Mini Cooper S (R53) | PH Used Buying Guide

BMW's first try at a fast Mini has become almost as iconic as BMC's effort. Here's how to buy one…

By PH Staff / Thursday, October 15, 2020

Key considerations

  • Available from £5,000
  • Revvy, supercharged engine
  • Great handling and adjustable balance
  • Hard riding as a result…
  • …but easily forgiven
  • Funky looks have aged well

Search for a used Mini Cooper S here

OVERVIEW

BMW sure knew how to keep interest in its new Mini rolling when the car was first launched in 2001. Just as we'd become accustomed to the new interpretation of an icon, along came the Cooper S to evoke one of the most evocative names in motoring.

Launched in 2001 and revised in 2004. Mini didn't disappoint, either, as the Cooper S used a supercharger to increase power from the standard Cooper's 1.6-litre engine from 115hp to 163hp. This meant the Cooper S could get from 0-62mph in 7.4 seconds and on to 135mph. Decent performance figures for the time thanks to a six-speed manual gearbox in place of the lesser models' five-speeder, and enough to make the Cooper S a sales hit from launch.

In July 2004, a minor facelift freshened up the exterior, while power grew to 170hp and the 0-62mph fell to 7.0 seconds. This was also accompanied by a small increase in torque from 155lb ft to 162lb ft at 4,000rpm.

Alongside the Cooper S, Mini offered an officially approved John Cooper Works kit, which many owners took up. Unlike the earlier JCW kit for the non-supercharged 1.6-litre petrol engine that realised only a 12hp improvement in power, the S upgrades increased power to 200hp. From 2005, this jumped to 210hp, while at the same time a new JCW Sound Kit provided a cat-back exhaust and new air filter to offer more crackle from the tail pipe and an additional 3hp.

The final hurrah for the R53 generation Cooper S was the Works GP. Only 450 were sold in the UK from 2006, all with unique paint, rear spoiler and alloy wheels, a cabin devoid of rear seats and a rear brace – there to protect occupants from luggage – in their place. Power was upped to 218hp to cover 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds and hit 149mph, while the £22,000 price tag proved no barrier to rapid sales.

Production of all R53 generation Minis ceased in 2007, and the car remains a popular choice among bargain hunting hot hatch buyers. With prices from around £2,000 for a high miles early car all the way through to as much as £20,000 for the collectible Works GP, there's a Cooper S to suit every budget.

SPECIFICATION | R53 MINI COOPER S
Engine:
1,598cc, inline four, supercharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],000rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],000rpm
0-62mph: 7.2secs
Top speed: 138mph
Weight: 1,140kg
MPG (official combined): 32.8
CO2: 207g/km
Wheels: 7×17 (f), 7×17 (r) (or 7×18)
Tyres: 205/45 (f), 205/45 (r) (or 205/40 with 18s)
On sale: 2001-2007
Price new: £14,500
Price now: from £5,000

Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.


ENGINE & GEARBOX

The Mini Cooper S, JCW and Works GP all use the same 1,598cc petrol engine with four valves per cylinder and an Eaton M45 supercharger. Each is also attached to a six-speed Getrag manual gearbox, though this was only offered with a limited-slip differential as an option on the S from 2005 onwards. The GP has a limited slip diff as standard.

To upgrade from S to JCW spec, John Cooper's garage came up with a revised pulley for the supercharger to make it spin more quickly and create more boost. Alongside this alteration, the JCW kit also included a gas-flowed and ported head to optimise engine breathing, uprated spark plugs, a new freer flowing exhaust system and remapped ECU to take full advantage of the uprated set-up. Together, this lot increased power to 200hp at 6,000rpm compared to the standard early model's 163hp, which was later improved to 170hp from the 2004 facelift of the R53.

In 2005, the JCW kit was further finessed to offer 210hp thanks to improved 380cc fuel injectors, better intake system and air filter, and another remap to suit the revisions. The 380cc injectors of this model are a popular retro modification to standard S models that have had new supercharger pulleys fitted in the search for more power. Any car for sale with a modified pulley, injectors, remap and exhaust should just about match a JCW for power and performance.

As for the limited edition Works GP, again the supercharger pulley was the focus of attention to get more blow from the 'charger. There are also further revisions to the engine's air intake system, injectors, remapped ECU and a better intercooler to cope with increased engine power and temperatures. This results in 218hp at a heady 7,100rpm, 184lb ft of torque at 4,600rpm, 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds and 149mph top speed.

The six-speed manual gearbox from Getrag used in all of these variations is strong and reliable, though don't be surprised if reverse gear is a little awkward to select. This is a trait of this gearbox and not something to worry about. The clutch can also wear quickly if subjected to hard use in higher-powered models. A clutch change is a big job, so look out for any signs of slippage under load.

There are more concerns with the engine, which can suffer from cracked cylinder heads if it's allowed to run too hot. This normally happens if the main cooling fan motor resistor fails (because it’s mounted in the radiator’s fan housing so is exposed to moisture), so the fan cuts in later than normal. The engine can therefore run hotter than intended without appearing to overheat on the dial, meaning damage is done over time. Many owners switch to higher quality aftermarket resistors to prevent later issues. Otherwise, a reconditioned head will cost from around £250, rising to £450 for a JCW item.

All of these engines tend to use a little oil, so reckon on around 250ml every 1000 miles as normal. Changing the brittle plastic dipstick for an aftermarket metal one is recommended to avoid it snapping off and falling into the sump, as is common. If the engine has been allowed to run dry on oil, it can spell the end for the main bearing, so listen out for rumbling at the bottom end of the engine. Look for signs of leaks from the sump and oil filter surround to confirm this and, if there are leaks, walk away as there plenty of other cars for sale. All, however, will be rather thirsty when it comes to fuel use; owners report average economy in the mid-twenties and, when worked hard, low teen mpg.

The hydraulic tappets of the S engine can become noisy and rattly, so keep an ear out for this. This noise could also be the timing chain tensioner, which is solved by tightening the tension. Or, if you’re lucky, it’s just the injectors, which can be noisy even when healthy. Look for any excessive rocking when revving the motor, as the hydraulic mounts can fail over time. As for the supercharger, it's a tough unit that doesn't give much trouble, but a rebuild may well be on the cards for any car that has covered 100,000 miles or more. Superchargers that have been fitted with uprated pulleys will be more susceptible to this.

Many owners complain about the difficulty in accessing the airbox, which in JCW and GP models is located under the strut brace. This needs to be removed to change the filter, which means some may have been left unchanged for extended periods of time. A clean filter would suggest you’re looking at a well-kept car. Don’t worry too much if the standard-fit flap has been removed, it’s a common modification done to up the intake volume.

Mini's TLC service packs lasted for five years and 50,000 miles or eight years and 80,000 miles. As 98 per cent of new Mini customers opted for this service deal that included oil, inspection and brake fluid servicing, many cars were likely to have retained a full service record up to the middle of the last decade. It’s therefore wise to hunt out one that still has all of its paperwork now.

CHASSIS

A simple steel monocoque underpins the R53 Mini, to which is attached MacPherson strut front suspension with coil springs and an anti-roll bar. At the back, there's a multi-link set-up with coil springs, shock absorbers and anti-roll bar.

The brakes are 276mm vented front discs, with 259mm discs at the back. An anti-lock braking system is standard on all S models and derivatives, as is ESP traction and stability control. Brake pads and discs last for around 25,000 miles; a whole new set of discs and pads will set you back around £500 including labour at a main dealer. R53s run with more rear brake bias than normal to enhance their agility, which means the smaller rear pads can wear quicker than the fronts. Keen owners advise fitment of uprated pads and discs all round, especially for track driving, as the standard kit is only just up to the job.

Wheels for the S are 16-inch alloys as standard and there was the option of upgrading to 17-inch wheels. Tyres are 195/55 R16 or 205/45 R17, both with runflat tyres fitted as standard from the factory.

Runflat tyres are a constant source of discussion among R53 owners as many feel they compromise the ride, handling and steering of the car. At £140 per tyre to replace a runflat with a new one, many owners opt to fit standard non-runflat tyres and report marked improvements in ride comfort, turn-in to corners, cabin refinement and steering response. If you ditch runflats, just make sure you carry a can of tyre sealant in case of a puncture.

The power steering pump of the R53 Mini makes a distinctive high pitched noise when the car is at a standstill. It's nothing to worry about and just the electric steering pump working. The switch on the pump can fail over time, however, leaving it running when the car is off and flattening the battery. Owners suggest that keeping the pump clean of carbon dust will help to prolong its life. More worrying is a bump caused by a worn universal joint, so listen out for this as it's a costly procedure to replace.

Other knocks or noises from the front suspension are likely to be worn out strut top mounts or worn anti-roll bar links, which will have adverse effects on handling. At the rear, the top suspension mount bushes can wear and need renewing. Many owners upgrade the weak lower arm rear bushes, too. These all take a pounding, particularly if subjected to life in a speedbump-strewn city, because all R53s are fairly firm riding cars.

The Mini Cooper S Works GP has unique aluminium rear control arms that save 15kg from the weight of a standard S. It also has unique four-spoke alloy wheels that reduce unsprung weight by 2kg per corner, while the GP's suspension sits 10mm lower than an S model's. Mini also fitted firmer springs and dampers, though it left the anti-roll bar unchanged.

BODYWORK

The distinguishing feature of the Cooper S and its other R53 siblings is the prominent air intake on the bonnet. While admiring this, take a look at the paintwork on the bonnet and also the upright windscreen for signs of stone chipping. Also, while at the front, give the bumper a good shake to see if it's loose as this panel is prone to kerb damage from careless parking.

Window rubbers wear with age but are cheap and easy to replace, making the car much quieter in the process. Also look for damaged wheels and signs of kerbing as Minis seem more sensitive to this than many other hot hatches. Budget for a four-wheel laser wheel alignment for any Cooper S you buy to be on the safe side.

Failed central locking is often attributed to broken solenoids in the door, but it's worth replacing the batteries in the key fob first as this can have the same effect and is a much cheaper fix. Under the bonnet, check the underside of the bonnet clamshell for any signs of rubbing. Early R53s suffered from the bonnet rubbers wearing the paint away, which can lead to corrosion.

Round the back of the car, make sure the windscreen wash/wipe works properly and the washer is not blocked. Otherwise, it's a simple case of checking the car carefully for signs of crash damage and mismatched paint repairs. Be wary of cars with plenty of aftermarket stickers or vinyl wraps, even though many Minis have been used as mobile advertisements. These stickers can hide poor repairs, so only consider a car that has its original factory applied stickers.

If you can get the car on a ramp, be sure to check the rear subframe and bodywork surrounding the fuel tank for corrosion. Even seemingly tidy cars can suffer from rust underneath, especially if they’ve lived life by the coast or been used regularly on salted roads.

INTERIOR

Mini didn't exactly push the boat out when speccing the interior of the R53 Cooper S. Instead, it left it to owners to spice things up with the optional Chili Pack that added a leather steering wheel, floor mats, passenger seat height adjustment, air conditioning, on-board computer, interior light pack and half leather upholstery. This lot, along with 17-inch alloy wheels, Xenon headlights and front fog lights, would have set you back a further £1,500 in 2003. However, most owners went for it and used buyers would be advised to look for it too.

The driving position is good in the Cooper S, though some taller drivers may find the seat doesn't extend far enough back. A broader problem is the flimsy plastic used for the seat release to tip it forward and allow rear passengers in and out. Mini resolved this with the 2004 facelift and an improved mechanism.

Mini issued a recall for the handbrake lever, which could twist and result in the handbrake slipping off its ratchet. If you're not sure a car has had this work carried out, phone a Mini dealer and quote the VIN to check.

All of the switchgear in the Mini Cooper S should work without fail, though keep an eye out for electric windows that rise too slowly, pointing to a failing motor. The air conditioning can also fail and it's most likely the system will need to be recharged with fresh gas.

While checking the interior, feel in the front footwells for damp. Water can leak past the A-pillars and on to the ECU that is hidden in the passenger footwell. Most cars will have been sorted under warranty while still relatively new, but if this happens it will be a very expensive repair of around £250 for the ECU plus fitting. Also check for signs of moisture in boot; water can leak in when the high level brake light seal fails.

With the Works GP, there is less to worry about as it only has Recaro front seats and an aluminium brace between the rear suspension towers in place of rear seats. The rest is much the same as the Cooper S.

PH VERDICT

The R53 Mini won as many fans for its funky design and squat stance as it did for excitable handling. It was well deserved because now more than ever, the model’s short overhangs and darty front axle leave it looking like an authentic spiritual successor to Sir Issigonis’s original. Anyone after a relatively retro 'Mini' experience with modern build quality and reliability will find plenty to love. That goes double for the Cooper S or JCW.

Even in standard trim the R53 has always been one of the most engaging cars of its class, leaving boggo Clios and Fiestas feeling comparably undercooked. The JCW was never considered in the same class as the Renault Clio 182 or Honda EP3 Civic Type R but the first GP is a different matter, and is now generally acknowledged as one of the best Mini variants ever made.

Either way, the supercharger whine is a strong USP, as is its punchy mid-range performance – helped along by the fact that the R53 is a genuinely small car. There may not be much of a boot, but the quirky cabin has arguably aged better than its rivals’. Higher spec models received leather sports seats with deep bolstering, which place you lower in the cabin and really emphasise the Mini’s well-placed controls.

The ride is firm in all R53s and especially so in sportier versions like the Cooper S, but the trade-off is great body control and a level of mid-corner adjustability normally reserved for more serious stuff. When it comes to an unencumbered and guiltless sort of fun, the quickest versions can count themselves among the better front-drive hatchbacks of the 21st century. Plainly BMW pulled off the trick of replacing its Mini in a way that BMC (and later British Leyland) never did, but the R53 was a fitting replacement from a very British sort of icon, and, thanks to impressive sales and repeat use, some of the quickest versions are now very affordable indeed. That's a good thing.


Search for a used Mini Cooper S here

[This is a comprehensive update of a PH Used Buying Guide originally published in 2014]

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