19 Feb 2016

2003 Mini Cooper S (R53) Review (And How I Came To Buy It)

After an absolute age I sold my Lotus Elise. My reasons for selling it were outlined here and once I'd decided it had to go I got slightly more annoyed with it as each day passed unsold.

One horrible day in early February I went into the garage to load the tumble dryer. My Triumph Tiger is a fair bit longer than the Street Triple which preceded it. The Tiger was at the back of the garage and the Elise in front of it but shuffled really far forwards so there wasn't much room between it and my workbench - and the tumble dryer adjacent. I caught the edge of my kneecap against the Elise's number plate and swore loudly.

After two months on sale it had become just a lump that was in the way. I'd never really bonded with it and its state of unsoldness (someone call Oxford - I invented a new word) was wearing really thin. Four people had viewed it and taken it for extensive test drives and had taken up many hours of my time - and then not bought it. The day before the kneecapping incident a young man had spent two hours poring over every last detail and then proceeded to piss me around with a series of offers with catches attached. He wanted me to take it to a Lotus expert for an independent inspection as well as service it and MOT it. In polite terms I let him know he could Foxtrot Oscar.

"Will the damn thing ever sell?" is not what I was thinking when I received a phone call the next day at 8.30am whilst still asleep. "Yes?" I barked as I answered the unrecognised number. "I'm calling about the Lotus," said the voice. I snapped to attention. We spoke for thirty minutes. I tried to hide my just having woken-upness. He sounded genuine. He sounded sane. He did not sound like your typical Lotus-buying arse-merchant. He would visit the next morning.

They next morning I walked round the car to give it a check over and noticed the front number plate was hanging off.

On an Elise the front plate is stuck on with industrial-spec double sided sticky tape. I did not have any in the house and it was too late to go shopping. 99% of Elise buyers want a car that is 99.9% perfect and a hanging off number plate is reason enough to walk away from a sale - after having spent  five hours asking the seller questions that would flummox even Lotus' longest serving employee.

I tried to stick it on with a piece of normal sellotape folded back on itself but this did not work. Obviously. I was desperately trying to make it stick in place by mind power alone when the prospective buyer turned up.

As it turned out he was a normal person rather than the usual Lotus time-waster buyer and after just half an hour he bought the car. He paid me the money and drove away in it, very happy.

I immediately paid off the loan which I had taken out to buy the Elise - and  which was the over-riding reason for selling it.

However I did want another second car. I love my XC60 but I lease it and I've overshot the allowed mileage by nearly 50% and rather than pay extra for the privilege of driving it more than I should I wanted to buy a second car.

Eagle-eyed Speedmonkey readers will remember that in November last year I declared I needed a "Don't Give A Shit Car," and that that would be a 2004 Mini Cooper S.

I set myself a budget of £2,500, which I could afford without taking out a loan, and spent hours looking at the classifieds for the perfect Cooper S.

I ignored all those sold by dealers who at that budget I consider (through experience) to be cowboys. I found one for sale in Cornwall. I texted a mate and asked if he fancied a trip to Truro that Saturday (yes he'd like that he said) and texted the seller. Unfortunately she was away for the next weekend.

I didn't really like any others. Missing service history, horrible colours, horrible condition, horrible places, horrible sellers.

Then one Friday I was working from home. Whilst making a cup of tea I checked the Autotrader app and a new private ad for a Cooper S popped up. It had done 105,000 miles, had a full service history, one lady had owned it for the past five years and it was only ten miles from home.

I called the seller and asked if I could see it on Saturday. "You'll be lucky," he said, "...the phone's been ringing off the hook."

I knew why. At £1,750 it was around £750 cheaper than anything else of the same spec and condition.  "OK, I'll be there at lunch," I said.

I ignored every one of my own rules for buying a used car, primarily because the seller was obviously a decent bloke (and that counts for a lot when buying used) and because at the price it was a complete steal. After a short inspection and an even shorter test drive I offered the full asking price, paid a deposit and shook hands on the deal. I couldn't afford to haggle or muck him about because the usual second hand dealer ghouls were phoning him every few minutes offering him close to the asking price.

The next morning my mate who was going to come to Cornwall came instead to Wokingham and we picked the car up.

I drove to Halfrauds to buy a Pure DAB digital radio to replace the analogue unit in the dash as well as 5 litres of 5W30, an oil filter and four Bosch spark plugs.

Once home and with a large cup of tea I set about servicing my new (to me) Mini Cooper S. It had only been serviced six months previously but I wanted to get to know it and give it a good start to my ownership of it.

The servicing was ridiculously easy. The engine is well packaged and everything was easy to get at.

Afterwards I filled it up with super unleaded (not necessary but I wanted to treat it) and took it for a proper test drive.

A 2003 Mini Cooper S has a 1.6 litre, 4-cylinder engine and is fitted with a supercharger. For those who don't know this is similar to a turbocharger but instead of being fed by exhaust gases is driven by a belt from the engine.  The supercharger is cooled by an intercooler which sits behind the scoop in the bonnet - so it is there for a reason.

The car has 163bhp, 155b ft of torque, does 0-60mph in 7 seconds and weighs around 1,140kg.

The driving position is great. The bulkhead sits quite far forward so the footwell is relatively deep which means you can sit with your legs out like you would in a rear wheel drive sportscar. The interior is nicely designed but the seats in mine are part cloth (in an eye-watering shade of Smurf blue) and part leather.

The steering wheel feels chunky as does the gear lever. The switchgear is designed for maximum retro effect but looks and feels of a decent quality.

Some people told me the Mini is a girl's car but a) it looks good, b) it's fast, c) I don't care. And it really does look good, inside and out.

My own car misses some options I would have liked, namely full leather seats, heated seats, twin dials (we'll come to those in a minute) and cruise control but it makes up for all those because it has the glass panoramic roof. This is so big it makes the car feel like a Targa. Full epicness (another new word!).

The only real let-down inside the car is the fact the speed readout is in the middle of the dashboard. If the original owner had specced satnav this would have been housed in the centre of the dash and instead of just the rev-counter being located above the steering column two dials (speed and revs) would have sat just below the driver's view of the road. Instead working out the speed means briefly looking down and to the left - which is silly.

Driving the Cooper S is an absolute hoot. The engine has a lot less low-down torque than I imagined and the gearbox is less than smooth. My main driver this past year has been my Volvo XC60 which has one megaton of torque and the smoothest gearchange outside of Madonna's wardrobe.

But once used to these twin foibles I drove the Mini as it should be driven. Hard. And by god it rewards. You'll notice in the photos the overhangs are absolutely tiny. This means you can chuck the car this way and that and it'll comply. It turns like a Jack Russell on carpet and it goes like the proverbial clappers as long as you change gear right in the red zone. And it refuses to understeer no matter what you do.

The ride is less than relaxed but the upside is you feel the road and what is going on with the wheels. The power is linear which means you don't really get torque steer but it's still a good idea to turn the traction control off because it does cut in far too early if, for example, you corner quickly and get the inside front wheel spinning slightly.

For less than two grand I can't think of another car with four seats that'll deliver so much fun. I suppose a Renault Clio 182 might do but once you've bought one you'll realise you have bought a Renault and this will make you annoyed.

By Matt Hubbard