Like a hard-to-sell flat with potential, the Mini Cooper S is one of those cars whose glaring shortcomings – ridiculously cramped rear cabin, hard ride, twee interior – are best glossed over, your sights set instead on the bigger picture. Such as the fact that this supercharged, first-gen version of the reborn hatch (officially called the R53, pub quiz fans) is widely regarded as the best. Oh, and prices start at just £1750.
With quick and direct steering, a grippy chassis and a torquey, supercharged 1.6-litre engine, the model’s trick is to take its promising ingredients and, like a Great British Bake Off finalist, combine them into one mouth-watering confection.
It was launched in 2002 with 163bhp, leaving owners of the standard 115bhp Cooper wishing they’d waited longer. With frontwheel drive, a choice of 16 or 17in wheels and run-flat tyres (the 17s gave an unacceptably harsh ride but looked better, while owners replaced the dynamically compromised run-flats with cheaper rubber), a quickfire six-speed manual gearbox and multi-link rear suspension (so budget for four-wheel alignment),the Cooper S was the real deal.
The 0-62mph sprint passed in an admittedly underwhelming 7.2sec, but a John Cooper Works tuning kit was swiftly offered that boosted power to 200bhp, bringing the 0-62mph time down to 6.4sec. From 2005 the kit’s power rose to 210bhp, snipping a further 0.2sec off the time. In 2006 the JCW GP appeared – a hardcore two-seater boosted to 218bhp and prepared by Bertone in Italy. Just 2000 were built, 459 of them for the UK, making it a sought-after rarity.
Trim-wise, the standard Cooper S was fairly basic, which was why most buyers plumped for a Chili pack, with its leather steering wheel, half-leather seats, xenon headlights and air conditioning. Personalisation is a big thing with the Mini and no two cars are the same. The only thing to note is that the factory-fit decals have been known to crack on some cars. “Peel them off and replace,” you say. It isn’t that easy; it’s actually an expensive job for a bodyshop, so give any decals a careful inspection.
Take the car for an extended test drive, too. Some reckon the Cooper S is more of a weekend blast than a daily driver, although they may be of the tall variety since the driver’s seat has limited rearward travel. Otherwise it’s a comfortable place to be, while the controls and interior fittings all look and feel top notch. But forget taking the kids: the rear cabin is barely bigger than the boot.