. Some, if the situation is severe, cut and replace. Second-generation strut towers do not mushroom as often. 

Anti-roll bars, rear control arms and anti-roll bar links are the same between the two cars. Our NM Engineering adjustable rear control arms are required for camber adjustments on first-generation cars, as those cars don’t have cam bolts. Second-generation cars have cam bolts, but our control arms are sometimes necessary to get the proper camber adjustments. You need camber plates for the MacPherson front struts for any camber/caster adjustment. 

When you buy aftermarket coil-overs, most of them lower the front anti-roll-bar link brackets to get more drop. Consequently, you need shorter end links. However, most of these companies don’t supply them, so customers are scrambling trying to find the correct length. We have three lengths just for first- and second-generation MINIs.

Expert: Don Racine

Mini Mania

Basic power improvements can be made by upgrading the throttle intake and supercharger pulley, reprogramming the ECU, and upgrading the exhaust system. Since each of these components operates as part of the overall internal combustion cycle, you’ll get the best performance from each if you upgrade them all at once. 

The best-bang-for-your-buck upgrade is the Ultrik three-piece supercharger pulley. At a 15-percent size drop, the Ultrik pulley provides the most boost increase available without overrevving the supercharger at high engine rpm. This ratio gives you added power without putting too much stress on the OEM supercharger.

Further power can be found with a new camshaft. As one may expect, there are several different variations of cams available, with the hottest being very good on the race track but totally unsuitable for street use. However, there is a middle ground: Several aftermarket camshafts have been engineered to provide better engine performance without noticeable negative effects on the smoothness of the engine. These camshafts are ideal for MINIs used primarily on the street but occasionally at track days and autocross events.

Breathing is still the way to get the biggest improvements in horsepower and torque. Adding a cold-air intake will eliminate the restrictive stock intake, while an exhaust header provides noticeable gains as well. Tests on one of the better versions of this performance component show that replacing the exhaust header can produce a significant increase in torque, especially in the mid-rpm range. 

While stiffer, shorter springs and more responsive shocks are very popular suspension upgrades for better performance on track, noticeable handling improvements can also be found by replacing the rubber suspension bushings with polyurethane bushings. PowerflexUSA, one excellent brand, offers polyurethane bushings to replace each of the rubber ones in the suspension.

Expert: Richard Berard

Pete’s Otto

Timing chains are hands down the single most catastrophic failure we see in both these cars. If you hear any noise after startup and until oil pressure, then the timing chain and tensioners need immediate inspection. Major engine damage will occur if the issue is left unattended. We have a machine shop that we use for cylinder head work that keeps you from buying a new cylinder head if the chain breaks. The turbos on the R56 can be rebuilt as well. I believe our rebuilt units are better than new.

We also replace the cooling fans on the power steering pumps. When the fans fail, the pump is soon to follow without adequate cooling. Fans are cheap; pumps are not. 

R56 cars often experience premature valve guide wear. To combat this, make sure that the air filters are high-quality and changed at 45,000-mile intervals or sooner. 

Long, 15,000-mile oil change intervals will cause these cars to die a premature death. We see Porsche, BMW and MINI engine failures in our shop that could have been avoided if decent oil change intervals had been followed. If you experience oil leak issues, make sure that the crankcase vent system is working correctly. 

We also see a lot of transmissions fail–both standard and automatic. Frequent transmission fluid changes will help prevent this. I guess the old saying that service pays speaks volumes. Find a good shop and follow their service recommendations.

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David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/22/18 8:08 p.m.

Hey, that little one in the background looks familiar. 

frenchyd Dork
2/24/18 2:26 a.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens : one thing that would really help is if you listed years. I’m sure the insiders who know the code understand that a 53 is from——- to ——- and the 56 was from  —- to —- 

but if you’re an insider then you likely know all this.   


Jerry UberDork
2/24/18 6:44 a.m.

" Many second-generation MINIs are being sold with high-flow downpipes. The problem is that all of them will produce a fault code/check-engine light. The solutions are O2 sensor spacers or a $300 OBD fault code canceller. "

I'm wondering if I can get the same thing for a Fiat 500 Abarth?  I've been looking at catless downpipes but like not having CEL's.

phaze1todd Dork
11/6/18 5:40 a.m.

Zombie post alert!

How about something for the R53/R56 NA "Justa" owners?

Ian F (Forum Supporter)
Ian F (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
11/6/18 6:11 a.m.

In reply to phaze1todd :

While I don't know of many power adders for the R56 "Justa", the R50 can benefit some from a intake, exhaust and ECU re-flash by a company like RMW. It'll never match the factory forced induction cars, but it can still be fun.  There were some early attempts at turbo kits for the R50, but they proved unreliable and in the end less powerful than factory cars. In most street driving situations, an R50 can hang with a R53, but you'll have to keep the engine in the upper end of the rev range.

For anyone who cares: the 02-06 base Coopers were code R50; 02-06 Cooper S (supercharged) is code R53; the 07-13 base Coopers and turbo Cooper S models were the same code R56 (no idea why). All first gen convertibles (base and S) 05-08, are R52. There are a myriad of R56 variants (Convertible, Clubman, Coupe & Roadster) with their own codes, but generally fall under R56 mod-wise. The current production Cooper and Cooper S is F56. The model pull-down at is a good quick-reference.

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